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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Bracketology 101; 2014 FIFA World Cup…breaking down the Groups: A-D

Part 2: The Supremacy

In Part 2 of this multipart series breaking down the 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup, we’re going to look at the first four groups; A through D, in more detail.

The Groups

Group A

Group A is the international soccer community’s gift to Brazil for going to the expense and effort of hosting the World Cup. It would be tough for the tournament favourites to have found themselves in an easier group than they have found here. Mexico is talented but redefines what it means to be an underachiever. A team that should have cruised through to win their region needed to slip through the back door to make the field. Cameroon and Croatia both have miracle runs in their World Cup past, but that past is long gone.

Group A at a glance

Best team: Brazil. Obviously. The gap between them and the rest is massive. Gigantic. Enormous. Impossibly large. It’s not silly to say that Brazil could play at 50 percent of their potential and still win this group; even if they weren’t playing in front of a wildly-enthusiastic home crowd.

Worst team: Mexico. It could be Cameroon, too; I don’t like much about either team, but I’ll give the Mexicans a small edge in the fight for the basement. To get into the field they needed to beat New Zealand in a playoff. Good teams don’t get into positions like that.

Best game: Brazil plays Mexico on June 17. Brazil won’t lose, but if anyone can make it interesting, it’s Mexico.

Predicted order of finish: Brazil wins three games and advances easily, with Croatia getting the second spot with two wins. Cameroon and Mexico fight out for the meaningless third spot in the group.

Brazil: Big favourites to progress!

The 2014 FIFA World Cup hosts Brazil are the favourites to lift the trophy for a sixth time. With the soccer mad nation desperate to see their samba stars win on home soil, can the Seleção manage expectations?

Well, if we’re ever going to find-out, then this will be the time. The host team is the solid favourite to win it all and it is really their tournament to lose; at least as much as that is possible in a tournament as tough as this one. The storylines aren’t tough to figure out. They have a stacked and loaded roster. Neymar is a freakish talent at the top of the pyramid, but he sure doesn’t have to carry the team alone. They are playing at home where they are comfortable. To maximize the advantage, all of these games will be in tropical settings; a climate that they will feel very comfortable in.

They performed well in the Confederations Cup; known as the World Cup rehearsal, where they beat a Spanish side that had claimed the last three major international tournaments.

However, this is the real thing and the Samba Boys will undoubtedly be compared to their compatriots in 1950; the last time Brazil hosted the tournament and when they also lost to Uruguay in the final. Never-the-less, as I mentioned earlier be very aware as to how much relevance you place on historical data when filling out your brackets, after all there is 64 years between the two Brazilian World Cups.

There is always a concern with the host nation because they haven’t been seasoned by the tough qualifying process. They won the Confederations Cup, though, and looked good doing it, so they should be ready.

With all of that being said, the hosts have to be massive favourites to progress through a relatively easy looking group. They have only failed to advance from the group stages twice (1930 and 1966) and have reached the final in three of the last five World Cups.

Brazil also hold an undefeated and drawless record (winning percentage of 100% ) against all three of their Group A opponents in all of their combined previous World Cup meetings.

The head coach took an underachieving team all the way to a win in the 2002 World Cup, so he knows all about winning in this tournament. They are ready. The only real concern is that they could underperform early because the group is so weak and they know it. Given the weight of the expectations they face, though, that’s not a major concern.

Thus, the only unanswered question that still remains is; will they prosper with a home field advantage or buckle under the strain?


Croatia: Lack of goals could be an issue!


Croatia are second-favourites to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time since 1998, which happened to be their inaugural World Cup as Croatia, having previously competed as part of Yugoslavia.

It was in 1998 that the Croatians shocked the world, knocking off Germany and the Netherlands en route to a stunning third-place finish in the World Cup. The result came from nowhere; they didn’t even win their group in round robin play.

Apart from France 1998, where they finished third, Croatia have been eliminated in the group stages in both 2002 and 2006, while completely failing to even qualify at all for the 2010 World Cup.

Even though in their two subsequent appearances they have gone nowhere, I’m tipping this to be the year for that to change.

No, their qualification process wasn’t smooth; after finishing second behind Belgium in qualifying, Croatia needed the playoffs to confirm their place in the tournament where they beat Iceland 2-0 on aggregate.

Yes, their depth is underwhelming and to add to this problem, star striker Mario Mandzukic is suspended for the start of the tournament after being shown a straight red card against Iceland.

Former Croatia captain Niko Kovac was appointed manager in October following the resignation of Igor Stimac. Kovac had only become Croatia’s under-21 boss in January, so he had very little management experience and when you combine this with very little time in charge of his nation; one has to question whether this inexperience will affect them at the elite level?

Kovac will look to address Croatia’s issues in front of goal after they were one of two teams not to score more than twice in qualification and scored just 1.17 goals per game during qualification; which is the lowest average out of all the nations who qualified for this year’s World Cup.

Croatia has never played Cameroon, but in their two World Cup fixtures against Brazil and Mexico in 2006 and 2002 respectively, they lost both.

3,429 miles is the distance Croatia will travel to play their three Group A matches, the second highest number of miles of any of any team of any group.

Could this gruelling schedule prove pivotal in deciding whether or not they qualify for the knockout stages?


Mexico: Chaotic qualifying leaves more questions than answers!


Two years ago I thought that Mexico was going to be an attractive long-ish shot pick to win it all. They have talent, they have had success in the past and they aren’t playing too far from home. The qualification process dissuaded me from backing this squad, though. They looked just terrible qualifying and had to beat New Zealand in a last-chance playoff to earn this date with the hosts. They won the Olympics in 2012, so nationally they are relevant, but that squad is different than what we will see here and I don’t expect the success to carry over. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did advance but I’d definitely be surprised if they did anything in the playoff round.

Mexico slipped six places in the FIFA Rankings after a turbulent qualifying campaign that left a number of unanswered questions.

Not only did they use 47 different players while navigating a second-tier CONCACAF region, but they also had four different managers.

Miguel Herrera became Mexico’s fourth coach when he was appointed in October to take charge for the play-off against New Zealand. Interestingly Herrera opted to call-up only domestic-based players in the play-off; however he is expected to recall the likes of Javier Hernandez and company for the finals.

El Tri qualified with a 9-3 manhandling of New Zealand, but were all but out of the chance to even have the opportunity to be in that play-off position before a late comeback from the United States against Panama on the final day of qualifying saved them from elimination.

When you fill-out your bracket, you should be aware that Mexico scored 35% of their goals in the final 15 minutes of games in qualification but took no points from losing positions.

Mexico may have to endure some of the highest temperatures during their World Cup Group A matches, yet ironically they have the advantage in terms of travel as they will only move 662 miles, which is much shorter than anyone else in their group. How much of an advantage will this prove to be?


Cameroon: Off the field issues overshadow lack of quality!


Cameroon was one of the great stories in tournament history when, in 1990, they made the quarterfinals out of nowhere. They have appeared in four tournaments since, though, so they are no longer a Cinderella. They haven’t done well since 1990 and they aren’t going to do well here. Star Samuel Eto’o is over the hill and past his prime and they don’t have a lot behind him to get excited about. This is not a good team.

After a less than smooth qualification campaign Cameroon are the Group A outsiders to qualify for the knockout stages.

Not only have Cameroon failed to qualify for the last two Africa Cup of Nations, their team has been shrouded in controversy following a row between players and Cameroon’s Football Federation, which was briefly suspended by FIFA in July because of government interference.

