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Why Do Upsets Happen?

It is time for March Madness. The NCAA tournament is about to begin and with it comes hype, excitement, hopes and dreams for numerous collegiate basketball players, coaches and their fans. However, every year the unthinkable occurs, a team with a high seed will lose to a team no one would ever think would have a chance to beat them. Why does it happen? Overconfidence? Early tournament jitters? Or maybe the fact that sports is about attitude and beliefs.

Every year in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and in the major leagues upsets happen. In fact, they happen all the time. So why does a team or an individual lose a game, a match, a competition that they are heavily favored to win? I think there are several factors that play a role.

First of all, I think all too often, the heavily favored team takes it for granted that they are going to win. They know their team is stacked with better players, better coaching and a better record. They are sure they will win with one hand tied behind their back. They know that there is no way they will lose to a lesser opponent with less talented players and inexperienced coaches. You know where I am going? This is the overconfidence factor and is the beginning of the collapse that leads to an upset. The first step that usually occurs for an upset to happen is quite simply being overconfident. The team with the better record knows that they are better than the other team and either don’t get prepared properly, as they normally do, or just assume that because they have won more games and have all-star players, they will win. Consequently, this overconfidence leads to a lack of preparation, a lack of focus and a bad start to the competition.

Second, once the favored team falls behind because of their overconfidence, the next thing that happens is panic. This is the key step that will either lead to the better team regrouping, refocusing and concentrating on what their strengths are to overcome the bad start, or to an overall collapse that will result in a tremendous disadvantage that becomes impossible to overcome. The panic stage is where teams either realize that they need to slow down and refocus or where they get uptight, worried and begin pointing fingers at each other. If the team doesn’t regroup in time, the players will collectively get uptight, begin thinking negative thoughts and begin worrying about how they are going to explain how they lost before the game is over.

Third and maybe most importantly perhaps the most important factor that can prevent the upset from occurring is the combination of leadership and a positive attitude. A team that has players and coaches who are not afraid to take the lead when the pressure is on, will have the best chance to overcome their poor start and get the rest of the team back on track before the bottom drops out. Leadership is all about being assertive and not being afraid to be in the spotlight, whether that means by physically taking charge or by verbally speaking up and challenging not only themselves, but their teammates as well. Leaders will know when to be positive and how to pump up their teammates or athletes without coming across as arrogant or cocky. They will know what to do because they will have been in this situation before and will have seen what happens when the negative thinking takes over.

I always like to share a quote with my clients that was told to me by my late, great uncle, Hirsch Jacobs. When he died in 1970, he was the winningest trainer in horse racing history, having saddled 3,596 winners. He told me, ‘Sports is the greatest theatre in the world, everyone knows their part, but no one knows what will happen.’ if you take this approach to all of your competitions, I think it will help you to always be prepared and never take anyone or any team for granted.

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