The Winner Effect: An Interview with Ian Robertson

At any stage of Kilkenny's incredible dominance of the All-Ireland Hurling Championship over the last decade have you wondered if there is a scientific reason for their success?

According to Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin and a leading global expert on neuropsychology, there may well be. Professor Robertson is one of the main speakers at this year's Liberty Insurance GAA Games Development Conference, which takes place at Croke Park this Friday and Saturday, and his talk will centre around a number of themes which he has written about extensively and which could loosely be labelled as 'the neuroscience of sporting success and failure'.

A Glasgow native but resident in Ireland for almost 20 years, more information about Professor Robertson's work can be found at His latest book is called 'The Sweet Spot: How Stress Can be Good for You', while his most recent work before that, which he will discuss on Saturday, is called 'The Winner Effect: The Science of Success and how to use it.' Follow Professor Robertson on Twitter @IHRobertson

Ahead of the conference, spoke to Professor Robertson about his talk.

Q: What will you be talking about on Saturday?

A: I'll be talking about what can help people win in the broad sense of the word in sport. I'll be talking about the connection between winning critical matches and using what we know about the brain to increase your chances of winning but also how you can use the benefits of success more generally in your life. You can only have one champion but there are many positive benefits of winning and all that goes with that, over and above just the specific ones of how far you go in a championship. 

The second thing I want to talk about is how sports people, elite sports people, are very good at managing their own minds and that has many benefits outside the actual performance of their sport. To be a really good sportsperson, the better you are at managing your own emotional state, the better you'll perform but also that will have benefits in your wider life as well. So there are incredible physical and psychological health benefits for using and harnessing the capacity of your own mind for the purposes of excellent performance in sport.

Q: You have written a book called 'The Winner Effect' and you will discuss the theory of 'the Winner Effect' on Saturday. What exactly is it?

A: The winner effect is something that occurs across all species. It's very simply this - if you have a contest with someone, and you win that contest, no matter what the circumstances, then that increases your chance of winning a subsequent contest. Success breeds success, but we understand how that happens in the brain. Success causes your body to generate a hormone called testosterone, that's true for both men and women and that helps the brain trigger the really important chemical messenger called dopamine. That dopamine increases your motivation, and makes you feel more confident, bolder and more positive. It lifts mood. So the winner effect is what you see in very successful teams. Sometimes the fact that they have been successful is the reason they keep being successful.

Q: If winning triggers this effect, then does losing repeatedly result in a "loser effect"?

A: Yes, there can be as well and you can see that with teams that seem to be stuck in a trough. Where the different set of hormones are activated, including stress hormones like cortisol and that actually can undercut your ability and sabotage your belief in success.

There is one caveat here though. To benefit from the winner effect, you need to have an appetite for winning and for power. Winning is about dominating and some people are more comfortable dominating than others. If you don't have an appetite for dominance, then that can actually mean that you find winning stressful. There are some sporting teams where if they are in the favourites’ position, they often underperform.

We've seen that with Scottish rugby and soccer teams over the years. They couldn't cope with being the favourite and their best performances almost always were when they were the underdog against a favourite against who they weren't expected to win against. If people don't have an appetite for power and aren't comfortable with dominance, then winning can actually increase the stress hormone cortisol so you have got this strange phenomenon that the winner effect works in general, but only when you have the appetite to win. Some teams and individuals do not have the appetite and therefore their capacity for winning is therefore undercut and sabotaged.
* Q: You often hear stories of retired GAA players and sportspeople who struggle to cope with life away from sport once their careers are over, resulting in addictions and other problems. Is it possible that this is due to their non-sporting lives not having the same chemical effect on their brains as their sporting highs did?*

A: That makes sense. I'd love to hear more about that. That makes sense because if you have built your life and goals around a single focus and you achieve according to that goal, if that goal is then taken away from you, because you are no longer active in the sport, then it is almost inevitable than unless you have a back up, an alternative set of goals, then you are going to experience the brain's response to being starved of the brain's success chemicals.

