Inside the Minds of ChampionsShare
What is it that gives champions the competitive edge? When looking into the minds of champions, might their mental make-up be a key component to their success?
With football season just around the corner, teams around the country are working hard in preparation to compete for the next championship. But what is it that ultimately determines whether a team hoists the trophy at the end of the year? Clearly, a team must be composed of a group of exceptional athletes, but might there be more than athletic ability that ultimately gives teams the competitive edge? Might the mental make-up of a team also play a significant role in determining their success? Curious as to what drives those that win, we sought out to study the minds of champions.
To do this, we were fortunate enough to study one of the most dominant football programs in all of America. There are few programs in the entire country that can boast the accolades and accomplishments of a football program located in Maryville, Missouri: The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats. Since the year 2000, Northwest Missouri State has won more football games than any other team at the FBS, FCS, or Division II level – that’s more wins than teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and other Division I football powerhouses. Having played in 10 of the last 19 Division II national title games and winning three of the last four national championships, the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats have clearly figured out a winning formula. Beyond winning on the football field, the Bearcats also report tremendous academic success. Touting a 79% academic success rate (the national average is 54%), the Bearcat football team most recently obtained a team grade point average of a 3.16/4.0 during the fall 2016 semester. If fact, in showing the team’s commitment to academic excellence, players on this year’s team with a GPA of 3.0 or higher will wear a special decal on their helmet highlighting their GPA, major, and advisor’s name.
Curious as to what drives such a high-performing team, we had the Bearcat coaching staff and student-athletes take the Intrinsic Profile, a psychometric assessment used to measure an array of non-cognitive skills such as grit, resilience, self-control, hope, and conscientiousness. As previous research has illustrated, non-cognitive skills have been shown to predict academic achievement, leadership performance, economic success, as well as overall health and well-being. Could these same skills also help explain the success of one of the nation’s most dominant football programs?
To answer this, we started by first having the Northwest Missouri State football coaching staff complete the Intrinsic Profile. What we found was amazing – as an entire group, the coaches obtained some of the highest non-cognitive scores we have ever seen for a collective group. We found that the Bearcat coaches had especially high levels of grit, self-discipline, self-control, self-awareness, adaptability, and resilience. In other words, our data suggested these coaches possess the ability to persevere, be disciplined in their work and delay gratification, know their strengths and weaknesses, adjust well to change, and bounce back when faced with tremendous adversity. In seeing these results, it became clear that a key component to building a championship team may lie in having a group of coaches possessing these non-cognitive skills at very high levels.
Next, we had the Bearcat football players take the Intrinsic Profile assessment. As a team, we found the Bearcats to be quite high in self-efficacy – which is the confidence you can complete your goals. Further, the football players also had higher levels of self-discipline and grit, supporting the notion that high-performing teams are those that pursue their goals with great passion and perseverance while possessing the ability to do work that is often not overly enjoyable.
We then compared the data from the Bearcat football team with another team* of student-athletes from a separate university, whose team does not share the level of success experienced by Northwest Missouri State. We found that in comparison to this other team, the football players at Northwest Missouri State scored equally well or better on 12 of the 15 non-cognitive constructs measured by the Intrinsic Profile. We found that the Bearcat team was especially more advanced in their levels of self-awareness (11 percentile-points higher), grit (13 percentile-points higher), self-discipline (18 percentile-points higher), and conscientiousness (21 percentile-points higher).
After collecting data on the current players, we tracked down seniors from last year’s undefeated, national championship-winning team and had them take the Intrinsic Profile. Of these former Bearcat football players that the coaches spoke very highly of, we noticed a relationship: the players the coaches said were great leaders for their team were scoring well on the Intrinsic Profile. In fact, we had an individual who scored one of the highest scores we have ever seen on the Intrinsic Profile. Intrigued by who this person was that was scoring in the 99th percentile on our assessment, we asked the coaches about this individual. They went on to tell us that this particular player was their quarterback** from last year, who they described as the epitome of a successful student-athlete - one of the best they have ever coached. He not only helped lead his team to win the championship, but in doing so he earned his conferences’ Offensive Player of the Year award, was the runner-up for the Harlon Hill Trophy (most valuable player in NCAA Division II), and was selected as the Division II Academic All-American of the Year.
Next, we wanted to explore whether the student-athletes’ non-cognitive skills were related to the players’ non-athletic, mental attributes contributing to the team’s performance, as evaluated by their coaches. We hoped to get at those hard-to-measure “it factors” that coaches desire to see in their players. To accomplish this, we had each member of the coaching staff develop an “intangibles score” for each player. In evaluating each player on their intangibles, we asked the coaches to rate the players on the personal attributes outside of their athletic ability – such as the player’s motivation, leadership, attitude, mental toughness, and work ethic - that positively contribute to the team’s performance. For each player, we then averaged all of the coaches’ “intangibles scores” and then compared these data with the student-athletes’ non-cognitive skills.