During qualifying Cameroon topped their first group (despite losing the actual match on the pitch they were eventually awarded the win and the vital three points against Togo who were forced to forfeit after discovery that they had fielded a suspended player) and went on to beat Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate in the play-offs. However, more issues arose during the game with Tunisia when Captain Samuel Eto’o claimed that players refused to pass him the ball following a fall out with Coach Volker Finke.

Brazil 2014 will be Cameroon’s seventh World Cup appearance which will be a record for Africa nations, but they have only won one game since reaching the quarter-finals in 1990.

Can Cameroon overcome their issues off the field and live up to their nickname, the Indomitable Lions, or will they fail to get out of the group stages again?


Group B


In most groups in the World Cup, teams are focused on finishing first or second; just advancing to the second round. This is one of those rare groups, though, in which second may not be good enough. The second place team in Group B will have the unfortunate fate of playing the Group A winner, which is almost certain to be Brazil, in the first round of the playoffs. Ouch. The Group B winner, meanwhile, is spared the fate of having to play the host team until the finals of the tournament. Add that layer of intrigue to a group that is very competitive, with three teams that are all very deserving of moving on and you have the recipe for one of the best groups in the tournament. Group G; with the Americans, Germans and Portuguese, is most often described as the Group of Drama, but for my money Group B deserves that title.

Group B at a glance

Best team: Spain. You can’t look beyond the defending champions. They were second in the Confederations Cup to Brazil and they have won the last two European Championships. It’s not tough to make the argument that this team isn’t what it has been in recent years, but they are still unquestionably among the world’s elite and they will be very tough to beat. I almost hope they stumble at some point in group play, though; just enough to finish second. The prospect of a Spain vs. Brazil showdown for the right to play in the quarterfinals is almost too exciting to imagine.

Worst team: Australia. One of these things is not like the other. Chile, Netherlands and Spain are all strong programs that unquestionably deserve a chance to keep playing. Australia is a program that is only here because of geography; if they had to qualify from any other region they wouldn’t have a chance. It would be an all-time upset if they found a way to get through.

Best game: A lot of people would point to Spain vs. Netherlands to open group play. Assuming both teams win their openers, though, I am more interested in seeing Spain vs. Chile; two Spanish-speaking countries at very different places in their development as soccer powers. Chile is an underdog, but they are fearless and talented and they will have plenty of fan support. The appeal of the Dutch and Spaniards is their reputation as much as anything. For Spain and Chile, it’s all about intensity, passion and something to prove.

Predicted order of finish: I can’t go against Spain to win it all. I don’t like Chile nearly as much as some do right now, so the Dutch get the nod to finish second. Chile would be third and I don’t expect Australia to get a single point in the standings.


Spain: Defending champions favourites in Group B!


Defending champions Spain are the favourites to qualify out of a tough Group B which includes Australia, Chile and the Netherlands. With three teams in this group ranked inside the top 15 of the FIFA World Rankings, two will progress to the knockout stage and one will be sent home, but who will they be?

Despite being humiliated in the final of the Confederations Cup, losing 3-0 to Brazil, they still have an excess of talent at their disposal and are likely favoured to at least reach the semi-finals and maybe even lift a second successive World Cup becoming only the third side after Italy and Brazil to do so. Of course, they didn’t even make the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009 and won the World Cup the next year.

The holders emerged unbeaten over their eight qualifying matches, scoring 14 and conceding just three. They conceded the fewest goals (0.38 on average per match), were the only side not to be in a losing position and one of only seven nations to score in every game.

Spain’s possession-based football, coupled with their determination to retain the ball when they don’t have it, has been wearing down their opposition for the best part of a decade. With the heat and humidity expected to be an issue in Brazil, how vital could this philosophy be?

Two things that may be stacked against Spain are that no European team has won a World Cup played in the Americas and no squad has defended their World Cup title since Brazil did so in 1962. In their three World Cup appearances in South America to date they have finished fourth in Brazil (1950), but were eliminated in the group stages back in 1962 and 1978. With that being said, they still must be considered the best team in the world after winning the last three major tournaments.

The team is getting older and hasn’t replaced their core talent as well as they were expected to. That means that the window could be closing for this team. They know how to win, though and winners who are backed into a corner often come out swinging. It would be a surprise if Spain won the tournament, but not a major one. This is a tough group, but it is theirs to lose.

Netherlands: How good are they?

Despite arriving at another major tournament with a level of uncertainty surrounding them, the Netherlands are being offered as the second favourites to progress from Group B.

This team is talented, but that’s always the case. The problem with the Dutch hasn’t been that they don’t have what it takes to win. It’s been that they find frustrating ways to fall short in pressure situations time and time again. Sometimes they fall just short. Other times, like at Euro 2012; they fall way, way, way short. They finished second to Spain in 2010 and I have a feeling that this time around they will be mentally tough enough.

After losing in extra time in the 2010 final to Group B opponents Spain, they went to Euro 2012 as one of the favourites but were eliminated without a point.

Louis Van Gaal; who led Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to domestic titles, was hired as manager after Euro 2012. He guided the Netherlands to nine wins from ten outings where Holland scored 34 goals and conceded just five. During this stretch only a 2-2 draw against Estonia denied them a perfect record. However, the Oranje had one of the easiest groups as none of their opponents were ranked in FIFA’s Top 30.

Despite the Dutch finishing 2013 unbeaten and scoring plenty of goals that achievement is less impressive when you look at their opponents, which may leave you truly unaware as to how good they actually are when you fill-out your bracket.

They face two games against very good opponents and I while I don’t have full-faith that they will win both, I do have enough faith that they will do enough to advance through and face Brazil.

Another question that needs answering is whether a front four consisting of Arjen Robben (29), Wesley Sneijder (29), Rafael van Der Vaart (30) and Robin van Persie (30) is at its peak or a declining force?

Are they going to stay with form and disappoint their fans yet again at some point in this tournament? More-than-likely so, but it will probably come at the hands of Brazil and not in the round robin?

Chile: Expect plenty of goals!

In 2010 these guys played truly exciting soccer. Their fate then could be sadly similar to what they face here; they finished second in Group H behind Spain but lost in the Round of 16 to Brazil. They showed how talented and dangerous they are by travelling to London in November and beating England 2-0 in a friendly. Four days later they gave Brazil a very tough test in Toronto before losing 2-1. They are creative and aggressive and they will make things very interesting. They don’t have the talent of the top two teams in this group but they certainly won’t be caught flat-footed and are very capable of catching either team off guard.

Despite being drawn in a tough group, Chile will expect to cause an upset and progress to the knockout stages. Even though I have decided to go with the Netherlands behind Spain, if you’re looking for an upset pick in the Group Stages, then this is one of your better bets as Chile advancing is not an impossible task.

Chile qualified third after struggling midway through the campaign that saw them lose four consecutive matches. Jorge Sampaoli was appointed coach and they subsequently recovered to win five of their last six games. Chile scored 29 times during qualification, but they also conceded 25 goals; an average of 1.56 per match, which is the highest of any team who qualified.

As they demonstrated in their 2-0 win against England in November Coach Jorge Sampaoli has Chile playing an expansive style of football combined with aggressive pressing.

