How is the England side feeling after this week's Euro 2020 loss to Italy? Odds are it hasn't sunk in yet. And you'll soon be hearing a lot more of these words, writes Greg Bruce.
What does it feel like to have just won a major international sporting event? If we are to believe New Zealand's cricketers, after their incredible win over India to win the World Test Championship, not much.
Not long after hitting the winning runs, Ross Taylor said: "It's still sinking in." Bowler Tim Southee said: "It is yet to sink in and may take a couple of weeks." Former captain Brendon McCullum, who didn't even play, said: "I'm not sure it's sunk in yet."
Had you been paying attention to the Black Caps over recent seasons, the use of this phrase or a close approximation would not have come as a surprise: A selection of recent examples: Daryl Mitchell said it after scoring a century on test debut. Martin Guptill said it after hitting 237 in a one-day international. Corey Anderson and Trent Boult both said it, a year apart, after receiving enormous sums in Indian Premier League auctions. Boult said it again after the Black Caps lost the 2019 World Cup final. Kyle Jamieson said it after the first day of his first test. Devon Conway said it after hitting a triple century for Wellington. Ross Taylor has said at least once in four of the past five years.
Of course, it goes far beyond cricket. Other big names to have said it: Blair Tuke, Dan Carter, Todd Blackadder, Brendon Hartley, Hayden Paddon, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. And many examples exist even beyond sport, including Lotto winners, a Survivor winner, a pensioner who received an ACC payout, multi-award winning band Broods and a David Bain supporter.
But, in one week's time, we will arrive at the world's greatest gathering of people for whom things will soon have failed to sink in: Just a few New Zealanders who have used the phrase after winning gold at recent Olympics: sculler Georgina Evers-Swindell, sailors Polly Powrie and Jo Aleh, cyclist Sarah Ulmer and skier Adam Hall.
What are people really saying when they use these words? And why are they so frequently employed in the aftermath of a major sporting victory? Intuitively, it makes no sense. The first bit of any experience is always the best. Michael Pollan: "The first bite is the banquet." Economists even have a name for it: the law of diminishing marginal utility. Why would a sporting win feel any different?
For years, my working hypothesis, based, presumably, on my own dominant emotional modalities, is that it's not a failure to sink in so much as it's a failure of anticipation. That is, winning a gold medal - or anything else - just doesn't feel as good as we think it will.
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But a cursory search reveals considerable evidence to the contrary - that whatever "sink in" means, it does eventually happen. Five years after saying of her gold medal that it hadn't yet sunk in, Georgina Evers-Swindell told Stuff: "It took three to four days for the whole thing to sink in." In an interview with RNZ many years after winning his first Olympic gold medal in Rome, 1960, Peter Snell said: "It actually took a while to sink in." At the end of his incredible first season for the Black Caps, Kyle Jamieson said: "It's sunk in now." Future All Black Atu Moli, after returning from winning the world under 20 rugby championship in 2015, used the same words. Some people appear to be even more emotionally advanced. Sarah Walker, who won a silver medal in BMX at the 2012 Olympics, said in an interview: "You get asked, 'When do you think it will sink in?' After you receive the medal or after you receive the result? But, to be honest, it sank in that morning, what was about to happen."
Emeritus Professor Gary Hermansson, who has been the New Zealand Olympic team psychologist at the past five games, and was also the New Zealand Cricket team's psychologist for three years, says the phrase is used so often by winners because it captures a universal truth about the experience.
Here's what brain science tells us is going on when you're competing in a major international sporting event. At the top of your head, the executive brain, the cortex, is scanning for danger and opportunity. Beneath it, the emotional brain, the amygdala, is reminding you of your lifetime-worth of failure, humiliation, rejection and abandonment. In other words, in the midst of your executive brain's attempt to help you win, your emotional brain is reminding you of the likelihood you are about to lose.
If you overcome your emotional brain and win, your response begins in the cortex, then moves downward to the emotional brain, and then to the body. It's visceral, Hermansson says. It becomes part of you - at least some of it does - but it takes time.
"This may sound a bit off the wall, but it's a bit like having a meal," he says. "You have to chew it and digest it and then it sinks downwards.
"You don't just swallow it whole … to experience it, you have to chew it, break it down, digest it, get rid of the stuff that's peripheral, but what is left is the essence of what it is that's happened to you."
Whatever that is, Hermansson says, it becomes part of who you are, and that stays with you for the rest of your life. Hermansson doesn't say what the stuff that's peripheral is, nor where it goes. Not everything needs to be explained.