NCAA Tournament players win if they focus on process
CLEMSON, South Carolina — The big dance has begun! You can bet this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will have Cinderella stories and bracket busters. It’s not called March Madness for nothing. From a field of 68 teams, only four will make it to the Final Four and only one will be crowned the champion.
But that doesn’t make the 67 other teams losers. The real winners will be the players who look beyond the final score.
“Athletic outcomes are often beyond the control of an individual athlete or even a team. If all people talk about is winning, they’re probably in for a lot of disappointment,” said Bryan Denham, the Campbell Chair of Sports Communication and chair of the communication department in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences at Clemson University, home of the 2016 NCAA football champion Tigers.
That’s no secret to coaches, who often implore their teams to “leave it all on the court” or “play every game like it’s your last.”
“The coach is saying, ‘immerse yourself in the game and the outcome will take care of itself,’” Denham said.
Sports psychologists discovered this vein of motivation, in part, by studying John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach who led UCLA to 10 NCAA championships in 12 years.
“They found his communication style focused heavily on the task at hand,” Denham said. In practice, if a player wasn’t rebounding, Wooden wouldn’t just yell at the player to block out, he would stop the action and show the player how to gain position.
Teams that make it into the NCAA tournament and advance do so because of “a day-to-day, week-to-week focus on process. Immersing themselves in the process of training to compete in the sport of basketball, not worrying about whether they’re going to win or lose the next game,” Denham said.
“What we’re talking about is the pursuit of personal excellence,” Denham said. “If I do everything I can to pursue my personal best, more often than not success will take care of itself. That tends to be a healthier approach than focusing only on winning.”
For losers — er, the teams that don’t win — players want to know that they did everything they could to contribute to their team’s performance. While it would be disappointing to lose, these players won’t regret their performances.
For winners, “a good coach would tell his athletes to keep everything in its proper perspective, that it was a team effort,” Denham said. “But there’s always next season. Are you going to rest on your laurels or continue to pursue excellence?”
For everyone not competing for an athletic championship, Denham said the same lessons apply in life.
“This notion of process is so important,” he said. “If you don’t enjoy the process of what you’re doing, you almost have to reevaluate whether you want to pursue (whatever you’re doing), because it just becomes drudgery. If you enjoy the process, you’re set.”