The Chileans progression under Sampaoli is evident given that they are the fourth highest movers in the FIFA rankings in the last year moving up from 21st to 15th. This is only the third time they have qualified in the last eight World Cups, but they did reach the last 16 in 1998 and 2010.

La Roja certainly have the potential to progress out of Group B, but with a small pool of players to select from, they have to keep their best XI fit.

Australia: A team in transition!

Third straight time in the tournament. Third different head coach. This isn’t a bad team. They just aren’t nearly good enough to compete on this stage against this quality of teams. With a much more fortunate draw they could perhaps have advanced, but a lack of depth and lousy matchups likely seal their fate here.

Australia are the lowest ranked team in the World Cup having dropped from 33rd to 59th in a year and combined with their draw and other factors suggest the Socceroos will find it difficult to qualify for the next stage.

If the draw wasn’t tough enough, the Socceroos will endure the biggest temperature swings during the group stages from game-to-game.

Now competing as an Asian Football Federation member they qualified automatically behind Japan but their passage to Brazil was not the easiest. After failing to win in their first three games they went unbeaten over the last five and secured their place in the final game.

By qualifying, Australia has reached their third successive finals. They reached the last 16 in 2006 but lost in stoppage-time to eventual winners Italy, while they were eliminated in the Group stage of 2010.

With Coach Ange Postecoglou given the remit to develop younger players, expect the squad to be made up of untested players with an eye on the 2016 World Cup.


Group C


Group C is not a group that is going to get a lot of media attention compared to many because it lacks a superstar squad and the winner of the tournament all but certainly isn’t coming from among this collection of teams. What it lacks in glamour, though, it makes up for in competitiveness. Colombia and Ivory Coast are better than Greece and Japan, but the gap is small and you can easily make an argument for any of the teams to find their way into the elimination rounds. The gap between the best team and the worst is perhaps the smallest of the tournament.

Group C at a glance

Best team: Colombia. They are a very physical, imposing squad and they have the advantage of playing close to home. They are far from a lock to advance, but they are the deserving favorites. They would have been a much more comfortable favourite without some horrible luck, though. Falcao, their electric striker and best player, tore his ACL in January and won’t be available for the tournament.

Worst team: Greece. They probably get the nod, but not by a wide margin. They have some nice talent, more depth than in recent years and they clearly have had the ability to rise to the occasion in big tournaments in the past. They are no pushover.

Best game: Colombia and Ivory Coast play in the second game for both teams. These are the two teams that should be advancing, but a loss here could be very costly for either team if the competition is as tight as it potentially could be. The styles are very different, but the talent is plentiful and it could be a good game.

Predicted order of finish: This is tough. Ivory Coast has never advanced from round robin, but that will change here. I think they can win this group. I’m going to take a flyer and pick them to roll-out second. That leaves Japan third and Greece fourth. I have far less confidence in those picks than I do in at least five other groups, though.

Colombia: Are they undervalued?

When you think of Colombia in the World Cup, you can’t avoid thinking of their tragic run in 1994. Entering the tournament as one of the favorites, they faltered badly and did not advance out of the round-robin round. Tragically, after scoring an own goal that was blamed for a loss against the Americans, Andres Escobar was murdered upon his return home. Colombia again struggled in 1998 and they haven’t made the field since. They have an excellent group of forwards, though they will certainly miss the electrifying Falcao. It’s behind the forwards that the issues emerge. This is a team that just tries to outscore opponents. They have lots of talent and an explosive offense, but I struggle to trust them to do much more than win the group.

In a weak Group C Colombia are the favourites to progress into the last 16 ahead of Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan. How much will the travel and conditions benefit the South Americans and hinder the rest? If Columbia does reach the 2014 World Cup knockout stages, it will be for just the second time after having been eliminated at the Group stages in three of their four previous appearances.

The fourth best team in the world according to FIFA qualified comfortably in second-place behind Argentina. They set a personal record by winning 30 points from 16 matches, which included notable 4-0 and 3-1 wins against Uruguay and Chile respectively, while they battled hard to earn a point in a goalless draw in Argentina.

Colombia conceded the fewest goals in South American qualifying and secured an impressive 85% of possible points from winning positions. An interesting point of fact that you should be aware of when filling-out your bracket is that they failed to score from a corner in 16 matches; a consequence of poor delivery, good defending or just bad luck?

One issue that Colombia will need to resolve and resolve quickly is the sudden loss of striker Radamel Falcao, who scored nine times in qualifying and had 151 goals in 193 club games since playing in Europe.

The conditions in Brazil are likely to favour Los Cafeteros. Their qualifying games were played in the scorching Caribbean port of Barranquilla, opting for mid-afternoon kick-offs in the belief that their rivals would wilt in the heat. At 38, captain Mario Yepes, belied his age in qualification but will he be up to three games in quick succession?

Apart from the familiar conditions the Colombian’s also have much fewer miles to travel during the group stages compared to their Group C rivals. With shorter travelling times and a familiarity to the conditions, are they undervalued?

Ivory Coast: Golden generation turning grey?

This team has never advanced beyond group play, but since they are only in their third appearance it’s hardly a concerning trend at this point. This team lacks real depth, but their top end is very impressive. Didier Drogba is getting older, but he is still dangerous. Toure is a very impressive player; perhaps the best in the group. Those two have the responsibility to carry this team. I like their chances of being able to do so. They have the talent almost to match the Colombians and they do not have to deal with the pressure of playing close to home.

The Ivorians are an ageing squad and much like England’s golden generation they have failed to live up to expectations. This is surely the last chance for them to stamp their mark on the world stage and while this draw may be just the jumping-point to bounce them into the knock-out rounds, being so quick to suggest progression from Group C should not be a given.

Their failure is evident given they are yet to break their African Cup of Nations duck and failed to get out of the World Cup group stages in 2006 and 2010 when great things were expected. With that said they have been drawn in two ‘Groups of Death’ finishing third behind Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006 and then Brazil and Portugal in 2010.

Along with Nigeria, Les Éléphants were the only African side to qualify unbeaten. They won their preliminary group before beating Senegal 4-2 on aggregate.

During qualifying they proved their desire to remain unbeaten by taking 56% of their points from losing positions, while they were one of seven teams who have qualified to score in every match.

With an easier group than they have faced in previous World Cups, is this the time for Didier Drogba and company to deliver? Or will complacency creep into the Ivorian’s approach?

Japan: Do they have the potential to be a surprise package?

Unlike the rest of this group, Japan has real struggles up front. That could be a problem because the other three teams in this group are going to be able to score early and often. As much as they struggle there, though, they are deep and talented from the midfield back. While others in this group play a free and risky style of play, Japan is rigidly disciplined and very technical. If they can stick to their game then they have a chance to make it through.

The Japanese are renowned as a technically gifted team yet defensively susceptible and a little light-weight; as a result they would be a useful upset selection to progress to the knockout stage for the third time.

They have qualified for every World Cup since 1998 and were the first to confirm their name in the draw for 2014. They dominated Asia’s final qualifying group recording 17 points and finishing top scorers; interestingly scoring 30% of their goals from headers. Despite this, Japan have suffered a dip in form over the last year, which has seen them drop from 24th in the World Rankings to 48th following three straight defeats in the Confederations Cup and losses against Serbia and Belarus. However, they responded by drawing in the Netherlands and then beating Belgium in November.

Does this revival in form offer an indication that Japan could yet be a surprise package at the World Cup or is their Confederations Cup embarrassment in Brazil a sign of things to come?

Greece: Will strong defence be enough?

Greece will always be remembered for winning Euro 2004. That was quite probably the most shocking result in a major international tournament; or a minor one, for that matter. It came from absolutely nowhere and they haven’t come close to replicating it; though a quarterfinal appearance in Euro 2012 was impressive. Konstantinos Mitroglou is a very explosive striker who is going to be relied upon heavily to lead this team. If he can have a big tournament then things could get interesting. They also have a very good backline, led by the awkwardly-named Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

Greece is the Group C underdogs to progress to the knockout stage, despite being the second best ranked team in the group according to FIFA. In their two previous World Cup campaigns (1994 & 2010) they departed in the group stages, but at Euro 2012 they upset the odds to beat Russia and reach the quarter-finals.

The Greeks finished second in their qualifying group behind Bosnia but beat Romania 4-2 on aggregate in the Playoffs. During qualifying they conceded just four times and two of them were from free kicks.

Portuguese coach, Fernando Santos, has been manager since taking over from Otto Reheel; who masterminded Greece’s remarkable Euro 2004 win, in 2010. Santos has previously stated his desire to make the team more expansive, only for them to; as he puts it: “slip back into our comfort zone, our defensive strength.

Greece may have a solid defence but to progress to the last 16 they will need to offer more in attack. Target man Kostas Mitroglou may provide the answer for the Ethniki. He has been in terrific form for Olympiakos scoring a goal every 2.04 games, while he netted three times against Romania to qualify.

To qualify for the knockout stages Greece may have to sacrifice a bit of defensive solidity in favour of a more attacking approach. When filling out your bracket, it’s up to you to decide whether this will help or hinder their chances?


Group D


The thing about this debate over the Group of Death that happens at every major tournament is that there is no right answer. Few people would pick Group D as their choice, but there is no doubt that it has elements of deathliness to it. There is very little to separate England, Italy and Uruguay. They are three teams that have all won the tournament in the past but which likely aren’t in position to add to their historical totals. Costa Rica, meanwhile, almost certainly isn’t going to advance, but they are well-positioned to crush some dreams and send a team home early. They are the ideal spoiler.

Group D at a glance

Best team: Uruguay. Though you could make an argument for England or Italy and I wouldn’t argue with you. This one is a dogfight between three evenly-matched teams. None of them are likely good enough to win it all, but they all probably deserve to advance.

Worst team: Costa Rica. This team qualified as the second team out of the ridiculously weak CONCACAF, but wouldn’t have come close to qualifying out of a stronger region. Even in this group without a true elite contender they are well behind the pack.

Best game: England vs. Italy. You could make an argument that Italy vs. Uruguay is better and based purely on the matchup it could be. This game is the first for both teams, though and will be a very good measuring stick for both squads; two teams that don’t particularly like each other.

Predicted order of finish: Costa Rica will finish last. That much I am fairly confident about. Of the other three I have the least confidence in Uruguay, so I will tab them for third. I like England slightly over the Italians so will give them the edge. If the second-place team in this group were to win their second-round matchup, they would likely face Brazil in the Quarterfinals, so first place is significant here. Of course, the winner of the group would be on track to a quarterfinal with Spain, so it’s a tough spot for both squads.

England: Could they prosper without the pressure of expectation?

England dropped outside of the top seven (13th) in the world and subsequently missed the chance to be seeded for the World Cup, which resulted in them being drawn in a tough Group D alongside Costa Rica, Italy and Uruguay.

England disappoints in the World Cup. It’s been their thing. So, will they be able to manage it again here? Probably. The difference, though, is that unlike past years I don’t think anyone but the most loyal of fans really expects much from them. They have some very nice players; Rooney and Wilshere are world-class. They just haven’t seemed to care enough in years past. Their coaching has historically been almost robotic, there has been basically no passion to the team and thus they have become tough to trust.  Never-the-less, I’m going to tip them to win the group. The problem is, though, that I wouldn’t be that surprised if they dropped all three games. England hasn’t had an identity as a team for a decade or more now. Until they find one, they will continue to flounder.

Group D is arguably the tightest group of them all and has at least three sides that are extremely close, with England slightly favoured over Italy and Uruguay, plus a fourth nation who could potentially crash the party in Costa Rica.

Such is the quality of opposition in Group D. England are my favourites to qualify from this group, but to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the four nations found themselves with a spot in the second-round. Don’t feel alone if you find yourself not completely comfortable on who you tilt in your bracket to secure the top two places.

The Three Lions qualified top of their group, finishing unbeaten and conceding just four goals. On paper England’s campaign looked impressive.  They conceded just 0.4 goals per match and scored 3.1, but in reality their group consisted of relatively poor opposition.

A sign of the level England was competing at was made apparent in back-to-back friendly defeats at Wembley; first to Chile and then Germany. For once optimism isn’t high amongst fans and the media alike. Could this give the players the freedom to perform without the huge expectation they feel at every major tournament?

If England is to be successful in Brazil, striker Wayne Rooney must perform better than his two previous World Cups. Despite playing in South Africa and Germany, Rooney has failed to score on the biggest stage of all. However seven goals in just six qualifiers have given him a fantastic platform to build on in Brazil.

Is the tough group actually a bonus? Given the pressure and expectation that has been lifted, if they do progress, the confidence they would gain would make them a difficult team to play. Then again the expectation would more than likely return.

Italy: Favourites to qualify, but only just!

As the 2006 champion and a Euro 2012 finalist this team is obviously relevant and probably the most talented in the group. They also have exceptional coaching; something that always seems to be the case for the Italians. Their problem, though, is that as the team that won it in 2006 aged they have failed to develop the same calibre of young talent to replace them. With guys like Balotelli and Pirlo they certainly have talent to contend and win this group. They also looked strong in qualifying. It just comes down to whether they can get everything moving in the right direction at the same time.

Italy is the second Group D favourites to qualify out of the group. They are also the second most successful nation at the World Cup but that stands for little as they have won just once (2006) in the modern era and were eliminated as defending champions without a point in 2010.

They qualified with two matches to spare, along with the Netherlands, becoming the first European nation to book their place in Brazil. Despite a successful campaign, manager Cesare Prandelli, experimented in the final two games which the Azzurri drew, dropping crucial ranking points, ultimately dashing their hopes of being seeded; which could prove decisive given that they are in a tough group.

Prandelli will be hoping to get the best out of the enigma that is Mario Balotelli as he did in Euro 2012, scoring three goals and helping them on their way to the final. The Milan forward has scored 12 goals in 29 appearances and they have never lost when he has found the net.

Italy will suffer the highest average temperatures of any team in the World Cup with an average of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The fact they finished third in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil could prove to be a trump card in dealing with the heat.

Another bonus is their style of play which is possession-based with a patient approach; when they have the ball the opposition will be getting tired trying to win it back. One issue the Azzurri may have is how Andrea Pirlo, who will be 35 when they kick-off their first match in Brazil, will perform in the energy sapping heat? With Pirlo fundamental to their ball retention, if he is off his game, how much of an impact could that have?

Uruguay: Great attacking threat, but defensive frailties could be fatal!

This team was a semi-finalist in 2010, so they obviously have some game. They haven’t been quite as strong since and didn’t qualify particularly well or play great in the Confederations Cup. They still have a very good front end, though. Luis Suarez is the best player in the group in my eyes and they have the potential to really do some damage. Even with the advantage of playing in South America leveraged to make a difference, their overall talent is still a notch or two behind Italy, so I have to put my faith in the Italians regardless of the strong crowd support and experience Uruguay now have to handle the pressure positively.

