An upset is when a weaker opponent defeats a much stronger one. There are several mental factors at play and knowing them can help the Oregon football team avoid the embarrassment of being upset by Oregon State today.
The team or athlete about to be upset unknowingly goes into the competition with the wrong attitude and focus of concentration, both of which make the favorite vulnerable to choking and losing. The problem is focusing on the outcome, that it will be one-sided in their favor. They know the opponent has no chance to win and does not take the competition seriously, leading them to be overconfident and emotionally flat. Physically and emotionally they are not up for the performance.
On another level, just at or below consciousness, is a belief that the better, stronger team is expected to win. The consequences of losing would be a powerful embarrassment that goes with an upset, making them vulnerable to the thought: What happens if we do lose?
Sometimes the better team carries this anxiety just under the surface and when things go wrong, the favorite will frequently shift this fear to the center of their consciousness and now they are in trouble. This fear of losing with its accompanying embarrassment causes nervousness to suddenly shoot off the charts, tightening muscles and wrecking performance.
When you look at the mental headset of the one who pulls the upset, it's the opposite: The underdog has nothing to lose. He is expected to fail. There is no pressure, he plays relaxed and loose. Since this state of relaxation and obliviousness to the outcome are keys to peak performance, the underdog has the perfect mental state to pull off the impossible.
So what do you have to do when you face a weaker opponent to lessen the chances of embarrassment? The Ducks need to first respect their opponent.
Second, focus completely on the process. One play at a time, not the outcome. Third, play your own game instead of playing at the same level of the competition.
Fourth, stay calm and relaxed, no matter how well your opponent plays. Fifth, do not bring performance expectations about you or your opponent into the game. If you expect to win easily, you will likely panic if the game becomes a frustrating struggle.
Sixth, no matter what, trust and let it happen. The overconfidence cracks and the panicked athlete, team and coaches begin to press and force things. If the Ducks fall into that trap, it is over.
Upsets will happen. Because emotion is such a big part of rivalry football games, upsets are always around the corner, especially in Corvallis, just like the last time in 2016.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.