The Psychology of “Celebrations”

Following the Scottish Open Final, and the various reactions to Neil’s early a celebration, including an unimpressed Ronnie stating that he would see it as an admission of weakness,  Worldsnooker has published this article:

Neil Robertson’s 9-8 victory over Cao Yupeng at Sunday’s Dafabet Scottish Open final was one of the most captivating clashes in recent memory. With Robertson searching for his first ranking title in over a year and world number 67 Cao competing in his maiden ranking final, passions ran high. Fire, determination, nerves and relief were all very much on show.

In the latter stages Cao’s devastation was there for all to see, as the Australian fought back to overturn a seemingly unassailable 8-4 deficit. Earlier on, in just the second frame, Robertson punched the air with delight after depositing the black to level at 1-1.There is no doubt that the emotion and desire on display made for captivating viewing, but does celebrating during play spur on those involved or act as an impediment to their focus?

As well as being an extremely demanding sport technically, snooker delves deep into a player’s psychology. Those who can act and think most clearly under extreme pressure are usually the ones who emerge victorious. The complexity of snooker heightens the need for mental strength and focus: it’s chess in motion and poker with balls.  Can celebrating during a match be likened to letting one’s poker face slip?

Terry Griffiths is one of the most sought after coaches in the sport. He has worked with the likes of Ding Junhui, Barry Hawkins, Mark Allen and Michael Holt over recent years. By his own admission, the 1979 World Champion’s most valuable attribute is his years of experience and the knowledge he can impart on the mental aspect of tournament play. For Griffiths, the pressure cooker environment of top level snooker means players need to let their emotions out from time to time.

Terry Griffiths

Griffiths said: “They do it because they have come from a place mentally they weren’t comfortable with, but have pulled through. They have achieved something. Fists go and you give it everything to let out some emotion. Mark Selby did it against Ding at the World Championship this year. The pressure at the Crucible is unbelievable and you have to remember that. It is very important to the players and when they achieve something in their mind they outwardly show what they feel about it. This sport requires intense concentration. It is inevitable that in a moment like that it is going to come out. It’s like the shaking of a coke can.

“I remember a time when Peter Ebdon used to do it every frame! I watched him face Stephen Hendry in the final of the 1995 Irish Masters and he came from way behind, he was 5-1 down and won 9-8. I was in the press box, so had a perfect view of it. Ebdon was electric, if he potted a good ball he would be punching the air. I think the whole thing did have an effect on Hendry. I have to say I found it stimulating to watch, you were waiting for him to have a big moment so you could see him do it again. It was a first hand display of the power of the person, it was a wonderful atmosphere.”

Other coaches believe that keeping a calm frame of mind without any spikes of emotion is more likely to allow a player to achieve his potential. Chris Henry has coached the likes of Stephen Hendry and Shaun Murphy, using his innovative theories based in neural science. He also works with top European golfer Rafael Cabrera Bello. Henry trains his players to maintain a serene state of mind even under intense pressure, rather than letting emotions take control.

Henry, who spent three seasons as a professional, said: “Celebrating before the end of a match is not the optimum thing to be doing. We know in psychology about what is called the alpha brain wave state. This is a very calm, relaxed and focused state to be in. That then allows you to tap into what I call the brain software, which is a piece of software you have been writing for years. It is composed of things such as driving a car, walking or playing snooker and it lets you do these things without really consciously thinking about it. You can only tap into that part of the brain when you are relaxed. Showing emotions during a match is not advisable.

“I don’t mind my players showing a bit of positivity.  But you can boil over, which is in my opinion what Peter Ebdon used to do. He would get too excited. That’s detrimental to your subsequent performance for the rest of that match. I believe that when he became World Champion in 2002, he was at his most calm. He learned to control it.”

Last season’s 2017 World Championship involved high stakes. It was the most lucrative tournament in the history of snooker in terms of prize money, with champion Mark Selby landing a cool £375,000 for his win. With such a vast amount of money and prestige on the line, the tournament produced raw emotion from those involved.

Robertson’s display of delight in Glasgow on Sunday wasn’t the first time the Australian has shown his fire on the baize. In his epic last 16 clash with Marco Fu at this year’s World Championship, the 2010 Crucible winner Robertson roared with joy after converting the winning black in a scrappy 21st frame. It was eventually in vain as Fu went on to take the tie 13-11. When asked whether his celebrations were premature in the post-match press conference, Robertson remained steadfast in the opinion that he needs to evoke his emotions to produce his best snooker.

Robertson said: “I’ve tried to play within myself but I need adrenalin, I need to be pumped up, I need that to play well. I have to play with passion. I’m not saying that I’m going to start running around the table, but I’m going to be a lot more aggressive. In the first round I was trying to be polite, too polite, I’m going to be showing my emotion when I feel like it.”

