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The Champion Mentality – Can it be developed?

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Everyone who follows sports has most likely seen it.  Remembering back to my days of Little League baseball I can think of certain kids who, in the final inning with their team down by a run and the bases loaded with two outs, you could bank on their getting a hit.  They weren't always the kids with the highest batting averages, although they usually were among the top quarter of the league.  In competitive sports it often appears that there is just some strange gift some particular players are given (or that they develop?) for hitting the clutch shot, making the critical putt, or kicking the last second field goal.  Comparing basketball legends, Michael Jordan obviously had the gift; Karl Malone and John Stockton (these two can't be referenced separately) didn’t.  The two Finals series in the late 90’s between the Bulls and the Jazz characterizes the difference between a player (and team) who can’t avoid winning and one who is destined to be no better than second.

Growing up in Tallahassee, Florida I was given a taste early and often of what it means to be a master of second place.  Year after year the Seminoles would field a football team that was earmarked for a national championship.  Year after year a wide right field goal against the Hurricanes or a last minute touchdown pass attempt against Notre Dame would fall short, or a game winning drive by the Gators would destroy a whole season.  Until the 1993 miracle against Nebraska, I thought that Bobby Bowden was destined to hold an equivocal position in history as the winningest coach in the NCAA without ever winning it all.  Even after that national championship, losses to Tennessee and Oklahoma left doubts in many people’s minds about whether Coach Bowden possessed (with any consistency) the ability to really finish a season the way it should be done.  What made the difference for the 1993 and 2000 championship teams?  Apparently Charlie Ward and Peter Warrick (obviously with some help) had, in addition to their hard-earned talents, the champion’s mentality that says, “I will not lose, especially not the big one!”
Florida State’s baseball team has been another example of how to master second place.  How many times have they been to the College World Series? – 17.  How many championships do they have?  – 0.  It doesn’t take a stats person to figure out that batting average.  It’s almost as if there is something in the drinking water in Tallahassee that makes it so that Seminole teams are given some kind of psychological governor that forces them to lose when it counts, even after having dominating seasons.

I’ve since wondered if that second place mindset is contagious.  My own high school career seemed to go the same way.  Taking an 11-0 record into the football state championship game, we lost 7-3 after having a late touchdown taken away because of a phantom illegal forward pass penalty.  Not to make excuses, but I wonder if somehow the ref knew that our team was pre-figured to be second place.  Four months later, on a much more individual level, I came up short again, bringing home second place in the wrestling state championships.  That failure was compounded by the fact that we won the team championship, which made it appear as if the second place stigma was specifically set aside for me.
So how does a person shake off an inability to win the big game?  Obviously it starts with taking the steps to become a contender in the first place, working hard to develop the skills to be among the top of your competition.  Beyond that, becoming a champion appears to be a linked to having more than a superficial determination not to lose.  Gaining that determination can’t be done separate from consistent practice and intense focus, and shouldn’t be done outside the rules of the game (see Barry Bonds, Michael Johnson, etc.).  It likely is a trait developed in a young athlete, which is gradually reinforced by winning some medals along the way to becoming a competitive amateur or professional athlete.