March Madness: Anatomy of an Upset

Over 11 million people signed up on ESPN and created a bracket for March Madness, thanks in part to Warren Buffet’s billion dollar offer for anyone who could create a perfect bracket. However, after just the first game, 83.7% of Americans were knocked out of the running thanks to Dayton’s upset over Ohio State. By the end of the first day, the percentage of people still in the running for the billion dollars had dropped to less than 4%! So what makes it so hard to predict who will win a game? – The mental aspects of the game and how they vary for the two teams competing.

Often time the most shocking upsets are those where a seemingly weaker team beats a team considered to be one of the strongest in the conference/tournament. So what happens? Let’s use Dayton v. Ohio State as an example.

1. Where is your focus?

In a game like Dayton v. Ohio State, it is likely that Ohio State was outcome focused – “When we win this game, we move on to the next round” or “next game, we play---.” Meanwhile, Dayton was likely less focused on the outcome and instead on the process needed to be successful in the game. Their attention was focused in the moment, on the skills needed to make each play count, which is essential for optimal performance.

2. Pump up your energy!

Having played and beaten more challenging teams throughout their regular season, Ohio State likely went into the game lacking the level of energy necessary to make the big plays and/or play up to their potential. Playing in a game where you believe the other team has no shot at winning, are you playing with the same emotionality that you have when you play the number 1 ranked team? So here you have an emotionally dulled down Ohio State who may not be taking their opponent seriously versus an emotionally charged, nothing to lose Dayton team. Each game- each play needs to be played with the same level of intensity and aggression, no matter who the opponent is.

3. Oh no! What if we lose??

At the moment the thought crossed Ohio State’s mind, their attention and focus switched to a fear based system; worrying about past mistakes and fearing future ones. As mentioned earlier, an athlete’s attention needs to be in the present, fear displaces an athlete’s attention from where it needs to be. Additionally, fear of embarrassment causes athletes to tense up, hold their breath, and play more irrationally- ultimately preventing those athletes from being successful in their performance (i.e. free throw, three pointers, rebounds). Since Dayton had nothing to lose, they were likely calmer and more relaxed, which allowed them to be more successful on the court, growing more and more confident as they built momentum.

Above are a few factors that can completely alter the outcome of any game in any sport. Athletes need to be aware of how these factors are not only impacting them, but their teammates as well. Knowing how an upset happens allows an athlete to prevent it by ensuring that they are entering the game with the correct set of mental tools. on the court, growing more and more confident as they built momentum. Above are a few factors that can completely alter the outcome of any game in any sport. Athletes need to be aware of how these factors are not only impacting them, but their teammates as well. Knowing how an upset happens allows an athlete to prevent it by ensuring that they are entering the game with the correct set of mental tools.

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