Liang Wenbo

Commentator David Hendon has worked with Eurosport for over a decade and has called some of the most memorable moments in recent years. He was on the mic for Liang Wenbo’s thrilling victory at the 2016 English Open. Liang could hardly contain his joy, as he began rapturous celebrations before even depositing the winning ball in his 9-6 win over Judd Trump. Hendon could understand his reaction and believes that the raw emotion of competitors very much adds to the spectacle for viewers.

“It would have been awful if, having celebrated, he hadn’t potted the winning ball. Everyone’s personality is different and he is very excitable. This was the biggest moment of his career,” said Hendon. “I think people warm to that and the public likes to see someone who is genuinely happy. But it’s a good job he got the winning ball.

“In the middle of the match there is of course always the chance it could backfire. The point is: what does it do to your opponent? Does it give them a shot of adrenalin? It could make them want to come back and beat you even more. That’s what we want. We want the rivalries, we want the psychological shifts. That’s one of the reasons people watch snooker.”

Now this is an interesting read, and even more so for me as none of the interviewees even mention the type of perception I have of such gestures. Now, no doubt, there will be people telling me that I don’t understand sport … but all the same, here is how I feel about some of those “celebrations”. I’m not saying that I’m “right” here, it’s just how I genuinely feel when I see them.

I don’t mind players expressing their delight at winning, not even when it means jumping around like a crazy frog. I don’t mind the players clenching their fist after winning a particularly important frame, after a hard-fought battle, the “Yes, I did it” gesture aimed at themselves. But I totally hate the “fist pumping”, with matching face expression. I’m actually surprised that none of the interviewees see this as an aggression, an “in your face!” gesture aimed at the opponent to break them emotionally, even after the match is over, when it’s totally unnecessary. In my eyes it’s mean and bad sportsmanship. Simple as that. I hate it in any sport, and as much as I like watching tennis for instance, this is really something I dislike mightily. It’s definitely NOT what I want to see. Neil’s embarrassment at what he had done last Sunday clearly shows that he knew how it would feel for his opponent, and he went to talk to him, which he deserves a lot of credit for. But it also proves that I probably have a point about the nature of some “celebrations” …

Your take guys … and gals?

3 thoughts on “The Psychology of “Celebrations”

  1. hi everyone
    one very subjective topic… i’m made of extremes: my favorite celebrations are:
    1. Steve’s winning the World’s (I think his first) by just raising his head to someone up there like a “thank you” or something, and then
    2. Liang’s overjoy – it was just invigorating and contagious (but not the moment he chose to do it)

    I don’t like the fist bumping or screaming, no matter for what, and that includes Ronnie (although he rarely does it).
    I don’t believe this is something to be considered as an offense according to regulations, but something every player should consider/reconsider in his own behavior.

  2. I agree with you and I was really disappointed in the article that it did not raise that part of the issue. I did not mind when Wenbao(?) made a 147 and jumped around like crazy: that was a clear happiness over his own accomplishment and not about simply winning a frame or a point. But I hate the in-your-face fist pumping, especially (and logically that is when it happens) after a hard-fought frame which could have gone either way: this is what Robertson did and he did such things before as far as I remember.

    I love watching tennis and was a big Pete Sampras-fan and always felt in a minority, because people criticized him for being “emotionless” and were so happy when he did some fist-pumping with the accompanying facial expression and even some vocal effect (fortunately rarely) and I always felt embarrassed for him and wished he had not done it. But this is what was replayed over and over again and people liked it, so I suspect most people have a positive opinion about it. Most people like it wile I just cannot warm up to players who do it in any sport.

    So I hate it in tennis, but so to speak the tennis court is at least big. Around the snooker table, on the other hand, is still a relatively small place, so the fist-pump is truly “in-your-face” and for me unacceptable, plus it undermines the decorum of the game they are so eager to preserve: vests and ties and accompanying shoes are all mandatory and that is all fine, but then behaving in a certain way is also important.

    • Perhaps there is a difference in more athletic sports such as tennis. As a junior player, whenever I tried a fist-pump I’d just end up dropping my cue on the floor! There certainly is a difference in opinion about celebrations in America compared to Britain.

      I agree with your comments, particularly the dislike of anything that might upset an opponent, such as after winning a close frame.

      As someone who frequently watches the ‘outside’ tables, I also have a problem with players who are continually upset, even angry, during the game. With some of them it borders on physical intimidation (the ‘bully boy’ tactics, as Stephen Hendry would put it). At Pond’s Forge I saw a young asian player appear almost petrified when his opponent was slapping the table and stamping back to his seat with every miss. Sadly the young man has quit the tour mid-season. This actually seems more of a problem with the older players, who understandably have their frustrations, but probably should be able to control their temper. In any case it’s quite offputting for the audience. I have seen players warned for swearing, but there’s obviously no clear line for just bad behaviour.

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