Uruguay is the seeded team in Group D, but as I just alluded to, I’m not able to tip the would-be favourites to progress to the knockout stages.

Qualifying didn’t go smoothly as they finished fifth in the South American table and had to beat Jordan in a playoff game to qualify.

Their main problem was in defence. They conceded the same number as they scored (25). The stats don’t read pretty either having conceded 1.39 goals per game (2nd highest), 33% of goals conceded came from set-pieces (3rd highest) and 20% of goals conceded were inside the first 15 minutes. Is this a sign that the careers’ of their experienced centre-back pairing of Diego Godin and Captain Diego Lugano are in decline?

On the other end of the spectrum they have a fantastic trio of forwards in Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez so scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem. Cavani will lead the line, with Suarez given licence to roam.

Travel could become an issue for La Celeste as they will travel a combined total of 2,886 miles during their three Group D matches; ironically for a South American based country the third highest at the World Cup and much more than their Group D opponents. When filling out your bracket it would be wise to consider how this will affect an ageing team who have struggled away from home in the past year?

Before pushing Uruguay on through your bracket, you need to consider if Uruguay’s defensive woes and laborious travel schedule will outweigh their attacking threat? Answering this conundrum should give you a better insight whether or not you will back them to qualify for the knockout stages.

Costa Rica: Tough, resilient, organized…but big outsiders to qualify!

This is not a team that is entirely without merit. They play much disciplined and largely effective defensive soccer. That could certainly be enough to make things interesting, especially against England and Italy. Their problem, though, is that their offensive game is just plain lousy. Terrible. If they fall behind against these three opponents they are quite likely to stay behind. They just don’t seem to have the depth to be a serious threat.

Many suggest Costa Rica will be the Group D whipping boys, however they are defensively solid and have moved from 64th in the world to 31st, which is the second most improved at the World Cup.

During qualifying Los Ticos finished runners-up in the final group stage after winning their five home games and conceding just seven goals in the final phase; less than any other team. Their defensive solidarity is actually a hindrance to their attacking play, which given they failed to score in 31% of their qualifying matches, is notable.

If they are to impose themselves in an attacking sense they will need key contributions from Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz and young starlet Joel Campbell.

Another key component to the Costa Rican cog is Goalkeeper Keylor Navas. The Keeper kept seven clean sheets in 14 qualifying matches and will need to be on top form if they are to progress.

Historically they qualified for the last 16 in their first appearance in a World Cup but group exits have followed in 2002 and 2006.

Baring a brilliant performance and a large chunk of luck a group exit looks likely for a third successive time.


Next time we’ll look at the remaining groups; E through H.







Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bracketology 101; 2014 FIFA World Cup…breaking down the June Madness!

Part 1: The Identity

     To some people, the month of March means the beginning of spring. To others, such as my family, my newfound friends in Australia and even me; it signifies summer is coming to a close and winter is drawing near. Yet others even see the month of March as a time to party for St. Patrick's Day. However, for football enthusiast the world over, March; especially this year, means only one thing: the World Cup is just around the corner…and…inevitably with March come discussions of who will advance, who will disappoint and who will ultimately hold up the cup in Rio when it is all said and done.

     Being born and raised in the United States, I have grown-up knowing the month of March to signify something much different on the American athletic calendar; March Madness, so named because the majority of the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament takes place in March and is the culmination of a college basketball season that begins in November. For the teams invited to play, it's their chance to prove they're the best in the country. However for fans, it's something completely different. While some people genuinely want to see their favourite team win the title, others just want to see the bracket they filled out win the office pool. For some, basketball doesn't even factor into the equation. They treat the bracket as a puzzle or brainteaser. Yet, still others don't care for basketball or the challenge of the bracket. They just want to have some fun with their co-workers, family or friends.

     Having lived in Australia for the last 28 months and thus being not just a whole day ahead of the NCAA Tournament, but also being in a location where even if I was able to find a tele or internet feed of tournament games they were taking place smack-dab in the middle of the night, my fondness for the March ritual of filling-out numerous brackets and following them as the tournament progresses has never swayed. That is more-than-likely because my history with March Madness Bracketology goes back into my earlier days and will always have a place in my heart.  However, the game of football has long-since taken the driver’s seat in that regard and while I still filled-out my own March Madness NCAA Bracket; this year I find myself more excited to delve into the bracket that is the 2014 FIFA World Cup that begins in June, as opposed to March; hence my referral to it as “June Madness!

     So, a question that may be bouncing around in the back of your mind about now is, “how do we break down the World Cup bracket and best gu­arantee that your individual bracket will bring you success?” Analysts, sports casters, networks and amateurs have all tried to nail down the perfect technique for picking teams using “Bracketology,” or the study of the brackets, for the NCAA Tournament for years and they've all hit the same conclusion: There isn't an exact science to guarantee a winning bracket. However, there are things to consider that can give you a leg up on your competition.

     To the bracket novice, the process can seem a little daunting. Where do you start? What teams should you advance? What can you do to make sure you select the most correct winners? Well, that’s why I’m here! So, just read on to find out everything you need to know concerning the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil; tips to help you win the bracket and the bragging rights that invariably come along with it.


Let’s Begin by Taking a General Overall Look at the Entire Bracket


     There are a lot of misconceptions about evaluating a bracket. Due to the specific arrangement of the World Cup bracket in which it begins with round robin group play before melding itself into one-and-done elimination rounds of which are established by criss-crossed placements due to the finishing placements in the respective groups…WOW…you can see how ominous it can be to not just understand, but more-less begin to predict.

     Basically, you have to look at each individual match within each individual group during the group stage and then rank them 1-32. Once these rankings are done, the teams are split back up into their increments of four, or back into their respective groups. The last eight teams on your list of 32 are automatically the fourth-place (or third and fourth place if two fall in the same group) teams in their respective groups and the first eight teams on your list of 32 are automatically the first-place (or first and second place if two fall in the same group) and represent what is called the “Power Eight.” Once I break the teams back-up into their respective groups, it is easy for me to see where one team maybe should finish ahead of another. Once I’ve done this and after all teams are seeded within their groups, I make sure to note  the “bottom eight” and the “Power Eight” to keep full radar on teams for when I begin to break-down individual matches.

     As far as selecting teams, my process is not really as complicated as it first appears to be. Remember, I am only selecting 16 teams because only the top two from each of the eight groups advance to the knock-out rounds. During the group-stage, I use the current FIFA World Rankings to start me off in beginning to determine who my two advancing bids go to. Once I have these teams selected, I rank them 1-16. I rank these teams based on factors like geography, travel, how they played during qualification and leading up to the World Cup, etc…, with special focus on certain characteristics like quality wins and strength of schedule. I look at each team independently within their respective groups, so I try not to let previous results have too much of an effect on my bracket. I believe it is OK to have a natural bias towards South American teams in this World Cup, for example; especially with the history of success they’ve had in them when being held on their own soil. Never-the-less, I try very hard not to let this bias be a major influencer within my bracket.

