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March Madness & Mindset(s)
(March Madness is back--and so is this newsletter!)
The NCAA tournament is a literal proving ground. 16 over a 1 seed? Sure. 15 over a 2 seed? Yep. Not a single 1, 2 or 3 seed in the Final Four? You bet. A 40 point triple double for the first time in NCAA history? Certainly. (Shout out Caitlin Clark—you’re awesome).
As a fan, trying to wrap your head around this literal madness is part of the fun. But from a sport psych perspective, the tournament also serves as an example of how success-oriented mindsets are developed. How teams evaluate success (or failure) can serve as a powerful source of motivation. This evaluation breaks down to three factors: locus of causality, locus of control, and stability. In other words:
Was the outcome caused by internal or external factors?
Did the team have personal control over the outcome?
Are the factors that contributed to the outcome subject to change, or can they be repeated?
Through the lens of March Madness there are a host of factors that teams, fans, and the media attribute to outcomes—most of them being external, typically out of the player’s control, and not all that stable. Some examples that come to mind:
officiating (external, no personal control, unstable)
luck (external, no personal control, unstable)
injury (can be internal or external depending on injury, some personal control, but mostly unstable and unpredictable)
over/under seeding (external, a pretty subjective process that teams don’t have much control over, and stability isn’t really relevant because it’s a one time thing)
But there are also plenty of factors that are internal, within the team’s control, and stable over time.
For example, let’s look at the Elite 8 matchup Creighton versus San Diego State. San Diego State ended up with the ball with under 7 seconds left. San Diego guard Darion Trammell drives to the basket and is fouled on a shot from the top of the key with around 2 seconds left on the clock. He misses the first free throw attempt, and knocks down the second to give them a one point victory and a trip to their first ever Final Four appearance.
In his post game interview, Trammell is asked:“Knowing what’s at stake, can you walk us through how you were feeling when you get [to the line] and how you felt after the first one missed?”
Trammell: “Just having the utmost confidence in myself. I feel like I’ve shot probably 1000 free throws in the last week. At the end of the day I feel like I put in the work to step and have the confidence I was going to make them.”
It’s clear that he sees the win as the result of internal factors that have a cascading effect. He attributes his success his confidence, which he then attributes to the practice but the practice and effort that he’s put in over the previous week. Both of which he has control over and can be repeated over time.
Later, he’s asked: “Were you surprised they called that foul at that part of the game? You’ve been in lots of close games this year and they swallow their whistles, the officials.”
His reply: “I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I think I got fouled, but I mean it was up for the refs to decide. Even if they didn’t call it we were going to lace up and get them in overtime…The moment wasn’t that big for me, everything I’ve been through. I felt like the opportunity was just set there for me. God’s timing, and I just had to believe in that. Having that confidence that, yeah I missed the first one, but I definitely wasn’t going to miss the second one.”
Here we see that Trammell puts aside the external factors. In these situations it’s easy to say “We got lucky” or “The call went our way”—both of which would represent a mindset focused on external, unstable, and uncontrollable factors. Instead, he focuses on the internal things that he has control over, which is lacing back up and putting in that same effort and tenacity they showed throughout the game. And even though he he attributes the opportunity to it being “God’s timing” (an external, uncontrollable, and unstable factor), he attributes his ability to succeed to confidence and trust in himself, which again are internal factors that can become stable over time.
Developing a “Winning” Mindset
A winning mindset is not one that is solely focused on being a “winner.” In many areas of sport, performance, and life in general, winning is often influenced by external factors, and is therefore not something we have 100% control over. Rather, a winning mindset is one that accounts for both success and failure, and attributes it to internal, controllable, and/or sustainable elements of performance. That’s not to say that external factors don’t matter—the call at the end of the game certainly had an impact. But you don’t have to be a winner to have a winning mindset. The truth is, winning is hard. Even with all the preparation, effort, hard work, skill, ability, and coaching, there is still a lot that is out of your control. Once the outcome has been decided though, what do you have left? It’s a new slate for both sides, and if nothing’s guaranteed, the best way to prepare for the road to success is to focus on factors that you have control over, and/or factors that you can repeat again and again.
No threads, no hacks—just science and it’s applications. 🧠 📈