Home Sport Sporting euphoria: a desperate low needed for an unthinkable high

Sporting euphoria: a desperate low needed for an unthinkable high

'When one has been oppressed by failure, teased by consistency, but finally bursts into the nebula of glory, such a feeling is so extraordinary precisely because it so novel.' Michael Jones discusses the psychology of sporting euphoria.

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Four years ago Wales slumped to a humiliating 6-1 defeat away at Serbia. It was a humbling night. Where there should have been outrage and anger from the fans, there was only dejection. A whole nation had been embarrassed. Chris Coleman, the Welsh manager, sat alone in the airport, contemplating resignation. Yet, perversely, this was to be a defining moment in Welsh footballing history – a moment that would brew the flavour of the coming euphoria.

Cookie, as his affectionately known by the Welsh faithful, would give it one last shot. He would no longer cut a meek figure, overwhelmed by the tragic loss of one of Wales’ greatest sons: Gary Speed. A plan was put in place, geared for success.

‘one united cry of pride and euphoria’

Fast forward two years. Goosebumps line arms and legs; tears well; voices are lost; a nation has united. A sea of red floods out of Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux – one, united cry of pride and euphoria. Coleman’s side had vanquished 58 years of failure and defeat in 90 minutes of exhilarating football as his side beat Slovakia 2-1 in their opening match of Euro 2016. It is hard to articulate the feelings experienced.

I was lucky enough to be part of the Welsh entity that consumed Bordeaux, a single figure in a crowd that stole headlines for its passion. It was simply over-powering; the emotion, the euphoria. But, this outlet of ecstatic energy would not have occurred had we as a nation not endured decades of miserable, soul-destroying defeat.

I’d count myself as fortunate, the loss to Russia in the Euro 2004 play-offs the only moment where I could taste the intoxicating delicacy of history, but was left ruing failure. True, I had seen shambolic performances, but I had not been alive to see the original Golden Generation – Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall and so forth – fail, the infamous Joe Jordan scandal and countless other near-misses.

‘euphoria is reliant on desolation’

The euphoria, the all-consuming wave of absolute joy during Wales’ remarkable success last summer would not have been the same had this nation gone through so much hurt. And thus provides the argument: euphoria is reliant on desolation. For how can one realise a supreme high if they have never realised a hopeless despair?

Sometimes, however, such polar emotions are not unbridgeable contrasts. There can be steady success, respectable victory – a plateau of winning. Take, for example, the case of Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard had pocketed a mouth-watering $60 million of prize money during his golfing career. This, quite clearly, is not the aforementioned unutterable low. But, when he clinched the Masters just a few months ago, his euphoria was distinct.

It was a story of nearly – and yes, despair. Garcia, a man seldom disliked, had tried, tried, and tried again to win a Major. It was one of golf’s greatest anonymities: the man who burst onto the scene so young had failed to reach a pinnacle. When he finally won it, in riveting circumstances, the joy was unrivalled.

“But once in a while we kind of look at each other and say, ‘you know, we won the Masters.’ It just sounds amazing. It’s good to be able to do that and have that feeling over and over.”

‘enabled a gateway for the drugs of unrelenting euphoria’

For the Masters is not the same as any other prize, it is the apex of a golfing career. That feeling that Garcia describes, the ability to feel it over and over, that is euphoria. Would Garcia experience such continual, ever-lasting pride had his career instead been a narrative of constant highs? Arguably, it is his life of mild and consistent winning that enabled and provided a gateway for the drug of unrelenting euphoria.

“That was probably the last little bit of something that was left inside me”, Maron Bartoli reflected after crashing out of the Cincinnati Open, 40 days after her historic victory at Wimbledon.

If Garcia’s story was of respectable success, and Wales’ one a narrative of defeat, then Bartoli’s was one of never being quite there. Bartoli had always existed on the fringes of the elite in women’s tennis, pushing, but unable to puncture the bubble fabricated by the likes of the Williams’ sisters and Maria Sharapova.

‘ardurous journey of unrelenting endeavour’

Yet, 2013 was to be her year: a defining moment of glory. It was this tremendous effort, of will, of sheer determination that meant she had ‘nothing left’ that propelled her to Wimbledon victory. Again, this sporting euphoria would not be possible without the pain and agony of endurance and, more importantly, the arduous journey of unrelenting endeavour that brought the cusp of success, but not the real thing.

‘when one has been oppressed by failure, teased by consistency…’

There are many more stories of sporting triumph made euphoric through the pain of loss. This is not to say, however, that sporting euphoria is only possible through the experience of defeat and failure; for surely, the enviously consistent success of Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Sir Chris Hoy – this list goes on – also brings with it a delightful taste of ecstasy. Yet, when one has been oppressed by failure, teased by consistency, but finally bursts into the nebula of glory, such a feeling is so extraordinary precisely because it so novel.

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