     For my personal bracket, I used previous competitions between teams along with my own research about them. I would refer to the FIFA Rankings as a reference for who is “expected” to be good; usually the only time I would really ever call upon these rankings for bracket purposes. I am interested to see how the shift of power towards the major federations affects not only group outcomes, but also matchups in later rounds. CONCACAF teams, as well as the African and Asian nations all lost consistently to teams based in Europe and South America. However, there have been some shifts among the low-major nations that will have minor impacts. Bottom line: previous tournament reputations will be more irrelevant than ever and there will be a period of feeling-out within the group stage that is surely to bring several unexpected results and surprises.

     In my opinion, UEFA returns as the best region, but CONMEBOL is not far behind. CAF and CONCACAF are about equal, while AFC continues to lag slightly behind, despite having some impressive individual performances of late. This concoction will make the 2014 FIFA World Cup as competitive as always.

     So, without further ado; let’s begin our course on “Bracketology 101; 2014 FIFA World Cup.


A More Detailed Look at the Tournament Field


     The next few months may drag on with stories of roster changes, stadiums that aren’t finished, protests in the streets, etc…, but once all of that is put aside, there is certainly no shortage of talking points.

     At first glance there is an immediate jostle between Group B and Group D for the coveted title of the “Group of Death,” with the latter featuring a greater spread of quality across the four teams; England vs. Italy in particular may be arguably the most high-profile dual-European affair in the entire group stage. Yet, the former includes both finalists from the 2010 World Cup, along with Chile, one of the most exciting and up and coming national teams. Group B, in particular, features four sides that all play possession-based systems, meaning it should also create the most attractive, attacking matches of the entire group stage.

     At the other end of the spectrum there is also a battle for the weakest group between Group E and Group H. France will no doubt be delighted by the relative ease of which they should progress; however given the country's penchant for self-destruction at recent international tournaments what appears a poor group on paper could well turn into one of the more fascinating. Likewise for Group H, which features no one single outstanding side, but rather a cluster of middle-range teams, although Belgium and Russia will both fancy their chances of finishing top.

     The rest of the bracket tosses up plenty of plot lines. Group G appears to be nothing short of a FIFA sponsored reunion. Germany and Ghana were also paired together in the group stage at the last tournament and Ghana were the United States’ opponents in the Round of 16 clash in South Africa that sent the Americans home (at the hands of Ghana for the second consecutive World Cup, I should point out). Even without Portugal Group G would have been fascinating, but the inclusion of the European side; who boast arguably the tournament's most decisive player in Cristiano Ronaldo, takes the group’s dynamic to a whole other level.

     I’ve heard many make the claim that this is the strongest pool of teams to ever assemble together and compete at a World Cup. Even though, I’ve heard this said about almost every World Cup that I can recall, casting an eye across the other groups leads me to believe that the claim does become somewhat hard to argue. There are a host of tantalising matches that should provide plentiful entertainment. For example; Bosnia whom are competing in their first-ever World Cup, will take on Argentina who rather ominously have been placed in a group that means a potential Macarana final against the hosts is certainly likely. Speaking of the Samba Kings; Brazil, meanwhile, will be pleased with the challenge presented by their opponents beginning with an opening round fixture against Croatia. The millions in Rio will think this a fantastic way to launch the tournament and yet another reason to party!

     Now, before we can go any deeper into the individual matches, let’s take one final look at some of the obvious favourites and get them out of the way.


The Big Five


Brazil

The Canaries are going into the 2014 FIFA World Cup as favourites. Not only are the Brazilians a tremendously talented team with the quality to win a World Cup, they are also the host nation. These two factors put them as one of the favourites, if not the overall favourite. If the Selcao can replicate the form they showed at the Confederations Cup, they could be lifting another trophy.

Spain

The Spanish are the defending champions. That in itself makes them a favourite. Take that and add the quality of the players that Spain’s team is littered with and La Roja will go far. Spain’s issues are in the back and up front. They still haven’t settled on a number nine and struggle in central defense. Throw in the fact that Iker Casillas may be rusty and slowing down by the time June rolls around and you have some problems. Spain could face some major issues against complete teams like the Selcao, Germany and Italy. The midfield dominance will win Del Bosque’s team some games and keep them in some others, but upper-tier countries will give Spain significant problems.

Italy

Spain won’t be the only European power that could topple Brazil’s apple cart. The Azzurri will also be strong. Italy may not come off as a side that belongs in the “Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Germany” discussion, but that may be the best thing possible for the Italians. Since Cesare Prandelli has taken over, the peninsula’s football team has gained a reputation of playing strong in big tournaments. Prandelli likes to use friendlies as a way to experiment with his team, trying different players in different formations. All that experimenting has led to strong showings in top competitions. Italy redeemed themselves in Euro 2012 not only by playing Spain tight in two matches, but also beating England and demolishing Germany on their way to the final. Italy has performed well in tournaments, but they are also the “bogey” for many teams. The Italians have never lost to England in a World Cup and are unbeaten against Germany in all competitions. They also hold the distinction of being the first team to figure out how to crack the puzzle that is the Spanish.

Germany

A rare mix of technical efficiency and physical dominance; Germany are one of the favourites in Brazil. Like Spain, their strength is in their midfield. Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and friends are almost a younger, more athletic version of Spain’s midfield. Sticking to similarities with the Spanish, Germany could have problems at the number nine spot. Miroslav Klose is getting older by the minute and there are injury concerns with other strikers, so goals from that spot could be a problem. The Germans will have no issues at the back, however, as Manuel Neuer remains one of the best keepers in the world.

Argentina

Brazil’s closest competition from a geographical and possibly a football standpoint; the Argentines’ strength is a ruthless attacking force that includes Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Erik Lamela, Ezequiel Lavezzi and of course, arguably one of the worlds’ best in Lionel Messi. Argentina’s attack is so absurd; I’m not even going to write about their “mediocre” defense. The Argentines’ success will depend on their attack and to an extent, Messi. If Messi is on, the South American side will be tough to stop. On the other hand, if Messi is injured, or off his game, then this team will be somewhat easier to beat. Argentina’s offense will carry them. Whether that leads to a World Cup remains to be seen.


     That should get you started thinking. Now, get your World Cup brackets printed and grab something to write with because in Part #2 of this series, we’re going to dive right into each and every group and dissect them from top to bottom, inside and out.




Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sports Psychology Myths Debunked

Studies show that more rapid loss of greater amounts of productivity in an athlete is associated with an improper understanding of the athlete’s psychology at initial consultation compared to established programs encouraging positive, proper, progressive and steady psychological productivity.

Does reading up on Sports Psychology make a difference? The researchers say probably not.

Evidence does not support the common advice that any knowledge is better than no knowledge.

Does walking an extra mile per day, which burns around 100 calories, lead to significant weight loss over time? Not as much as you would think. We typically think of 3,500 calories burned as equivalent to one pound of weight lost. In reality, if nothing changes in the diet, a person would need to burn around 18,000 calories to lose a pound. That would mean walking 4-5 miles per day to lose 10 pounds in a year.

So, why would reading an online blog on Sports Psychology daily help you?

Will increasing fruits and vegetables in the diet help with weight loss? Fruits and vegetables have many health benefits, but healthy foods do not lead to weight loss if calorie consumption overall remains unchanged.

Then, why would a lecture on Sports Psychology at a convention or a symposium be able to assist you?

Does snacking lead to weight gain? Not necessarily. Excess calories lead to weight gain. It does not seem to matter whether the calories are consumed all at once or little by little.

…OK…then why all of these daily or weekly emails with Sports Psychology information in them continue to be distributed from some of the top minds in the field?

