Mystery and Magic in Sports

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“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t-you’re right.” –Henry Ford

Coaching intrigued me when I was a young athlete, but I did not take it up until I was an older adult. My coaching role was “intangibles coach.” You know, those things that you aren’t able to plan for, but at times occur, and make the difference between winning and losing. There are physical elements that enhance success like practicing layups, or dribbling, or footwork. But there are also intangibles (not the X’s and O’s) that you don’t practice or prepare for. Those were what most interested me.

There are aspects of competition that go beyond physical ability, skill work, and game planning. Science and psychology have at times tried to account for such phenomena in sports, intangible concepts such as motivation, momentum, being in the “zone,” and the underdog’s edge. When one team is dominating another, a single event can trigger a complete change in the flow of the game, whether it be an acrobatic spike in a volleyball match or a perfect landing on the vault. There are times when a player hits a string of three-pointers. Defenders are powerless to stop her. If there were only a formula by which we could address these intangibles.

I remember well during the University of Tennessee’s improbable undefeated season in 1998, when they played against Arkansas. With a minute or so left and Tennessee behind, the Arkansas quarterback inexplicably put the ball on the turf, and Tennessee recovered. They went on offense and scored to steal the victory. In fact, they went on to win a national championship that year against a more talented Florida State team. Were they a “team of destiny”?

Superstition also factors in for many athletes dictating how and what they eat, their pre-game rituals, their jersey number and whether or not they launder their socks between games. It has been said that a reporter once asked Bill Russell, Hall of Fame basketball center, whether it was the parquet floor of Boston Garden, the legend of the leprechauns or those kelly green jerseys that gave the Celtics their winning edge. Russell replied “it’s none of that; it’s the players inside those uniforms.”

So which, if any of these intangibles is real? There are mental aspects of competition that set us up for success or failure. Athletes who have experienced “being in the zone” describe a laser focus on the present moment and execution of the task, unaffected by surrounding circumstances. Momentum swings, according to Dan Peterson at, are triggered by a fortunate event for one team and an unfortunate response by the other team. Overanalyzing, and the loss of natural flow, can transform a relaxed, confident approach into an unnatural one. Daniel Coyle in his book “The Talent Code” describes “primal-cue psychology.” He gives the example of two music programs which were developed in two very different schools. One program was affluent where any child who wanted to pursue violin was given the opportunity. The other school was in Harlem where a lottery determined who would get to participate because of limited funding. The Harlem program where students were chosen by lottery outperformed the other school. Coyle says the reason is because of the primal cues of scarcity and belonging. So if being “lucky” helped music students engage, maybe the same is true when teams feel “destined” or have the momentum, like the 1998 National Champion Tennessee Vols.

In Forbes, authors Sturt and Nordstrom give seven distinct advantages of the “underdog mindset.”

  • Underdogs are not looking to see if others are gaining on them.
  • Underdogs don’t think they’ve arrived, so they always seek to improve.
  • Underdogs are not distracted by outside expectations–only their own.
  • Underdogs feel no pressure to defend their title, their record, etc.
  • Underdogs realize the need to improve.
  • Underdogs learn through losing.
  • Fans love an underdog!

Whether it be magic or mindset, intangibles in sports are certainly mysterious. If coaches and players totally understood them, they would bottle the formula, and their success could be replicated. And without question, the Tennessee football team would have repeated their championship at least once over the past two decades!


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