The Winner's Curse: Why Success Is More Dangerous Than Failure.


In 2018, Germany—the reigning World Cup champions—were tipped to win and retain the biggest prize in the game of football.

The German football team had a reliable track record of World Cup success since the 1930s: four-time winners, second and third place finishes four times each, and one fourth-place finish.

At the very least, football experts, the media and fans, expected the German football team to advance through the group stages—32 football teams are seeded into eight groups of four.

For context, the group stages are the first round of games where four teams within each group play against one another once, and the two teams with the highest points total advance onto the knockout rounds. The two teams with the lowest points are ‘knocked’ out of the World Cup tournament.

During the knockout rounds, the remaining 16 teams are seeded against only one opponent each in a win-or-go-home match up. Subsequently, the eight winners compete in a quarterfinal, the four winners compete in a semifinal, and the two winners compete in the World Cup final to determine the champion.

In a nutshell, the odds of winning the World Cup are higher when a highly ranked football team like Germany, is seeded into a group with three opponents of significantly lower ranking. And as luck would have it Germany faced three middle-to-low ranked opponents in their group: Sweden, Mexico and South Korea.

The stage was set for Germany to dominate their opponents and breeze through the group stages. There was such an air of confidence around the team, that even before the start of the tournament, pundits and fans already began to predict Germany’s potential opponents in the knockout rounds.

Since winners always find a way to win, Germany defeated their opponents and won the World Cup Championship again.

Or did they?

Germany celebrating the 2014 Fifa World Cup. Credit: Agência Brasil [CC BY 3.0 BR]

The Downside of Success

In 1993, two researchers conducted a study into the effect of success on athletes who had reached the peak of their sport. [1]

During the study, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews of World Champion athletes across different nationalities, sports and genders, on their experiences before, during and after their first world championship title.

The results revealed that prior to winning their first world title, the majority of athletes experienced high levels of focus and confidence in their ability to perform well. Eighty-two percent of athletes reported being in flow or “autopilot” during their performance.

After winning the championship however, the athletes noted heightened expectations and pressure to win again. They became much more outcome orientated, than focused on the process of the performance itself.

In addition, increased demands from media, fans, sponsors and public appearances, cut into rest time and training quality.

As a result, the majority of athletes experienced a steep decline in performance immediately after their World Championship win. Some bounced back to win again at least a year later, but others never performed at the highest level again.

We can call this phenomenon ‘The Winner’s Curse:’ a significant decline in performance shortly after success due to increased internal and external expectations.

The Winner’s Curse

“It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5am when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas.”

— Marvin Hagler

Germany’s World Cup campaign kicked off with a shocking defeat to Mexico. Their first loss in an opening match since 1982.

In their second game against Sweden, the Germans salvaged an injury-time win. But in the third-and-final game against South Korea, Germany was dealt a 2-0 loss by South Korea in arguably the biggest upset in World Cup history.

Germany finishes bottom of their group.

Not only were the reigning World Cup Champions knocked out of the World Cup in spectacular fashion, but they also exited the group stages of the tournament for the first time since 1938.

Shortly afterwards, the German football team’s performance began to significantly decline. Additional losses were accumulated during a disastrous Nations League campaign, where the Germans nearly faced relegation.

For the first time in decades, the German football team was in full-blown crisis mode: In-fighting between players, ageing players axed and sweeping changes of leadership roles.

In retrospect, the German football team was a victim of The Winner’s Curse, and they weren’t alone.

During the past five World Cup tournaments, defending champions have been eliminated in the group stages on four occasions: France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014, Germany 2018.

In fact, the only two teams to have won back-to-back World Cup championships are Italy in the 1930s and Brazil in the 1960s. Since then, every single winner has failed to retain their title. This would suggest that the Winner’s Curse is more than a coincidence.

When asked about the poor performance of the German team, the head coach, Joachim Löw said: “There was perhaps a certain arrogance before the Mexico game.” [2]

Likewise in 2010, Italy’s head coach, Marcelo Lippi, noted that reigning champions Italy were knocked out of the World Cup because “when a team comes to a match as important as tonight’s [against Slovakia, lost 2-3] with terror in their legs, their heads and their hearts, and don’t manage to express themselves, it means that the coach hasn’t prepared them in the right way (….) for psychological reasons I think, nothing worked.” [3]

The Winner’s Curse isn’t just limited to the world of sports. In everyday life, we’re most likely to fall back to old bad habits shortly after achieving our goals.

This is why overweight people tend to regain weight shortly after significant weight loss, romance declines in relationships shortly after marriage, lottery winners blow millions and go broke, and businesses fail shortly after a sudden spike in customer demand.

Whilst failure is less than ideal, success is a bigger threat to our success over the long run.

Success Breeds Complacency. Complacency Breeds Failure.

“Winning after winning is the hardest thing…Complacency is just around the corner.”

— Sir Alex Ferguson

When the researchers of the study investigated the differences between athletes who suffered from The Winner’s Curse and those who continued to succeed at the highest level, they noted one key difference: focus.

The athletes who experienced long term success were those who maintained at least the same level of focus as they did prior to their first World Championship win. Their daily routine and training regime remained intact, despite the external demands, and they kept their focus on the process instead of the outcome.

Likewise, if we hope to experience the blessings of success and avoid suffering The Winner’s Curse, we need to put systems in place to control internal and external expectations created by success.

Without effective systems in place success breeds complacency, which breeds failure, because we begin to make excuses to do the things we denied ourselves on the road to success.

Celebrate your achievements, but remember that complacency is around the corner.

Read Next


1. Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick (1993). Winning after Winning: The Psychology of Ongoing Excellence.

2. Archie Rhind-Tutt (2018). World Cup 2018: Why were Germany knocked out and where do they go from here?

3. Mohanarangan (2018). Germany and the curse of winning: Why have defending champions faltered so badly at the World Cup.

4. Witts (2019). Training Secrets of the World’s Greatest Footballers: How Science is Transforming the Modern Game.