The New England Journal of Medicine released a study where researchers pointed out that debunking these common misconceptions about Sports Psychology is important because people tend to believe even erroneous advice if it is stated repeatedly by numerous, often trusted, sources. However, the researchers are quick to point out the good news. The benefits of Sports Psychology are attainable by all even those whom have never taken a psychology course in their lives. It may take focused effort and hard work, but it is possible for anyone.

In fact, there are several things we know to be true about Sports Psychology.

Sports Psychology: What really works?

With having a Masters in Sports Psychology I am often asked which methods are best for a particular athlete or situation. The nature of the ever-growing and evolving field that makes up the realm of ‘sports’ psychology is such that in broad and general terms it turns out that the best method for most of these inquiries is actually no method at all. In fact, over-sensualisation, combined with too many ‘internet-taught” sports psychology ‘pundits” have begun to dilute the facts and truth.

Many common remedies being tossed about the football world are in reality nothing more than just “tricks” or “mental illusions.”

These “Mind Tricks” are especially dangerous for young footballers because in some cases, it can be like giving aspirin to a young child who is suffering from viral illness – the aspirin may set off a chain reaction leading to liver failure and brain death. While the detriments to a footballer are nowhere near as drastic as the failure of an organ or death, they can be so to the Player’s Development and their future in the game.

Furthermore, many coaches are so inept at sport psychology that their efforts are usually more prone to cause sedation among their roster than anything. What many of these coaches don’t realise is that improper application of psychological aspects can actually compound the issue they’re attempting to solve.

This does not mean coaches without degrees or experiences in the sport psychology field are without options. Quite the contrary to be exact. I call them “Mind Tricks.” Understanding them; knowing what they are and how to deal with them can be a very valuable asset to your coaching arsenal.

Mind Tricks

MIND TRICK #1: “Similar tragedies play out time and again when players try to rescue teammates.”

Domino Effect: The problem began with a well-played football match that remained scoreless after 120 minutes and being that it was played within a format where one of the two competing clubs had to advance the match was now headed into penalties.

Stacy Scotterson, a 24-year-old senior from Virginia was the first to step up to the charity spot to shoot for her team. As she’d done probably a million times before, she bent down and used her fingers to free the ground immediately surrounding the penalty spot from any obstructions. However, what she neither knew nor sensed was the inevitable fate of the game that was about to fill the pit in the bottom of her stomach. Within only a few seconds and just a few breaths later, she had keeled over. Her ball had sailed high and wide off the wet and sloppy surface completely missing the goal. Very soon, a teammate, Amanda Stoyouz, strolled down into the penalty area where Scotterson had missed just moments before, but she too succumbed to the same fate as her teammate. One by one, each teammate strolled down to rescue the others and one by one, each one missed in turn.

Similar tragedies play out time and again when athletes try to rescue teammates. A basketball player is fouled hard; his teammates follow up, one after the other, until they’re all in foul trouble. A quarterback gets drilled by an opposing defensive back and his offensive line goes into a frenzy to protect him; one taking the block, then another.

In each case, the domino effect results from a deep-seated emotion: the need to help others. The fear response shuts down areas of the brain that handle complex thoughts and planning, but it doesn’t affect simple emotions or well-learned habits like altruism. So we’re driven to think about helping others instead of rationally identifying potential hazards, like a wet and slippery surface or accumulating too many personal fouls.

People lose the ability to think about the long-term consequences of their actions,” says Sian Beilock, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Avoid the Trick: If you ever find yourself or your athletes in an unfolding situation like the one Scotterson was in, Beilock recommends pausing for a moment to take a deep breath and think about what’s going on. “Even taking one step back sometimes allows you to see it in a different light, to maybe think, ‘My efforts would be better spent re-evaluating the situation’,” she says. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to separate rational thought from emotion during an unfamiliar crisis.

Planning for potential pitfalls can help; for instance, every team should practice how to deal with certain weather conditions.

MIND TRICK #2: “When the balloon began to rise, he held on, despite a chorus of shouts from the ground urging him to let go.

Double or Nothing: In February 2003, a collegiate baseball team visiting Northern California prepared to watch a hot-air balloon take off at the Domaine Chandon vineyard near Yountville.

Shortly before 8 a.m., the ground crew was repositioning the inflated balloon when one of the visiting baseball players, a 23-year-old Scotsman named Steve Branson, grabbed hold of the basket, perhaps in an attempt to help.

However, when the balloon began to rise, Branson held on, despite a chorus of shouts from the ground and in particular from his own teammates and coaches, urging him to let go. The balloon rose quickly: 10 feet, 20, 40, 100. The empty air below Branson’s dangling feet stretched to a horrifying distance; pretty soon, he could hold on no longer. His fellow teammates watched as their companion plummeted fatally to the earth.

If a balloon unexpectedly begins to rise, a person hanging on can follow a deadly logic: When he’s only been lifted a foot or two in the air, he may think, ‘Oh, that’s no big deal. I can just step down if I need to.’ Then suddenly he’s at six feet and thinks, ‘I could twist an ankle, I’d better hang on and wait until it gets lower.’ Before he knows it, he’s at 25 feet, realizing that a jump would cause serious injury at best.

The runaway-balloon problem is a manifestation of our irrational assessment of risks and rewards. We tend to avoid risk when we’re contemplating potential gains but seek risk to avoid losses. For instance, if you offer people a choice between a certain loss of $1,000 and a fifty-fifty chance of losing $2,500, the majority will opt for the riskier option; to avoid a definite financial hit. From the perspective of someone dangling 20 feet in the air, the gamble that he might be able to ride the gondola safely back to the ground seems preferable to a guaranteed pair of broken legs. Yet in the moment, he can’t factor in the price he’ll pay if he loses.

Avoid the trick: Casinos are a perfect example of a modern enterprise that makes a very good profit from our flawed ability to calculate true risk. Gamblers wind up in a hole and then instinctively take bigger and bigger risks in an attempt to recoup the losses. To a veteran in the field of applied psychology, it’s a foregone conclusion. “I always tell my students, if you’re tempted to go to Vegas, just write me a check instead,” says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

MIND TRICK #3:The narrow road took them into ever-deepening snow.

Situational Blindness: In December 2009, an Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach at an NAIA school was headed out on a recruiting trip to Nevada after her team had played a Friday and Saturday double-header in Portland, Oregon. Following the directions of her GPS, she drove south on U.S. Highway 97 through Bend, then turned left onto Oregon Highway 31, passing through a dramatically beautiful high desert landscape before she connected with the highway to Reno near the California border.

Near the town of Silver Lake, Oregon, her GPS told her to turn off the highway onto a little-used forest road. If she had continued straight, then she would have arrived at her desired destination in less than six hours. However, her GPS was programmed to take the “shortest route,” not the “fastest.” The narrow road took her into ever-deepening snow. After driving more than 30 miles, she got stuck, managed to dig herself out, drive further and then get stuck again. She tried calling 911 but was in a location where she was unable to get cell phone reception.

For three days, she fought to stay warm and survive until she finally managed to get a cell phone signal and call for help. A sheriff’s deputy came to winch out her car.

As GPS units and satellite navigation smart-phone apps have flourished recently, there’s been a spate of similar cases in which travellers follow their devices blindly and wind up getting badly lost. The underlying mistake is not merely technological but perceptual: the failure to remain aware of one’s environment, what aviation psychologists call Situational Awareness, or SA.