The same thing happens outside sport when people retire from jobs. If they have gotten personal satisfaction from work and enjoyed any power they have in work, some people find it very difficult to retire. This is probably a more extreme version of retirement because retirement in sport tends to be at a young age and the performance has been all that higher with the consequence being that the comedown is all that greater.

That's why it's so important that people have plans for what they are going to do after they have retired. Maybe their goals change and in the GAA, it would be very common for people to become coaches or managers or leaders of their community which can generate a whole set of alternative goals which give greater satisfaction and in some ways even higher satisfaction than before. So you can get the winner effect very powerfully in terms of winning on behalf of a junior team or on behalf of a wider community. The winner effect can be very powerful when it's not just an individual thing, but for a wider group. The evidence is that that can be a more robust and solid winner effect.

Q: So in effect, the 'winner effect' can be translated into non-sporting contexts in general life and work?

A: I talked about the appetite for winning, which is called the appetite for power and the evidence is that there's two types of appetite and motivation. One is so called 'P Power', which is personal, egotistical, where it's you getting huge personal satisfaction for your own success and dominance. Everyone who has an appetite for success or winning is motivated by that to some extent. The more you have it, the more successful you will be.

Another thing that goes hand in hand with that, if you have it, is 'S Power'. That's where you want to win on behalf of a group. It could be a team but it could also be wider than that. It could be for the benefit of the sport, for the benefit of the health of young people or for the benefit of the country. Where you have that, you have that high motivation for success and power and it's on behalf of a wider group. The effects on the brain are much less addictive and so you're less likely to have the extreme ups and downs.

The GAA, being such a communally oriented organisation, they are probably much less vulnerable to the kind of withdrawal symptoms that come with the addiction to success. It's much easier for people to have alternative goals once their own personal goals are no longer being achieved.
*  Q: You have a new book out, 'The Sweet Spot: How Stress Can be Good for You'. What is this 'sweet spot' and how can stress benefit sportspeople?*

A: The critical finding here is that, the sweet spot is because there's a common set of bodily symptoms for several different emotions, so, the same symptoms for the same emotions - dry mouth, beating heart, clammy hands, stomach churning, these emotions are common to anger, anxiety and excitement.

You can harness these emotions by how you label them. You can put yourself into a sweet spot of performance because with several of these chemical messengers in the brain, too little of them and you underperform and too much of them and you underperform. So there are specific ways that you can have of harnessing these non-specific arousal symptoms in order to achieve optimal performance.

That's one reason why, to go back to the winner effect, if you are in a losing streak, you are more likely to tap into their symptoms as ones of anxiety and to get into a downward spiral. If you are in a winning streak, you are more likely to interpret them as symptoms of excitement.

Q: Sometimes, elite sportspeople, whether they be footballers, hurlers, soccer players, golfers or athletes, look so free and relaxed in what they are doing in their sport. It's as if they play without any emotional or psychological burdens. Is it possible that they are simply masters of controlling their emotions, as well as their skills?

A: Our emotions are hugely affected by the current state of things we are attending to. If you are out on the field in a game, suppose you are ahead. Imagine you are playing Kilkenny and you are ahead at half-time, like Tipperary have been several times, and you start thinking in the dressing room, 'ah, we've been here before', and your attention starts to go on to the possibility of what might happen at the end of the game.

And now your attention is focusing on 35 minutes ahead of you. And even though you may be thinking of the win, the fact that you are allowing your consciousness to focus on a future outcome, the moment you activate that memory, automatically, the opposite outcome springs to mind. You can't help it. If you think of success, the possibility of failure must be there too.

It's thinking about some future scenario as opposed to being totally focused on the task at hand. The whole mental setting and approach mode, confidence, focusing on the next 30 seconds, what I call the "Keeping your attention within the headlights". You're driving down a dark road at night and it's twisty and dangerous.

