Nico Rosberg may not have won the race or the championship, but he nailed the post-race/post-championship interview.
Not seen it? Watch it here:
While I imagine that will be of scant significance or compensation to him, his actions in the interview booth should see him gain more fans across the world. And that, after all, is a key goal for athletes when giving media interviews.
The post-match interview belongs to a family of interviews that aim to elicit emotional reactions and experiences. And while your body language can provide some of that emotional insight to fans, your content and language choices are also important, especially considering it is often your words that get you into trouble in media interviews.
For Nico, this interview was carried out in very trying circumstances: it was held immediately after a race that has seen him lose his shot at the Forumal One World Championship, where his car has broken down, where he has been outraced by his main competitor (Lewis Hamilton) at the conclusion of a season of high scrutiny and pressure. For the winner in this situation, all the pressure and turmoil of the season has been worth it. But for Nico… emotionally, it must have been extremely difficult to bear.
Yet, he was gracious in defeat, he didn’t wilt, but he also didn’t gripe – a balance that can be extremely difficult to achieve in a losing interview.
As a media trainer for professional athletes and a researcher of sports language use, I am interested in ‘how’ athletes do this with their content and language choices. How did he manage to achieve this balance? How did he achieve a stance of graciousness in defeat?
Here are a few strategies Nico used which I feel helped him negotiate this difficult losing interview in a gracious and dignified way. These may be of interest to other athletes or people who work with athletes. Some may also provide useful points for consideration for those needing to manage other interviews that belong to the emotion and experience-grabbing interview family.
1. He congratulated the winner early in the interview
It was what everyone was waiting for. How would he react after a season of tense battles on and off the field, where relationships have become quite fractured? Would he congratulate Lewis Hamilton? Or, would he avoid discussing him altogether? Nico’s choices during this interview set a gracious tone early. He took the interviewer’s first question (aiming to elicit his own feelings) and used it to launch into a series of congratulatory and complimentary messages for Lewis and about Lewis. A point to remember here is that these congratulatory messages are not really for Lewis, but are for fans of Nico, fans of Lewis and fans of the sport more generally. Nico’s choice to sincerely congratulate the winner is more likely to appeal to all three of these audience groups.
2. He didn’t look for or even discuss legitimate excuses
It may have been tempting, but Nico didn’t dwell on his car troubles. Athletes in any sport encounter issues from time to time that have, or may have an impact on the result (think refereeing decisions!). Nico had a legitimate claim in this case to engage in discussion about his mechanical issues as a potential reason for his loss. But he chose not to. Not only did he not discuss these issues but he actively discouraged any potential thoughts that this may have had an impact on the result. Such a decision helps insulate him from accusations that he is attempting to detract from the winner’s success by suggesting it was not a fair fight.
3. He remained subtly competitive
Athletes are naturally competitive, but whether the post-match interview is an opportunity for them to show their competitive spirit is another question. However, maintaining a little bit of subtle competitiveness may help the athlete feel and be perceived of as more authentic. But, I think subtle is the key word here. One way Nico achieved this subtly was by using words and phrases like ‘a little bit’ and ‘a tiny bit’ when discussing how much better Lewis was. These choices acknowledge Lewis was the better driver, but also simultaneously show he believes he is close to him.
4. He tried to be a good sport
This was my favourite line in the whole interview (speaking about whether he still believed he could win after his car ran into trouble):
“I still believed in it for a long time because there was still always the hope that… well the hope… there was always the possibility that Lewis also gets a problem or something.”
For some this might be evidence of a Freudian slip. I’m sure all athletes hope at some stage that their competitors slip up, but publically expressing this is typically not a good move. Nico potentially created this message initially, but he self-corrects from hoping Lewis would slip up to there being a possibility Lewis would slip up. It might have been too late for some viewers, but for others this would have made a positive impact.
5. He identified himself as team-oriented
Formula 1 Racing is a difficult mix of team and individual sport, something the drivers constantly need to negotiate. Yet for the racers, this actually provides a useful opportunity in losing interview situations to move between their individual and team identities, identifying with the one that has the most positives. Despite losing the individual battle, Nico was still part of a very successful team this season and he aligned with this message during this interview. This gave his responses an air of positivity, despite having lost.
6. His passion for racing trumped his passion for winning
Yes, athletes like to win and fans like it when the athletes they support win. But they also love those that love what they do. Nico’s passion for the sport and for the challenges and opportunities for competition that his sport provides was a theme he tried to create in his interview. While he may not have been able to speak as a winner and of the feelings of fulfilment that come with winning, he was able to focus on the satisfaction he derived from battling with Lewis during season in a sport he loves. He also interpreted the intensity and pressure of the season in this way. Such actions create a bigger picture in a losing cause… an approach we could all learn from.