The Pygmalion effect, or the Rosenthal effect, is a psychological phenomenon whereby the expectation placed on individuals and groups dictate the way they perform. Tell an athlete or team that they have a particular attribute for an extended period of time and they will soon adopt that attribute. Team identity is an abstract concept and yet some teams just exude a certain personality.
The way they play, the fans that support them, the players they recruit, every facet of their being embodies an ethos. We explore the identities of two of the greatest sports teams on the planet: Real Madrid CF and the New York Yankees, and find out whether team identity can be translated into success.
Derek Jeter runs out for the last time at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles on September 25, 2014. The shortstop played 20 seasons for the Yankees, winning five World Series. Legends like Jeter are used to inspire current players and instill in them a sense of history and identity. Image supplied by Action Images/ Rober Deutsch
In Steven Spielberg’s biographical crime drama, Catch Me If You Can
(2002), Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Abagnale Jr, a young man who successfully conned people out of millions of dollars by posing as a pilot, a doctor, and a parish prosecutor, all before the age of 21. Early in the film his father, played by Christopher Walken, asks him, “You know why the (New York) Yankees always win, Frank?” Frank replies, “Cause they have Mickey Mantle?” His father shoots back, “No, it’s ‘cause the other teams can’t stop staring at those damn pinstripes.”
What he was alluding to was not the iconic uniform that the Yankees wear, but rather what that uniform represents. The aura of ruthless dominance that the most successful team in Major League Baseball (MLB) exudes is so ingrained in everything that they do that even their uniform embodies their identity. Their 27 World Series titles, 16 more than the second best team, the St. Louis Cardinals, are inseparable from the clothes that the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter have famously worn.
“The identity of the New York Yankees is purely a championship calibre club,” says Chris Passarella, the Associate Director of the Mental Conditioning Department at the Yankees. “It’s that simple.”
But being a team that wins trophies is not enough to understand the identity of the New York Yankees, or any other championship team for that matter. What we want to know is: How does a team’s identity drive performance and lead to titles?
“Identity is wrapped up in attributes,” says Steve Gera, Professor at the Real Madrid Graduate School, Universidad European. “Attributes lead to specific behaviors and those behaviors drive performances. Coaches talk ad nauseam about culture, but all they’re talking about is the glue that holds the team together, and that glue is made through stories and a team narrative.”
For both the Yankees and Real Madrid, that narrative is soaked in history and triumph. Real Madrid have won the UEFA Champions League 10 times, 3 more than Italian giants AC Milan, and have won the Spanish La Liga 32 times, 9 more than bitter rivals FC Barcelona. It is a history that is celebrated not just for its longevity, but also for its unrivalled success.
“Honoring the history of the club creates a winning mind-set because it leads to an expectation that only the very best is accepted. Good, in our mind, isn’t good enough,” says Passarella. Gera agrees, “Identity is tied to the historical players that have come before. If you’re playing at Real Madrid in the same position as legends like Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, or Zinedine Zidanne, you know you have to live up to the standards they set. That’s important from an identity standpoint for the players because they know what is expected of them.”
That sense of history is a great motivator for players. Teams like Real Madrid and the Yankees don’t recruit or sign players that they deem mediocre. Both clubs view themselves as the best in their sport, and the titles and legends that have come before are a testament to that. New players are motivated to carve out their own piece of history at their club. It is what drives talent identification at championship sides. The best players in the world thrive off the prospect of being mentioned in the same breath as the icons that decorate the walls at the cathedrals of Yankee Stadium and the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
“It’s impossible to ignore,” says Gera. “There are cultural artefacts all over the stadium and various parts of the facilities. The best players thrive off that and don’t need to be reminded about what it means to be walking in the footsteps of giants of the game.”
A fan holds aloft a replica of the UEFA Champions League trophy in Madrid after Real Madrid won their 10th European title. 'La Decima' had become an obsession for Real Madrid and their fans and a huge weight was lifted when they beat city rivals Atletico Madrid in extra time. Image supplied by Action Images/ Andrea Comas.
For Passarella and the Mental Conditioning Department at the Yankees, the history of the team is used as a tool to help players who are struggling either personally or professionally. They remind the player that a team like the Yankees wouldn’t have drafted or traded him into the “Yankee family” if he wasn’t an elite ball player. "An important focus for the players is there isn't a day that goes by playing for the Yankees that isn't part of their own personal career and Yankee history" Passarella says. "From their first day playing for the Yankees they are part of baseball history."
The history and the identity of championship teams also brings a weight of expectation. Real Madrid and the Yankees are not held to the same standards as other teams. The media attention that they receive is heightened and, for young players stepping into the spotlight, it can prove daunting. Passarella has seen many young players come to New York and struggle with the pace and lifestyle of the city. Many of those players had never been east of Colorado, or had only played ball in Texas. It’s hard enough moving to a city like New York. It becomes even more challenging when the world’s eyes are focusing on your every move, just waiting to pounce on any failure or mishap.
“Only the strongest and the best survive at Real” says Gera, highlighting the ruthless attitude that Real Madrid has adopted. Carlo Ancelotti was sacked this year after a trophy-less season for Los Blancos. The fact that the Italian manager finally brought the club their much-coveted “La Decima” (10th European championship) the season before seemed to count for nothing as one of the most respected managers in the game was still shown the door.