If you start thinking about where you are going, your attention within the headlights will vary and you will fluctuate and you might end up crashing into something. Great athletes have mind control because they can control their attention.

When they do mental preparation, say visual imaging, because you can do training just in your mind, the more accurately you can replay that training, the more your mind can do it in real time, going through the specific components of the action, the more you will benefit from that mental training.

That depends on good attention, your control of your mind. The same is true of emotions. If you allow your mind's attention to go to the final outcome of the game, that will then allow emotions and thoughts into your mind that won't come into your mind if you are very disciplined and focused on your attention. If you are just living within the next 30 seconds, focused on winning the next challenge, etc. You don't think about the next thing, you're only thinking 30 seconds ahead.

That's mind control and that's very important. It turns out it's very important in every day life as well. People whose minds wander a lot are more prone to depression rather than people who can focus on what they are doing in the moment or keeping their mind on the ordinary, every day chores of work, or keeping their mind on the conversations they are having. They are controlling their attention and that's a great bulwark against your mind wandering because if your mind wanders, it can go all sorts of places, particularly if they are worries hanging about. Of course, in a big game, the biggest worry is that you are going to lose.

Negative thoughts and memories are like a huge magnet, they attract your attention. Once you start commanding your attention, that can change the whole functioning of your brain until the extent that you can fully control your attention, you are then more likely to be able to win the game, etc.

Q: You have previously written about 'the Alex Ferguson effect' and the specific team dynamics a manager of that type can create and its effects on the individual players. Describe it in detail for us.

Yes, the final thing I will talk about is called the Alex Ferguson effect, and I think it's probably a Brian Cody effect as well. The reason Alex Ferguson did what he did, no matter the quality of the players he had - don't forget he took Aberdeen to Scottish titles - he was an alpha male, a dominant primate. Human beings are primates. He maintains an absolute, rigid, dominant structure within the team.

You could be the most talented, brilliant individual in the team - Beckham, Jaap Stam - but the moment you show any sign of challenging his alpha male dominance, you are out. What that means is that that takes the pressure off individual players. It's like having a god who takes the worries from you.

All the machinations of the ego and the thing about 'the winner effect' is that it can inflate the ego of a brilliant individual and that can cause the release of too much dopamine, which can then disrupt performance. But if that ego is constantly being kept under control by a dominant, god like figure if you like, then that maintains a control over the neurochemistry of the individual brain. It means that if you are down at half-time and suddenly you are faced with the prospect of how can we win this game? All the anxieties and anticipation of failure become much more diluted when you have this strong person taking this off your shoulders.

The other thing about Alex Ferguson, and I assume Brian Cody, is that they are brilliant psychologists. They know when someone needs the hairdryer, or when they need the fatherly arm around the shoulders to encourage. They intuitively sense what the sweet spot is for each individual. They can sense when someone...maybe their brain is tilting over to an imbalance of dopamine and maybe they need to be tilted back towards the sweet spot. Whereas someone might be over anxious and the judicious approach may coax them the other way.

That's my thoughts on the group dynamics of teams and the successful managers have this combination of utter ruthless dominance and very acute psychology and being able to understand the psychology of the players and therefore being able to release the individual qualities of the players.

Q: In your time in Ireland, have you had any formal GAA involvement?

A: I'm a great admirer of the GAA, an organisation that can teach the world a lot about the benefits to a community of non monetary engagement and involvement. Incredible social capital and incredible benefits to a country.

I was speaking at the Global Irish Forum at Dublin Castle recently and argued that the GAA can show us things, in the face of the challenges facing society due to automation, globalisation, the loss of jobs, the fact that we are going to have to find ways that people can find meaning. 

The way to do that is as a group. Globalised, capitalist economies tend to focus on individualism and the more you focus on that the more you get psychological problems arising. So a community effort that binds different generations together, that gives them a purpose and that is not about money, it's a remarkable organisation.

Tickets for the 2016 Liberty Insurance GAA National Games Development Conference have now sold out. For more about the conference, click here.