In doing this, we found the student-athletes’ composite scores of their non-cognitive skills correlated*** with the coaches’ evaluation of the players’ intangibles. In seeing the positive correlation with the composite score of non-cognitive skills, we then wanted to know which specific non-cognitive skills were most valued by the coaches.
What we found shocked us. In the rough and tough world of football, we expected that grit and resilience - characteristics we often associate with mental toughness in sports - would be the best predictors of whether coaches felt a player had the intangibles needed to succeed. Although both grit and resilience were correlated with the players’ intangibles, the non-cognitive factor that correlated the best was integrity. This was amazing, especially when considering that nowhere in developing the “intangibles score” did we make note of integrity. Instead, in developing those “intangible scores”, we had coaches think about the student-athletes’ motivation, leadership, attitude, mental toughness, work ethic, and other mental factors they wished all of their players possessed at high levels.
The players the coaching staff reported were making the most positive impact on their team were those with high moral character. In sports, we sometimes assume that it’s the teams and players who cheat that obtain a competitive advantage. With Northwest Missouri State, we found the exact opposite. The players who responded that it is necessary to break the rules in order to win and get ahead were obtaining the lowest performance evaluations from their coaches. Likewise, the players holding the sentiment that getting results is more important than doing what is right were receiving some of the lowest scores. Ultimately, it was the players who had high levels of integrity and honesty that were being evaluated most favorably by their coaches.
Beyond integrity and honesty, another non-cognitive factor valued by the coaches was the player’s self-control. We found that it was the players that can resist their temptations, those that think through possible consequences of their actions before making a decision, and those in control of their emotions that were receiving the highest intangibles scores from their coaching staff. Finally, self-efficacy was also shown to be highly valued by the coaches. The players reporting greater confidence in their ability to accomplish their goals received better intangibles scores.
In summary, our goal with this project was to get inside the minds of one of the most dominant teams in the country. We wanted to know: what made these guys tick? What was driving their success, and what role might the team’s non-cognitive skills play in this process? In having the opportunity to study this elite group, we came away with the following conclusions:
- Leadership is crucial. We believe much of the success of Northwest Missouri State can be attributed to the remarkable levels of the non-cognitive skills of their coaches. Their coaching staff is composed of highly motivated, very disciplined and perseverant individuals that can adjust when needed and bounce back when they get knocked down. This mentality is then used to create a culture of excellence driving the performance of the Bearcat football program. Next, as demonstrated by the quarterback from last year’s team, team leaders possessing these non-cognitive factors at high levels help to set a standard and reinforce that culture of excellence, which spreads to others on the team.
- Champions possess a mental edge. When comparing the Bearcat team to a lower-performing collegiate team, the Bearcats had a non-cognitive advantage – scoring higher in two-thirds of the various non-cognitive factors we assessed - with levels of conscientiousness, self-discipline, grit, and self-awareness being key differentiators.
- Character matters. Legendary Duke basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, once said, “I’ll take a two-star recruit with a five-star work ethic over a five-star recruit with a two-star work ethic any day.” In working with Northwest Missouri State, we found them to have that same mentality. Over and above athletic ability, what they valued was a desire to excel, a willingness to do the hard things which very few people will actually see, and a strong commitment to continuous improvement.
- What coaches want most is not what you might expect. In the hard-nosed world of football, the personal quality the coaching staff valued the most in their student-athletes was integrity. When sharing this finding with the coaching staff, assistant coach, Chad Bostwick, summed it up well saying, “We can’t have a great team if we don’t trust our players…it all starts with trust and integrity.”
In the end, it became clear that a major reason why Northwest Missouri State has dominated its competition may be due to the mental make-up of their coaching staff and players. When looking into the minds of these champions, we found these non-cognitive skills to be a crucial piece in providing the Bearcat football team a competitive edge. Taken together as a collective whole, these factors help to create a culture of excellence driving high performance, allowing the Bearcat football team to hoist the championship trophy year after year.
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*In order to protect the confidentiality of this other team, we will not disclose the name of this team/university.
**We want to thank Kyle Zimmerman for granting us permission to share his scores on the Intrinsic Profile.
***Scores correlated at r = .27 (p<0.05) with the mean intangibles score and r = .28 (p<0.01) with the median intangibles score.