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The Psychology of an Upset

Updated: Mar 19, 2019

Basketball is Psychology XIII


March Madness can turn just about everyone into a basketball fan. People who haven’t watched basketball all year will call out of work to watch obsessively. There is a whole show dedicated to just getting in the tournament. Everything about the tournament is exhilarating: the brackets, the cinderella teams, the villains, the buzzer beaters, the joy, the heartbreak, the dynasties, and most importantly the upsets.

The only thing predictable is the unpredictability. Any team can win in any given game. The best team doesn’t always win, it’s about who can be the best in those 40 minutes.

No one would watch or bother filling out a bracket if the higher ranked team won every time. We love watching no-name players become legends, and we love watching teams no one saw coming take down the favorite.

March Madness would be March Monotony if it weren’t for the upsets, and these upsets are all psychological.


Playing Pressureless

When you’re an underdog you have two options, you can conclude you have no chance and give in to fear, or you can realize you have nothing to lose and seize the chance play pressureless.

The pressure is always on topdogs: the Duke’s and Kentucky’s; underdogs don’t have that pressure, they’re not supposed to win. Therefore, they have nothing to lose, no expectations to meet, just an exciting opportunity to make history. The lower ranked team is not under the same spotlight, they don’t have to rise to the expectations of millions of fans and basketball analysts saying they’re going to win it all.

Because of this lack of pressure, lots of players are humble enough understand it could be their last game, so they want to enjoy it. They savor every moment on the court and just want to go out and give it everything they’ve got.

The top dog might overlook the underdog altogether. The idea that this could be their last game never crossed their mind. Then when they get punched in the mouth by a low ranked team, they’re panicking because they weren’t ready to play a competitive game this soon.

Every game demands the same amount of effort, don’t underestimate anyone.

The higher ranked team feels the pressure, they’re supposed to win, it becomes a burden they have to carry because they think there’s no room for mistakes. They think they have to be perfect, and that’s impossible, so they grit their teeth and tighten their muscles, and end up with even more mistakes.

Underdogs who pull off upsets aren’t worried about playing perfect, they’re more concerned with giving their best effort and making every moment count. Unlike the big-time basketball schools, their games aren’t televised every week, so they know this is their only chance to look good on a big stage, and that’s why underdogs will give it everything they have, while the big name schools don’t get that extra motivation. This adrenaline boost from the brain might give the underdogs the extra boost they need to pull off a big upset.

The downfall of a big upset is the emotional high it gives the team. You’re getting texts from everyone who has your number telling you how great you are and it’s hard to come down from that and be emotionally ready to play the next game. To sustain a tournament run, you have to not get too high or too low. Maintain an evenness in your emotions-- that’s mental toughness.


Making History

In 2018, a #16 seed had never beaten a #1 seed on the men’s side. That changed on March 16th. Not only was Virginia the #1 seed in the region, they were ranked #1 over all. To the experts and analysts, #16 seeded University of Maryland Baltimore County didn’t stand a chance. However, they can’t quantify how much the mindset of each team will influence the game.

So how is any of this information practical? Listen to UMBC’s comments after the upset

about the mindset they had for the game.

Adopt UMBC’s Upset Mindset:

1. Believe in each other

2. Go into every game thinking you will win

3. Make the game important to you

4. View it as an opportunity to make history instead of an impossible task

5. Enjoy the game

If your team is the underdog, you don’t need fans or anyone on sportscenter to believe in you, you just have to believe in each other.

We don’t meet the expectations of basketball analysts, friends, fans, or even family members. We meet the expectations we have for ourselves. If you expect to lose, you will probably lose. If you expect to win, well that’s when the Madness happens...


Written by Julie Fournier

Founder & CEO of Basketball is Psychology


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