Ask A Sports Psychologist: Why Did That Portugal Tie Feel Like A Loss?


After yesterday’s crushing tie against Portugal, American hearts are as broken as Clint Dempsey’s nose. Technically we tied, 2–2. But when Portugal ties up the game in the last twenty seconds — twenty seconds of injury time! Not even real time! — the draw feels as harsh as defeat.

To find out just why ties can hurt like losses, I called up Dr. Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist and professor at Boston University.

Is there any scientific research about the way people feel after a game ends in a tie? I don’t know of any scientific evidence about that… There’s not a lot about how you feel when you tie. But my guess is, so much of it lies in that word: feel. We know that our sporting lives and our sporting performances are so inherently tied into emotion… It’s the emotion of sports that makes it resonate. “The glory of victory, and the agony of defeat.” Sport is not a cognitive endeavor, at least not when the ball is in play. It’s an emotional endeavor, and we look for emotional resonance. And if our worldview is focused just on winning and losing, which it often is, especially when we’re a fan, we don’t get fulfillment.

When talking soccer, there may be a very interesting distinction between fans and athletes, and between different cultures. So a lot of cultures appreciate the tie these days, but not North Americans. What ties mean in the grand scheme of things for their team’s ranking and that their team played hard, they invest their emotions in the whole range of what that means for their team successes.

What about an instance like yesterday’s game, in which the game didn’t become a tie until the very end?Yesterday, that was by no mean a traditional tie. When you’re in extra minutes, and there’s maybe 20 seconds left, it made it feel like a loss. If you’d asked [the U.S. fans] at the start of the day, ‘What if you tied Portugal?’ everyone would say, “that would be incredible. It’s the perfect sports makes us stupid. That was a tremendous tie if we step back and think about it intellectually. It was a horrible tie if we watched it.

I want to go back to this idea that American fans don’t like ties, whereas other cultures don’t have as big a problem with them. Why is that?We have to be careful saying we’re grossly different than other cultures when talking about sports, because it depends on the sport. But [Americans] are so outcome oriented. It’s something that, on our best and our worst days, we wrap ourselves around. We’re a bunch of winners. This term “grit,” we talk about it, but if we look closely and listen closely to the headlines, no one cares about grit if you lost. Ironically, if you have grit, you end up winning. But we’re not good at holding these two ideas in our heads at the same time. In some ways, in sports, we associate “gritty” with “no talent”…I think that’s a big piece of this. We’re winners, so let’s win. Different from: let’s play this game really well, and by the way, we also won. We’re not good at putting the “and” in it. It’s: you try hard, and you win.

Do you think some of that stems from the fact that there aren’t really ties in our homegrown sports, like football and baseball?It’s so rare [tying in baseball or football]… It’s so interesting to watch people be so engaged in [soccer] right now. We’re becoming better soccer fans. But we don’t get it. Soccer, depending on what country you’re in, every [other] country has this rich, robust history, for better or worse, with soccer. And we don’t have that history — it started in the streets in country X, it was a political statement in country Y — and we don’t have that. We’re trying to develop that.

Do American fans actually enjoy losses more than ties? Or I should say, do we hate losses less than ties?I do think, for many of us, [a loss] is an outcome is fulfilled. That’s the anecdotal read. I’m sure in the European literature, someone has probably researched the idea in soccer that the reason soccer fans act crazy is because they don’t get fulfillment regularly throughout a game. They’re waiting for a goal. I think it’s more complex than that, but there’s something to be said for [the fact that] a tie feels very unfulfilling, especially to those of us who are programmed to think in terms of winning and losing.

And a tie like the one against Portugal is even more than unfulfilling. It just feels like a loss.All ties are not created equal. It really depends on what it means to the person. If it has some level of emotional resonance, they’re going to be okay with that tie, they’re going to love it. If they’re devoid of any emotional resonance, it’s going to be that unfulfilling feeling you’re talking about.

If the tie had not happened at the last minute mark, I bet you there would have been a different level of satisfaction. There’s almost no doubt about it in my mind. If you took every quote out of yesterday at the end of the game, other than what had to do with the outcome, you’d be stunned. I didn’t hear a single bad word about how the U.S. played. And no one was licking their wounds. It was fact of the matter: yes we played as well as we could, and yes we lost. Take that second half of the sentence out of there, and that’s a satisfying tie.