It’s all in the body language. Christian Jarrett surveys a study that explored whether people pick up on losing athletes’ submissive body language without knowing the score (the above clip is a sample from the study):
The researchers showed adult and child participants dozens of silent, three-second clips of winning and losing athletes in table tennis, basketball and handball, and tested whether the observers could tell, based purely on “thin slices” of non-verbal body language, whether each athlete was winning or losing, and by how much (from “far behind” to “high lead”). The clips were taken from the breaks between play. Scores were concealed. And any clips containing explicit emotion, such as shame or pride, were omitted. … The researchers found high levels of accuracy, among young children (aged 4 to 8), older children (age 9 to 12), and adults. That is, the participants’ estimates of whether an athlete was losing or winning, and by how much, tended to correlate with the actual situation, as measured by the (hidden) score at that stage in the contest.
Jarrett considers the implications:
Assuming the main finding is accurate – that athlete’s express clear submissive signals when they’re losing – this will surely be of interest to sports psychologists and athletes looking for a competitive edge. Exhibiting submissive non-verbal behaviours could be “highly dysfunctional”, the researchers said, encouraging an opponent to increase pressure. “What makes sense for a primate losing a fight may lead to exacerbating the downward spiral for athletes on the losing side.” This suggests learning to mask submissive body language could be highly advantageous, something Roger Federer and other cool champions appear to have mastered already.