March Madness: The sports psychology behind a winning team

NCAA Villanova Wisconsin Basketball
Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) leans over as Wisconsin players celebrate their 65-62 victory in a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y.

With the NCAA Women’s & Men’s Basketball Tournaments continuing, now is a great opportunity to try to understand the psychology of excellence. 

It is one thing to attain, and it’s another thing to sustain success.  In other words, from a sport psychology point of view, there is one set of traits necessary to be No. 1, and there’s another set of traits necessary to stay there. 

In my opinion, coaches like Geno Auriemma, Mike Krzyzewski, Dawn Staley, Jay Wright, and Bill Belichick often times do not get the credit they deserve for coaching teams that continually are in the mix for championships.  Often times, a fan may say, “these coaches have the best players, that’s the reason their teams are always so great.”  

From a mental skills point of view, the talent of the players certainly is important, but it’s getting those players to consistently buy into the “team-first” mentality that is often the challenge. That’s why the coaches mentioned above deserve such special recognition.  These coaches, on a daily basis, have the skill required to get their players to focus on the daily goals of learning and improving as a team. Their players also trust that the short-term attention to detail will result in long-term success. 

To sustain excellence, there are several characteristics that great teams must possess.  First, the team must stay grounded to its formula for success.  After winning a championship, it is human nature to want to cut a corner in terms of preparation, or to lose the mental edge required to sustain the highest level of work habits.  In addition, particularly when friends, family, and media may be telling you how wonderful you are, often times it’s easy to lose the motivation to go through all the sacrifices necessary for a team to perform to the best of its ability.  This is where great leadership is important to keep a team on the right path to success.  It’s one thing for the coaches to talk about the daily need for improvement, but it’s a more powerful message when the team leaders set the tone through their actions and behaviors.  

After a championship, it’s also very difficult for a coach or team to maintain objectivity about where the strengths of the group are, and where improvement is needed.  At the highest level of competetion, if a team loses just 3-5 percent of its mental edge, that’s the difference between a good team and a great team. This is why the role of the assistant coaches and support staff are very significant.  Great head coaches have a mentality that allows them to openly listen to honest, constructive feedback from their staff. 

Finally, when a team wins a championship, the number of distractions that the players have to deal with multiplies.  It is very challenging to keep the players’ eyes on the ultimate goal (to win another championship) and their egos aligned towards the team goals.   This is a reason why so many championship teams get sidetracked on their quest or a repeat.  In psychology, behavior is defined as the person times the environment.  In an environment full of distractions, it is a credit to the players, coaches, and teams, who are able to stay focused on the task at hand.

In sum, the psychology of excellence is more complicated than just having the best players, or having good luck.  Sustaining success involves a number of variables.  It requires great coaching, great leadership, special talent, special player personalities, and special teamwork.

Dr. Joel Fish is a sport psychologist and director of The Center For Sport Psychology in Philadelphia.


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