People have always had difficulties maintaining SA, psychologists say, but the proliferation of electronics, and our blind faith that these devices will keep us safe, has led to an epidemic of absentmindedness.

Avoid the trick: Full Situational Awareness requires incorporating outside information into a model of your environment and using that model to predict how the situation might change. If all you’re doing is following the lines of the GPS and it turns out to be wrong, you’ll be completely clueless about what to do next.

In the athletic realm, we rely on what Beth Blickensderfer, PhD, a professor of applied psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, calls Competitive SA to navigate our way through the consistently changing labyrinth. It’s especially relevant when you’re traveling to compete at another location, for example. If you’re not paying attention, you might not realize that the ball blends in with the bleachers when it is punted or the hills surrounding the pitch open-up behind one of the goals which allow larger gusts of wind to blow back towards play and you wind up committing a serious faux pas that could ruin the occasion.

MIND TRICK #4:Once we form a theory, we tend to see everything through it.

Bending the Map: Our minds are wired to find order within randomness. We look at clouds and see sheep. This can be useful for making decisions, since we’re helpless without a theory that makes sense of our quandary. However, once we form a theory, we tend to see everything through it. A consequence is that sometimes when people actually get physically lost, they can convince themselves they know exactly where they are; a problem sometimes called “bending the map.

A few years ago, three collegiate-level skiers went out-of-bounds while doing some training via cross-country skiing at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort located at Teton Village in Wyoming. Looking for fresh powder in Rock Springs Bowl, they took a wrong turn, headed north instead of south and wound up at the bottom of Granite Canyon. If they’d been where they thought they were, the stream should have been flowing from their right to their left and thus heading towards their left would have taken them back to the ski area. Instead, they found the stream flowing in the opposite direction; from their left to their right. They knew they needed to go left in order to get home, but based on the topography of where they thought they were, they knew they also had to go downhill.

Eventually, they decided on a solution: In this particular case, they made a collective decision that based upon the knowledge they already knew as fact; contrary to science and physics, the water had to be flowing uphill.

The group marched upstream, away from the ski area and wound up spending the night in the snow without any survival gear. The next morning, they reconsidered their earlier logic and still – once again - decided that, yes; the stream must indeed be flowing uphill.

They continued on and bushwhacked another quarter mile in the wrong direction before a rescue helicopter found them and flew them to safety.

Such errors of overconfidence are due to a phenomenon psychologists call confirmation bias.

When trying to solve a problem, we get fixated on a specific option or hypothesis,” explains Jason Kring, president of the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments, “and ignore contradictory evidence and other information that could help us make a better decision.

A vast collective error of confirmation bias unfolded in the past decade as investors, analysts, and financial advisers all convinced themselves that legions of financial derivatives based on subprime mortgages were all fundamentally sound. There was plenty of evidence to the contrary, but the money was so good that many found it easier to believe. They kept convincing themselves right up until the roof caved in.

Avoid the trick: To outsmart “confirmation bias,” make a habit of scepticism, including scepticism toward your own gut feelings and assumptions. If you’re part of a group that seems prone to agreement, play devil’s advocate to encourage others to share different points of view. “Don’t use your intuition to convince yourself that things are going right; use it to alert yourself to potential problems,” says Jeff Haack, a former search-and-rescue specialist for Emergency Management British Columbia. “Listen to those nagging doubts.

MIND TRICK #5:There’s a risk that in the heat of the moment, we’ll be tempted to overstep our own set parameters.

Redlining: Mountain climbing at high altitudes is a race against time. Human endurance is severely limited in the face of extreme cold and limited oxygen and windows of good weather can shut abruptly. Lingering too long is an invitation to disaster, so when mountaineers prepare to summit, they need to set a turnaround time and strictly abide by it.

The consequence of failing to heed this sacred rule was gruesomely manifested on May 10, 1996. It was on that date that there were an unprecedented number of climbers preparing to make the final stage of their ascent of Mount Everest, including some who had paid as much as $65,000 each.

For expedition leader Rob Hall, getting his ‘clients’ safely to the top and back down meant meeting a turnaround time of 2:00 p.m.. However, as they continued to ascend towards the summit, the turnaround time came and went. Eventually, at 4 p.m., the last straggler arrived at the summit and Hall began to lead his high-paying ‘customers’ back down. Unfortunately, it was too late. A deadly storm had already begun, lashing the mountain with hurricane-force winds and whiteout conditions. Stuck on Everest’s exposed face, eight climbers died, one by one. Hall would be one of the last in his group to succumb. Trapped just a few hundred feet below the summit and paralysed by the cold and a lack of oxygen, he radioed base camp and was patched through via satellite to his wife whom was at their home in New Zealand. “Sleep well, my sweetheart,” he told her. “Please don’t worry too much.” Today his body remains where he sat.

Hall became a victim of a simple but insidious cognitive error that I call “redlining.” Anytime we plan something that requires setting a parameter, then there will always be a risk that in the heat of the moment, we’ll be tempted to overstep it. Examples of such are: divers who see an interesting wreck just beyond the limit of their dive tables and proceed to check it out or airline pilots who descend through clouds to their minimum safe altitude, fail to see the runway and then go just a little bit lower.

It’s easy to think, “I’ll just go over the ‘redline’ a little bit. What’s the big deal?” The problem is that once we do, there are no more cues reminding us that we’re heading in the wrong direction. A ‘little bit’ becomes a ‘little bit more’ and at some point, it becomes ‘too much.’ Nothing is there to call you back to the safe side.

A similar phenomenon has been dubbed the “what-the-hell” effect, such as when dieters control impulses with strict limits on their eating, a nutritional redline. One day, they slip up, eat a sundae and boom—they’re over the line. “Now they’re in no-man’s-land,” says Markman, “so they just blow the diet completely. They binge.”

Avoid the trick: As in mountain climbing, the best response for footballers when passing a redline is to recognize what you’ve done, stop and calmly steer yourself back in the right direction. When it’s not a life-or-death situation, possessing the knowledge that ‘redlining’ is an actual reality and thus trying to keep it in check as much as possible will take care of most, if not all, situations.

So, What’s Next?

First, understanding that any psychological article you read (including this one) may be heavily influenced by the author’s own experiences, but inherently is not destiny. Changing the factors that lead to the efficiency of any element of sports psychology; like a better understanding of both your players and yourself, can prevent issues from compounding and getting even more out control.

Second, sports psychology comes down to a balance of emotions.

Increased understanding of emotions, and how they affect decisions, leads to better understanding of your players and a decreased risk of faulty results from attempted sports psychology practices. Therefore, any attempt at sports psychology should include some form of emotional consideration.

Finally, regardless of what anyone says (even the author of a blog such as is this one) education is good for you, regardless of whether or not it leads to changes in your players’ performance. Many coaches are discouraged to find that sports psychology, even via certified and educated professionals, does not automatically lead to a solution.

This is because the brain is wired to replace the reactions used during normal stimuli very slowly, so we tend to replace these reactory responses in what sometimes seem like years. However, education and experience offers many benefits that offset this time-consuming natural mental response to new stimuli even if there is no overall change in noticeable output. When a change in how an athlete reacts to a stimulus is achieved, research shows that sustained consistent education and experience aids in long-term maintenance of the preferred reactionary response. 

In other words, all you have to do is just…trick the mind!