Real lost the title last season to Barcelona, their oldest and fiercest rival. The two giants of Spanish football are perhaps the greatest on the planet. Both have spent millions on foreign exports, have embodied the identity of the cities they represent, and believe that only success is acceptable. On the surface, they appear to be quite similar. “If you look at them closely, Real and Barca are pretty similar teams” says Gera, pointing out the fact that many of their top players came at a huge price and that making it from the youth teams to the senior teams in both clubs is extremely difficult. “It’s the narrative of the rivalry between the two that has perpetuated the differences. The story of Real Madrid would not be as strong without the story of Barcelona.”
Gera calls it the “Hero’s Journey” and uses it as a metaphor when translating this message to coaches and players. He says that every team’s journey needs a juxtaposition of their identity and that comes from a rival. For Real, it’s Barca and City rivals Atletico Madrid. For the Yankees, it’s the Boston Red Sox. For both sets of fans, players, coaches, managers, and owners, all differences are highlighted and commonalities are minimised. This way, an enemy is created, and every team needs an enemy. Derbies always elicit the greatest passion amongst the fans and the best managers and coaches are able to translate that passion to their players in order to bring the best out of them. Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, always said that the first fixtures he looked for when the calendar was released were the two games against bitter rivals Liverpool. Before a ball was kicked, the old rivalry was highlighted. No great team or athlete in the history of sport would be the same without a nemesis to contradict ideologically.
“It’s the Pygmalion effect,” says Gera. “The teams adopt the identities that have been placed on them and run with them to their own advantage.” Real Madrid is known as the “Galacticos”, a collection of the greatest stars football has to offer, assembled in one team for a lot of money in order to achieve greatness. They play a fast-paced, aggressively clinical brand of counter-attacking football that overwhelms and out-muscles opponents. Their rivals, Barcelona, famous for their academy and development of players, have branded themselves as "Més que un club" (More than just a club). They are the intimate Catalan team and, as such, their brand of short, intricate passes known as “tiki-taka” is a physical representation of their ethos. It is homegrown, and very often the most beautiful football to watch. Both Real and Barca have embodied an identity with a style of play.
“The way a team plays and the identity that it adopts are so intertwined that they are inseparable,” says Passarella. “When a player joins the Yankees, he knows the way he should play the game because it is the Yankee brand of baseball. That means confidence and it means championships, and though every other team in the League deserves respect, as a Yankee, we have to always strive to be better.”
That confidence often borders on arrogance and it is something of which both Real and the Yankees have been accused. As such, many opposing teams, not just traditional rivals, often have a negative perception of them. There is a popular saying in Boston: “I support two teams: the Red Sox, and whoever beats the Yankees”.
Babe Ruth, widely regarded as the greatest ever baseball player, let alone Yankee, is idolised at the club. The "Bambino" won 7 World Series during the Yankees greatest period of dominance between 1915 and 1932.
“Managing the high standards of performance, the expectations, and the media attention that follows the Yankees is stressed from day one,” adds Passarella. “The end goal for our players that develop in our system is to be mentally and emotionally prepared to a level that can flourish in the professional baseball setting and most importantly, in New York City. Players are focused and resilient in the approach - so much so that visiting other stadiums, hostile fans, and opponents doesn't distract them off course."
It’s important for the players to disconnect slightly from the narrative at times, otherwise they can become consumed by it. In modern professional sport, star athletes are often accused of being mercenaries, merely chasing their next pay cheque. Many athletes will play for a number of teams throughout his or her career whereas fan loyalty often resembles religious fanaticism. “For the fans, the team’s narrative is at the forefront of their minds, often because they desire so badly something to latch on to and that resembles their own narrative,” says Gera. Passarella says, “Elite players go into every game wanting to win, but they have to maintain passion over a long season.” Players often can’t share the same level of intensity as the fans because it simply isn’t sustainable.
Having said that, the best teams in the world are the ones that have created an umbrella of identity that encompasses everything that they do. The way they play, the uniforms they wear, who they’ve identified as their rivals, the targets they set, the fan base they have mustered; everything needs to represent and embody an ethos that is synonymous with the team. “It’s vital to get everyone on the same page,” says Passarella. “Every individual in the Yankees – from the owners and general manager, through to the coaches, the players, and even the fans, comes from different experiences and backgrounds. What makes the Yankees successful is that we all identify with an ethos and that really helps in high pressure situations when the margins are small.”
But an ethos is an abstract concept. Identity is not a real thing. It is merely a metaphor, a fairytale that we can neither touch nor hold. “What you can touch and hold however, is the story,” Gera concludes. “The identity of a sports team is merely the raw material of the story. It’s the components of the story that we’ve crafted for ourselves. Stories are what bind people together.”
That is why we love sport. It is the mythology that keeps us coming back. The stories our parents told us will be shared with our children. Our heroes today will pass into folklore. The narrative is ever-changing, but the emotions it provokes are omnipresent. The New York Yankees and Real Madrid will mean different things to different people. One thing that is undeniable however: their stories are about champions.
By Daniel Gallan