No one will argue against the self-fulfilling power of visualizing success and pushing yourself and teammates toward that victory you’re picturing. Nearly the whole motivational speaking industry is built upon that concept.
And how often do coaches say, “if you go into the game thinking you’re going to lose, then you’re going to lose!”
However, the expectation of defeat can sometimes create an interesting phenomenon in competitive sports that I’ve seen happen a couple times with my kids’ teams.
The first time was about three years ago. My son Andrew’s 13u Rattlers travel team wound up in the championship against the #1 ranked Evoshield Seminoles.
We were still new to the area and weren’t familiar with this imposing foe. But to hear Andrew’s teammates and their parents talk, the Seminoles were half human, half gods of athleticism, able to handily defeat several local high school teams as well as the 2014 Houston Astros.
As much as the Rattlers appreciated a good tournament trophy, they knew there wasn’t a chance in baseball Hell of winning one that day. And they were okay with that. Because, heck! They were playing the Seminoles! Providing comic relief for the Seminoles might be a more accurate statement. Even winding up on the same field together seemed like a bracketing mistake.
Accepting their second place fate before the game even started, the Rattlers took the field a little more relaxed than usual. They made a deal to just do their best and have fun playing the game they loved and not even think about the score. After all, any runs or plays they managed to accomplish against these behemoths would be victories in themselves.
Unbeknownst to the Rattlers, the Seminoles had just finished an extremely hard-fought game and were nearly out of pitching. I’m sort of glad Andrew’s team didn’t know that upfront because they might’ve psyched themselves out thinking they had a chance to win and piled on the mental pressure.
The game was pretty entertaining! Every time one of the Rattlers got on base or made a great play, they were sort of incredulous, like “Look at us! Can you believe this?” The fact that they’d survived a couple innings was already a win in their minds.Then the runs started coming! The Seminoles seemed as dumbfounded as the Rattlers were.
As I’m sure you’ve predicted, the Rattlers wound up victorious in that “unwinnable” championship.
I don’t think they won just because the Seminoles were exhausted and out of pitching. Of course, it helped. But our boys had played tough games all day too. Something else was going on. The “we’ve-got-nothing-to-lose,-so-we’ll-just-relax,-try-our-best-and-have-fun,” mindset enabled them to turn off the racket between their ears. You know that fear-based pressure-to-win racket that makes a player afraid to miss a catch, so he misses it, afraid to strike out, so he strikes out, afraid to walk a batter, so he suddenly can’t find the strike zone.
It happened again last fall. Andrew’s RISE 2019 showcase team had had a rough weekend, getting beaten at three different college baseball stadiums.
Before the last game against the big time Evoshield Canes, he said, “Mom, you don’t have to stay for this one. We’re gonna get killed anyway.”
(What’s with these Evoshield teams!?!?!)
So I left to go work a golf tournament fundraiser for my younger son Jack’s travel team.
(Shout out to all the parents torn between their kids’ team schedules!)
Checking GameChanger an hour later, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
RISE was WINNING!!!! It had to be a glitch somewhere or scorekeeper error. To prove I wasn’t hallucinating, I texted my RISE mom partner in crime Nancy, who confirmed the score. After a very tough, back and forth game, the 2019 RISE boys, who looked like the Bad News Bears all weekend, were the champs.
How did that happen?
ANDREW: “Well, we came into the game not expecting anything. They were the better team so the pressure was on them to win. And Timmy pitched great, which we weren’t necessarily expecting either. When we’re not under as much pressure, we just don’t make the mistakes that we normally would when we’re trying too hard.”
And it was proven again this past Saturday (sort of) in Jack’s rec basketball game. He’s a good player on a not-so-great team and he’s been really frustrated all season. His attitude has progressively deteriorated with each loss and began to affect his court performance.
Something was different on Saturday, though. He played beautifully, aggressively, scoring half his team’s points and was much nicer to his teammates. There was no eye rolling or exasperation like in past games.
They still lost, but for the first time Jack was in a really good mood after the game. I asked what was up with his attitude change.
“Oh, yeah, well Andrew told me that I can’t do to change my team, so just go out there and have fun, play the best I can and don’t worry about the other players or look at the score. So that’s what I did.”
Well, alrighty then!
This “no expectations” mantra has positive potential, but I know many of you are sitting there thinking, “my kid’s team always thinks they’re gonna lose. And they DO.”
Yeah, I’m right there with you. Jack’s travel baseball team, the Ropes, can get really down and defeat themselves with their own negativity. There’s a team called Venom who they especially dread playing because they know they’ll get beaten. And they’re right every time.
So what’s the difference? I think that in the cases of the Rattlers vs Seminoles and RISE vs Canes, the players had accepted that they were the lesser team, but weren’t down on themselves about it. Instead of worrying about how badly they were going to do, they shifted their collective focus to playing the best baseball they could. To heck with what the scoreboard said. (Or if the scoreboard was even turned on.)
Their mindset was “We’re facing a team that’s better than us, so we’ll do our best and have fun,” instead of “We suck. They’re gonna win because they always beat us. We’re no good compared to them.”
I guess the moral is that the true contest in any game shouldn’t be as much about a winning score as it should be about playing your very best as a team. If you’re getting out there and hustling, focusing and competing against how you did in the last game you played rather than competing against the other team, well, that’s a much healthier attitude than expecting to lose because you see yourself as a team that loses. (I hope that makes sense.)
Every team plays superior opponents now and then. But how you approach the game can sometimes change the outcome.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think the RISE and Rattlers wins were just a fluke? Am I reading too much into it all? What have you observed about your teams’ mindsets from game to game?