If we get too good at explaining away our failures then maybe there is little motivation to succeed

A key skill for football managers is the ability to account for success or failure of their teams in press conferences. Explaining success is not such a big issue because everyone basks in the glow of reflected glory. The essential skill is accounting for failure.

The trouble is if we get too good at explaining away our failures then maybe there is little motivation to succeed. This phenomenon is called self-handicapping.

This was recently investigated by sports scientists at Edinburgh University, who published their findings in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The study says we all have to explain successes and failures, and that this is key to predicting how hard we will try in future. We could refer to predominantly internal factors like our skill or effort, or we could invoke external factors like bad luck or unexpected circumstances.

Those who are most likely to succeed have a tendency to blame themselves or take responsibility for whether they succeed or fail. Those who are less good believe external factors beyond their control determine their fate.

But having external factors does help us not feel too bad about ourselves, especially if we are nervous about failure or if there is no other explanation for it, in spite of hard work, than being pretty useless. This is so terrible a conclusion that we work hard on excuses that give us let-out clauses.

The problem is that preparing an excuse itself renders you more likely to fail. Some people really unconsciously go out for a drink or seven the night before an important event.

If our self-esteem is fragile and hugely dependent on success or at least avoiding failure, then maybe we protect it unconsciously by relying on excuses rather than relying more on hard work.

The best managers of football teams and other organisations assist their colleagues in finding what it is about themselves that leads to failure in order to bring about change.

This uncomfortable experience might be better for the team in the longer run than the more mood-enhancing ability to explain away failure to TV cameras.

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley trust and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry.