The Grudge Match

When you read the general theme of my last post (‘Leave the Lie Detector At Home’), I’m guessing quite a few people had the same thought: “yeah, most of the time no-one’s lying or cheating, but what about that bunch of ****s from <insert rival team name here>?”

Maybe your team doesn’t have a grudge match. Maybe you don’t have that one particular team who it’s HORRIBLE to play. That team that you anticipate the possible match up with before the tournament, even if they’re not in your pool. That team that you’d consider poking your eyes out rather than play against because ‘they’re such dickheads’.

But maybe you do. I often find that having a bad game against a team once generally turns into having a bad game against that team again (without doing anything to avoid it, that is). So, as I promised Therapist, here’s a few thoughts on that ‘grudge match’ – what’s going on psychologically and how you can try to salvage spirit in these games.


What we look for, we find


Humans, in general, are pretty rubbish scientists. There’s a considerable amount of research that suggests that when asked to test a statement or hypothesis, we seek out only facts which would confirm it.* Equally, we’re very good at forgetting pieces of evidence which contradict our hypothesis. Apply this to the grudge match and you’ve got a recipe for disaster: you go into the game with all your knowledge of how they’ve been terribly spirited before, and hey, guess what, you find new evidence for this theory. Lots of new evidence.

Furthermore, we interpret this bad behaviour that we’ve looked for and found completely differently to our own behaviour (which probably isn’t perfect considering it’s a grudge match). Our behaviour in this game we see as externally driven (it’s because they’re a bunch of dicks that it’s hard to play spiritedly against them) and context-specific (we’re only unspirited in this game). In contrast, we perceive their behaviour as internal (they’re behaving like dicks because they’re dicks), global (they behave like dicks against everyone) and consistent across time (they’re dicks at every tournament). In psychology, this is called the fundamental attribution error – we undervalue the impact of situational factors on the behaviour of others.

So, if they’re terrible people to everyone, all the time, why the hell should you treat them with respect? Why should you attempt to play spiritedly? Chances are you struggle to remember the answer to that question during the game, and it all goes downhill…

*the irony that this was the researchers’ hypothesis and they’ve confirmed it is not lost on me, honest.


Whatever happens, happens always


Psychology suggests that we not only go into those games looking for incidences of bad spirit (and find them), but that we go in expecting to see poor spirit, and this in turn actually has the potential to generate precisely that behaviour.

Expectancy effects are pretty phenomenal – if two people have conversations with the same stranger, but one believes that stranger to be a friendly person and the other believes them to be unfriendly, the two people behave in such different ways towards that person that the other person reacts – and reacts in the way that in turn confirms that original information. The ‘friendly’ stranger is greeted more warmly, sat closer to, engaged in more lively discsussion and in turn responds with warmer body language and more enthusiastic responses. The ‘unfriendly’ stranger experiences the reverse of this, and responds in kind, thus ‘proving’ their nature.

So not only do we underestimate the influence situational specifics have on the behaviour of our competitors, but we actually fail to realise that sometimes we are those situational factors.

Imagine you’re bringing down a high floating disc. Another player jumps at the wrong time, from the wrong angle, and wipes you out – a clear foul. What if you know that the team you’re up against has done this before? If this is your ‘grudge match’? You get pissed off. You loudly and aggressively call ‘foul’, and start muttering under your breath about their failures of spirit. They respond by contesting it. You infer that they are a terribly spirited team – how else could they contest that call?

Having calls made aggressively against you is unpleasant and tends to make you want to be aggressive back. Either you’ve got to care enough about your own spirit being good, rather than theirs being bad, or you contest it because you want to punish their poor communication.

Imagine that exact situation happens against a team you’ve had well-spirited games with in the past. Maybe you don’t even call foul straight away. You start with ‘ouch!’ and then probably tell them ‘foul’ – but the way you call it will suggest that you expect them to be entirely reasonable about it, will make them feel like you think they’re not a complete moron, and will make them far more likely to uncontest your call. You conclude that they are a well-spirited team, like you already knew, because they gave up that call.

We have the ability to elicit behaviour from our opponents, just by expecting it.


So are grudge matches doomed to remain grudge matches forever?


Er, no. Here are some ways to avoid what’s going on psychologically.


They’re people too

No, seriously. Those ‘dirty cheating scumbags’ at the other end of the pitch. They are human beings too. It is easy in the grudge match to get sucked into playing harder just to win the match and ‘prove’ who was right about those calls last time you played. Don’t give in to it. People have lives off the pitch. To view them as only your opponents on the pitch is dangerous, and leads (I’ve found) to reckless bids, and poorly discussed calls. The latter makes a game nasty and makes both your teams look bad to spectators. The former can seriously alter someone’s life.


Disprove your hypotheses; expect the unexpected

Go into the game looking for good spirit. Interpret ambiguous situations as good spirit (not cynicism, or the mimicking of spirit). Go into this game trying to convince yourselves that they’re going to be the best spirited team you play all tournament. Give them a fighting chance to prove that they’re a well-spirited team – you’d ask the same.


Recognise the Grudge Match

Other advice aside, I’d say this is the biggie. Recognising what’s going on in the grudge match is actually half the battle. Knowing that you’re psychologically wired up to a) confirm that they’re horrible people and b) cause them to behave like horrible people is a pretty big first step.

You’re going to have to work extra hard in a grudge match to be well-spirited, to not make dodgy bids, or calls, or even just to call correct things maliciously (every little travel…) or aggressively (“foul, you fouling ****!”). Maybe they’ll be working hard as well. Maybe they won’t (from your perspective). But if you value spirit of the game enough, does that matter? It’s bad enough for one team to abuse the rules/spirit (if that is what they’re doing): don’t get sucked in too.

Chances are you’ll find the game much better spirited as a whole, and much more enjoyable.


  • ShimmyJohn

    Excellent. And very important.

    I would add that it’s still okay to use the “grudge match” feeling to motivate you, get you fired up and excited to play (and beat) your rivals but keeping control of this is important to avoid a call-fest. And it’s just so much sweeter to beat a bitter rival cleanly and fairly, than in a scrappy game where you win on a technicality of the rules. Don’t give them any explanation for their defeat other than “they were better than us”.

  • Dude

    Now if only the rival team could read this and act more spirited..

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