Getting Over the Hump: The Mental Aspect of Winning in Sports
In the late 1980s, the Chicago Bulls had assembled a phenomenally talented team—identified by many to be one of the best ever in the NBA-- over a five-year period. Led by Michael Jordan—widely considered to be one of the best players ever—the Bulls added pieces of a winning team year by year.
Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen and All Star Horace Grant joined the Bulls after the 1987 NBA Draft; center Bill Cartwright was acquired in a trade for Charles Oakley in 1988; B.J. Armstrong and Stacey King were drafted in 1989. This was the core of a team that would eventually go on to win six championships.
Yet from 1987 to 1990, the Detroit Pistons mostly manhandled the Bulls during the grind of the regular season, finishing above them in the NBA Central standings each year. In three consecutive years from 1988 to 1990, the Pistons stopped the Bulls cold in their playoffs runs, turning back one of the game’s greatest clutch players of all time and his supporting cast with intimidating physical play that repeatedly caused mistakes at key moments out of frustration or mental weakness.
But in 1991-- under second-year head coach Phil Jackson-- the Bulls finally broke through. The Bulls cruised through the regular season earning the top playoff seed with a record of 61-21. And in their third consecutive year meeting the Pistons in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals—and fourth consecutive year meeting the Pistons in an elimination series-- the Bulls dominated the series in a 4-0 sweep, indicating a change in the guard.
The Weight of History
Amateur, college, and professional sports are full of examples of teams or athletes that repeatedly confront a mental block in repeated attempts where the weight of history or psychology creates an insurmountable barrier to “get over the hump” of winning. The Brooklyn Dodgers faced the New York Yankees five times in the World Series from 1941 to 1953 before finally winning the 1955 series. After losing soccer’s 1950 World Cup as the host nation to neighboring Uruguay, Brazil won the Cup five out of the next 13 times.
From 1918 to 2004, the Boston Red Sox reached the World Series four times in four different decades, each time losing in a decisive seventh game—lending credence to belief in “The Curse of the Bambino”— a belief that trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 cast a curse over the Red Sox. The Red Sox loss to the Yankees in a 1978 division playoff added to the mental block. It wasn’t until the Red Sox overcame 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship that the “curse” was broken. Since their 2004 Championship, the Sox have won two more in their two subsequent World Series appearances.
In 2003, the Chicago Cubs had a three run lead with five outs to go before reaching their first World Series in 58 years, but after a fan deflected a foul ball that might have led to a second out in the eighth inning, the Cubs gave up eight runs in that inning and lost the deciding series game—also at home-- the following night.
The High Side of the “Hump”
Conversely, while perennial losers seem to perennially lose, the other side of the ledger is also true. Perennial winners seem to keep winning. The New York Yankees’ hegemony over major league baseball may have waned in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but since 1977 the Yankees have won eight of their 11 World Series appearances, and have appeared in the playoffs with even more frequency. The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have repeatedly made and re-constructed championship teams around their dynastic reputations over a half century—through different players, coaches and ownership groups.
College basketball dynasties like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas seem to keep rolling on, seemingly propelled often as much by the weight of history as the talent, experience, or coaching on the sidelines.
The New York Mets-- in existence for only 52 out of the Cubs’ current 69-year drought since their last appearance in the World Series-- have not only appeared in four World Series, they’ve won two of them.
It doesn’t take an expert in statistics or mathematical probability to recognize that there’s something more involved than just the advantages of market size, luck, chance, or individual personnel of a particular team. There is a distinct advantage to the mental aspect of the name on the front of the sports jersey that may not be absolutely calculable, but exists nonetheless.
A Thought Experiment on Making a Winner out of a Loser
Let’s say the richest person in the world was a Chicago Cubs fan, and s/he bought the team. In year one, this beneficent billionaire was willing to pull out all the stops to make the Cubs the World Series champions, willing to spend whatever it takes to overcome the weight of the legacy of the Cubs’ 106-year drought since their last championship. How much talent and coaching superiority would you suppose the unlimited budget Cubs would have to compile to erase their losing tradition in one year to ensure their championship?
The best I could estimate is the spendthrift Cubs could only achieve something like a 50/50 chance of winning the World Series, even if they were willing to pay whatever it took to get the absolute best possible talent at every position and every coaching spot. In fact, the Cubs have had the highest payroll in the National League before—in 2004 and several other years. In 2004, the Cubs were predicted to win the World Series before the season, but didn’t even make the Wild Card playoff spot.
Meanwhile, the Florida Marlins—only inexistence since 1993—have won the World Series twice, despite having some of the poorest average attendance of any team. It’s even more illustrative that one of the Marlins’ World Series victories was won in part by taking advantage of the Cubs’ historic implosion in the 2003 National League Playoffs.