For those who do not know, I’m an avid fan and follower of college hoops. Fan, short for fanatic. If you follow NCAA basketball even casually, you know that the Virginia Cavaliers are the 2018-2019 national champions. You probably also know that they were incredibly fortunate in each of their last 3 games of the tournament. Thanks to an incredible series of late game decisions, clutch shots, and timely calls, they won the national title despite trailing in the final seconds of each of those contests. You’re probably also aware that those same Virginia Cavaliers won the title a little more than a year after suffering the most humiliating loss in NCAA tournament history, when as the overall #1 seed, they became the first team to lose to a seemingly overmatched #16 seed in the 2017-2018 tournament.
It all came together for an amazing story that left Virginia alums delighted and opposing fans shaking their heads. What impressed me most about the success and performance of that Cavalier team in the closing minutes of those games was the poise and belief of the players on the floor. As a fan, there were moments in each of those games when I thought they were done; they had lost. But if the Virginia players thought that, even for a moment, it never showed. They just kept making plays, one incredibly savvy decision after another. Admittedly, they were the recipient of some incredible breaks – any team that wins 6 consecutive basketball games at that level (much like any racer who wins 6 consecutive rounds) almost inevitably gets a few breaks along the way – but they never quit. In the end, they became a relatively unlikely national champion.
So how were those players able to essentially eliminate the fear of failure, ignore the near certain fate of defeat, and overcome the odds over and over to win the championship? It’s an interesting case study. Specific to that team, I think it’s obvious that the previous season’s disaster – being publicly humiliated by what should have been an overmatched UMBC team- had a significant impact. Elementary psychology tells us that when you hit rock bottom, there’s little left to lose. There had to be an element of “What’s the worst that can happen? It can’t be any worse than last season” among those players. With the proper mindset, there’s a freedom that comes from surviving the depths of despair. There’s perspective that comes with that as well.
How does this relate to drag racing (yes, I’m just addressing that at 400 words in)? The poise and belief that those players showed is something that we should all strive for. In racing, as in various facets of life, we rarely complete the flawless, dominating competition. More often than not, in order to succeed, we’re forced to overcome adversity in some form. The trick, as those Cavaliers did so admirably, is to not succumb to the burden of expectation; to maintain belief in yourself and your skills; to keep doing what you do best regardless of what the scoreboard says; to not give up. But how can average people like you and me do that?
In my simple mind, there are three paths. Virginia’s was probably the least common (and the most painful). They experienced the depths of incredible defeat. That allowed them to play without fear, knowing that they experienced the worst that their sport could offer, and still lived through it to play another day.
The flip side is the much more enjoyable path: it’s to win so consistently that it becomes habit. So much so, that the thought of failing never even enters our minds. Most of us can agree that much like losing in publicly humiliating fashion, those unbeatable streaks are few and far between. Very rarely do they come early enough in our progression that we never experience the agony of defeat (which allows us to essentially escape the fear of it). As a result, it’s very uncommon to harness confidence and perspective in that manner.
The third method for building belief and gaining confidence is the most practical and common. I’ve achieved it, and you can too. It comes from preparation. I take immense confidence from the idea that I’ve outworked and/or outthought my competition. Whether that’s completely accurate or not is irrelevant; it’s that idea – that BELIEF – that gives me an edge.
In racing terms, let me put it like this. There are rounds, situations, and/or opponents that make us all question our ability. I do it. If you’re honest with yourself, you do too. In those situations, what provides more confidence and inspires more belief than anything is relying on the idea that we’ve prepared for this moment. Maybe that comes from analyzing your log books and data and having an understanding of how certain conditions affect your combination. Maybe that’s from taking the time to do your homework and understand your opponent’s strengths and what he or she wants to do – and then gameplanning against it. Maybe it’s simply the knowledge that you’ve spent countless hours in the shop making your combination near perfect, or on the practice tree refining your skills. That investment of time enables a trust: that your car is better than that of the competition, and/or that you are capable of performing on the starting line regardless of the stage or situation. Personally, one way or another I try to find a reason to believe in myself (no matter how challenging or intimidating the situation may seem).
Obviously, preparation was a factor for the Virginia Cavaliers as well; I’m sure that they practice hard, they’re well coached, and they came into their games impeccably prepared. Specific to that team, despite their excellent preparation, I firmly believe that the depths of despair were the catalyst for their unshakeable poise and belief. I won’t be convinced otherwise.
The naysayers who chalk up Virginia’s national championship to “luck” make me laugh almost as hard as the racers who claim that Peter Biondo’s 7 (SEVEN!) NHRA world championships are strictly the result of good fortune. While it is difficult to dispute that there is an element of luck in just about every competition, it’s rarely the deciding element. We’ve all heard the age old phrase, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” I would amend that statement slightly to read that luck tends to find the believer… And that hard work, appropriately targeted, is one way to develop belief.