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The anatomy of riling someone up

If you have watched Diego Costa play, you will know that one of his prime strengths is in riling up the opposing defenders that he's up against, thus increasing their proneness to making mistakes. As a striker, Diego Costa then has an edge for the rest of the game over the riled up defenders as he can exploit the mistakes they can potentially make. We saw this in Gabriel's sending off when he played against Arsenal back in September this year (he earned a 3-match ban himself for his antics which is another matter altogether). But, his success as a goal scorer is proof that riling someone up can work in your favour.

Diego Costa is just one example. There are thousands of a similar nature. In sports, especially the ones on the slightly physical side like football and basketball, trying to rile someone up is a common tactic. It can work positively or negatively with almost an equal probability and that's the whole point of it. A professional, your opponent, who has trained so hard to play with discipline, stick to the overall team strategy (or individual strategy depending on the game), will be quite meticulous in its execution. When two professionals go head to head, it is only natural to expect that the one with the better strategy, the better ability and the better discipline to stick to and execute the strategy will come out triumphant.

Unless one of them succeeds in riling the other one up.

When you hurl abuses, condemn the way someone plays, annoy or irritate them by doing things they don't expect you to (it sometimes works even when they expect you to, like Diego Costa has shown), you rile them up, anger them and test their temper. Until that temper is under control, the opponent is going to stick to the strategy, be disciplined and will have a solid game (to the best of his ability). The moment you manage to make him lose his temper and successfully rile him up, you break his discipline. He, then, has a fair probability of sticking to discipline or going rogue and doing something stupid (like lashing out at someone and getting himself sent off).

In a professional setting, this fifty-fifty probability is something the opposition can work with. They still remain disciplined, so if the riled up player has a positive effect and plays exceptionally well by channeling that anger into his game, the opposition is still prepared because they are still disciplined enough to stick to their strategy which involves having a plan for every player of the opposition playing at their best. But, if the opposing player doesn't have a good game and makes mistakes when riled up, you are still disciplined to execute your strategy and exploit the mistakes committed. So, it is always a probabilistically good move to rile up the opposition. Naturally, a lot of teams and players employ this tactic.

I used to employ it myself in my footballing days. I'm not as aggressive as a Diego Costa to use my physical presence to rile up the opposition, but I could do it with words. Applauding any mistake made by the opposition, praising every small win for a team mate and stating out loud that the opponent on the ball doesn't have the ability to do anything productive with it, I could rile some people up, and they would make mistakes, turning my words into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is only one side of riling someone up. It can be done at an altogether different level. A manager can do this to one of the players in his team by dropping him from the team (like Mourinho did to Hazard a couple of years ago). He can also do this by using words. This tactic is employed when the player is low in morale or is going through a poor run of form with the hope that there is a fifty-fifty chance he will channel this anger into a good performance to lift him out of the poor form. The status quo, in any case, is not good enough, so no harm in doing this.

However, this tactic is a double edged sword. One, you don't know how the player will react to it, so fifty-fifty probability is something you must be willing to live with when you employ this. Two, even if it does work, putting a stop to what it starts is not very easy and it takes some time for a player to lose the aggression and get back to his normal state of discipline. This is not too much of a worry in sports as the games are pretty distant from one another when you compare it to the duration of a game. So, the aggression will last the duration of a game at the most. Employ this to someone on your team at a traditional work place and there is a continuous stream of work to not be able to easily foresee when the aggression might come to an end. So, it must be used with a lot more caution in such a scenario.

Now that I think I understand the anatomy of riling someone up, I have a feeling I'm pretty riled up at the moment.

I'm usually on the doling out end (from my footballing days), so it is a different experience being on the receiving end. There's two unrelated and parallel tracks in my life that I feel I'm riled up in. But, having gone through a long period of calm (I think I was last visibly aggressive in a football tournament some three years ago), I'm liking having some aggression back. And this is completely natural as well, and thus one cannot rile oneself up. If it is a conscious attempt to do so, one knows about the fifty-fifty probability and the riling up just won't happen.

Liking the feeling of aggression (when riled up) is natural because the person who is riled up is convinced that his every action is going to result in a consequence that favours him, that he desperately needs. Even if it doesn't, the feeling continues to stay the same (that's perhaps why a riled up gambler cannot quit the table even if he's been losing a lot of money; he thinks it will work out his way the next round). It only ends when the intensity of the activity comes to an end for a sustained period (like the end of a football match).

I will likely write about my experience (the anatomy of winding back down?) when my current periods of intensity in the two parallel tracks come to an end for a sustained period. 

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