The psychology of favorites vs. underdogs

As they prepare for the Super Bowl, one thing that the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens have in common is that both teams overcame the odds in their respective championship games. Both were the visiting teams and had to perform in an environment where over 60,000 rabid fans were rooting against them. The 49ers fell way behind in the first half, while the Ravens entered the game expected to lose by more than a touchdown.

Yet when the pressure reached an intense pitch in the 4th quarter, both the 49ers and Ravens made the plays that were necessary to win.

There are different psychological aspects to being the favorite or the underdog. The feelings and thoughts that an athlete has when he or she is expected to win are different than when the expectations are that they will lose. The same is true at the team level.

I saw an interesting study recently that asked professional athletes whether they preferred to be a favorite or underdog in an important game. The results of the study were that 75 percent of professional athletes preferred to be the underdog. The overwhelming reason for this answer was that they had ‘nothing to lose.’  

In my experience, I have also found this overwhelming preference to be the underdog true for athletes at the high school, college, and professional levels.

The challenge of great athletes and teams is to learn how to feel comfortable whether they are the favorite or the underdog. Some great athletes and teams are able to develop a ‘bring it on’ attitude and develop a swagger and confidence that works to their advantage when they are the favorites. Other favorites are able to develop a mentally tough attitude of ‘I’ve done it before, I can do it again’ in pressure situations.

Some great athletes and teams also learn how to use the underdog role to fuel their motivation and determination to prove others wrong. Other athletes and teams who are underdogs can find it easier to relax and just play, resulting in their natural talent coming out more consistently. Whether the favorite or the underdog, great athletes and teams in key moments of a game are better able to feel ‘we’ve got them where we want them,’ rather than ‘what’s going to go wrong this time?’ A positive mental attitude, whether the favorite or the underdog, helps athletes and teams stay aggressive in pressure situations rather than become tentative.

How will this all play out in the Super Bowl?  Well, the 49ers are 3 point favorites over the Ravens as of today. One of the factors as to which team wins the game will be how well they are able to mentally handle the pressures and opportunities that come along with being either the favorite or the underdog.

-By Joel H. Fish, Ph.D.

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