Major Upsets Are Predictable in Sports

By Dr. Jack Singer

By Jack Singer, Ph.D.
Licensed and Certified Sport Psychologist

For the seventh time in NCAA tournament history — and the third time in the last two years — a 15-seed has defeated a 2-seed. Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) defeated Georgetown 78-68 in FGCU’s first-ever NCAA tournament game. And, they added to their resume by becoming the first 15th seed to get into the Sweet 16, by then beating a much higher seeded San Diego State team. You ask, “How could this happen?” How can a David beat a Goliath? ”

We see it every year in team as well as individual sports.  For example, wild card qualifiers in professional tennis (that is, someone who has won in minor tournaments, but does not have enough points to regularly enter major professional tennis tournaments) upset highly seeded, world-ranked players, who draw these seemingly easy players early in tournament play.

It’s all about the Fight/Flight/Freeze (FFF) Nervous System.

This nervous system has been passed down to all of us genetically since we lived in caves and frequently had to avoid being killed by a myriad of predators.  The system is hard-wired to switch on as soon as the subconscious mind perceives the presence of a potentially life threatening situation.

Once the system switches on, a whole host of physiological processes spring into action, each one playing a role in helping the person evade or fight off the predator. For example, arm and leg muscles quickly tighten, in order to be at full efficiency for fight or flight; the heart rate speeds up, in order to pump nutritious blood to the brain for efficiency; breathing rapidly increases, in order to rapidly bring oxygen throughout the respiratory system and quickly eliminate carbon dioxide; and adrenalin is pumped into the blood stream from the adrenal glands, in order to make the person alert and have short bursts of energy.  The key word here is “short.”  The FFF is programmed to function over a few minutes and then the body needs to rest and recover from all of these physiological changes.  If the system stays on for more than a few minutes, exhaustion is a likely consequence.

Self-Talk and the Mind-Body Connection.

Negative Self-TalkIt is a known axiom that an athlete’s performance at any given time equals her/his natural talent, minus distractions.  Distractions can be external, such as being distracted by the cheering for your opponent.  But the most common distraction all athletes face is their own internal dialogue–their self-talk. There is a broad body of research showing that thoughts translate instantly to every cell (and muscle) in the body.  Where positive thoughts “switch on” the nervous system that relaxes the body, negative thoughts “switch on” the FFF. The more the negative self-talk, the more the distractions, leading to poorer performance than the pure talent would predict.

With this in mind, think about what happens when an athlete says to himself: “I hope we don’t blow this,” or “If we lose to this team, we’ll be so embarrassed and will disappoint our conference and our fans.”  The underdog rarely has such thoughts.  He (or they) are not expected to win, so they can go out, have fun and do their best.  The pressure is all on the favorite not to choke or blow it against the underdog.  Negative thoughts are much more likely, then, to occur among the favored players.

Worry/Negative Self-talk Triggers the FFF System by Default.  Here’s the problem in a nutshell:  We humans have evolved to the point that the subconscious mind does not wait to determine if there is life threatening danger; instead, whenever a person worries or fills his/her head with negative self-talk, this triggers the FFF system. It’s as if the subconscious mind is not going to take any chances and at the first sign of worrying, it protectively triggers the FFF. Consequently, an athlete just thinking about how embarrassing it would be for the team, and how humiliating it would be for himself to lose to this huge underdog is enough to trigger the FFF System.

And…the natural consequence of switching the system on (e.g., arm and leg muscle tightening, rapid breathing, increased heart rate) leads to rapid fatigue after a few minutes.  So, imagine how this is compounded as the game moves on, the favored team or athlete is struggling, the negative thoughts magnify, the FFF stays switched on, and fatigue mounts.

This progression undermines self-confidence. and a lack of self-confidence leads to more negative self-talk, so the circle of unfortunate outcomes continues.

Preventing FFF Triggers. Teams and individual athletes all need to learn relaxation techniques to engage in prior to and especially during games. Staying relaxed, despite the circumstances, plus, keeping thoughts and expectations positive, prevents the onset of the FFF.

If negative thoughts creep in, then the athlete needs to slap his thigh, and tell himself to “Stop these thoughts immediately!” Then, he needs to replace those thoughts with positive thoughts, such as:

“I trust my skills, I will continue to play aggressively, regardless of the score. I (we) won several games before, after falling behind, so just relax, stay focused on success, and trust my skills.”

For a basketball player, here is the sequence of events that typically takes place:

  • Negative Self-Talk (e.g., fear related to losing) → Negative Emotions → Muscle Tightness → Uncomfortable Shooting Motion +Inconsistent Focus = Poorer, Inconsistent Performance 
  • Positive Self-Talk (e.g., expecting to succeed) → Positive Emotions → Relaxed Muscles → Easy, Flowing Shooting Motion + Consistent Focus  = Better, Consistent Performance

Upsets are inevitable in sports, but their frequency is certainly under the control of the favored athletes.  They must become aware of their self-talk, eliminate the negative thoughts and beliefs, change them to positive thoughts, and maintain positive expectations, quickly bouncing back from inevitable setbacks during the game.

Free 20 Minute Telephone Consultation with Psychologist Dr. Jack Singer

About the Author:

Dr. Jack Singer is a professional speaker, trainer and psychologist. He has been speaking for and training Fortune 1000 companies, associations, CEO’s and elite athletes for 34 years. Among the association conventions which Dr. Jack has keynoted are those which serve financial planners.

Dr. Jack is a frequent guest on CNN, MSNBC, FOX SPORTS and countless radio talk shows across the U.S. and Canada. He is the author of “The Teacher’s Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide,” and several series of hypnotic audio programs, some specifically for athletes and some for anyone wanting to raise their self-confidence and esteem.

In his speaking presentations, Dr Jack teaches sales and financial services professionals the exact same skills he teaches to elite and world champion athletes to Develop & Maintain the Mindset of a Champion!

To learn more about Dr. Singer’s speaking and consulting services, please visit and or call him in the U.S. at (800) 497-9880.

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