When you live in a country like Spain, it’s literally impossible to ignore soccer. We get at least ten minutes of soccer on all our television news reports, while most conversations are invaded with match results. Star players and their model wives appear regularly on magazine covers, show off the season’s hottest fashion on huge street ads, and fill our lives with lots of juicy gossip. With Brazil’s word cup kicking off next week, we’re in for full-blown soccer shock this summer. But as the popular Spanish saying goes, “if you can’t avoid it, enjoy it!” We may even learn a lesson or two about how soccer frenzy can help us become better leaders.
Millions of hot-blooded fans impassioned about a bunch of strangers fighting with each other and pursuing a ball is quite a spectacle to witness in itself, and an even better ride to take part of, if we care to join. It’s a universal phenomenon, and there’s nothing new about it. Think of the Roman Coliseum in full splendor, with its 80.000 heated spectators screaming and swearing at gladiators who fought for their lives. Or the famous Mayan ball court of Chichen Itza in Mexico, where sacred beliefs and political disputes centered the entire civilization’s attention on the movements of a rubber ball in a court famous for its still mysterious acoustic perfection.
Why do so many people get so excited over a show that won’t really impact their lives directly? Crowd psychology theories tell us that large groups of people become infested with emotional connections, making rationality a lot less influential on decisions and behavior. Individuals are said to feel less responsible for their own actions, fading into invisibility in a mob where it’s hard to say who does what. Simply put, when surrounded by large numbers of emotionally inflamed people, we go wild. We’re not the only ones.
It’s a mammal thing. Mammals are designed to connect unconsciously to other mammals in order to synchronize behavior before we have time to think rationally about it. Dogs do it. Lyons do it. This is what has made mammals so successful in Evolution. We all have an innate ability to spontaneously organize around our prey to maximize our hunting results, or minimize losses among our own pack members when attacked.
It happens on an unconscious level way before our conscious, more calculating human minds begin to realize what is at stake. When we are synchronized on an unconscious level, we don’t need to know where we are going or why. We just need to know, or better said, feel in our guts, who we’re following. And we don’t need to be human either. Mammals can synchronize between species, enabling a rider to perfectly coordinate with his horse without a word, or a dog to launch into action with his hunter before he’s uttered a sound.
Pet owners often sense their mammal pets know exactly how they feel. Because the language of our unconscious mammal bodies is not made up of words or numbers, but of emotion, sensation and impulse. So when we gather with friends to watch a soccer match, we know we’re going to relax into a part of ourselves that doesn’t worry so much about what other people think. If we go to a stadium where tens of thousands are building excitement together, elation, distance from daily worries and exaggerated drama are guaranteed.
Maybe this is why sports entertainment is immensely profitable worldwide. We pay important amounts of money to access experiences where we can “let ourselves go” and “lose our minds” in sensation-rich environments like large soccer stadiums or dark techno-music clubs. A wilder, more primitive part of ourselves seeks spaces to come out of its closet, if only for a little while. Charismatic leaders, powerful stage performers and a few world-famous soccer players have a knack for inducing crowds into a frenzy of agitation.
Still, they are not always sure of how they do it, often becoming insecure or very superstitious, to the point of losing their magnetism entirely in time. Knowing how to bring out our own charisma when we want it is for pros. Though public speaking skills can be trained to a certain point, charisma can not. It’s not conscious. It comes from our wilder, more primitive and sensational selves, seducing crowds to give in before they are ever conscious of what’s happening. And it only works if we give in first.
When we lose our self-consciousness to flow without restraint, following our emotions as they interact with our audience in unpredictable spirals of fire. Sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? Yes. It can be. Take a look at history… What we can train is our ability to let go of our inhibitions and trust our own animal emotions to guide us, and our followers, to the right destination. Where to start? With self-awareness.
Becoming aware of what happens to us while our national soccer team wins or loses their first match in Brazil next week is as good an opportunity as any. If you love to lose yourself in the passion of soccer, don’t let me spoil your fun. You can try this out some other time. But if soccer bores you to death, you can bring a notebook with you and write down everything you notice about the mammals surrounding you in front of the television screen. Dogs included!
How do you know what each viewer is feeling? Where and how do they express it in their bodies? Who is following who? Who is excluding or opposing who? And most importantly, what’s happening inside your own mammal body as suspense builds, aggression rises or disappointment flows.
We need to stop thinking of our human bodies as cheap cars we order around, and picture them more like magnificent horses we’re learning to ride: allowing our animal-selves to run with emotion when needed, or keep calmly grounded despite dangerous storms of passion. Professional horse-riders improve with age and experience. Leaders do too. Enjoy the ride!