The Hangover of Champions, Part 1

 

The Defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins are off to a rough start this year.

There’s been a lot of talk about the “champion’s hangover” this fall, especially as it relates to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. Now, I’m not referring to what it must have been like for the Bruins the morning after they incurred their $156,000 bar tab at Foxwoods Casino after winning The Cup in June. Rather, I’m referring to the phenomenon that sometimes happens within sports when champions undergo a period of underperformance immediately after winning a big event or championship. While the Bruins may be the latest in the world of athletics to suffer this malady, they are hardly the first. The world of golf is littered with first time major winners, who, after capturing their first Major, have finished out their seasons in relative mediocrity (See also: Zack Johnson, Trevor Immelman). And the phenomenon extends to other sports, too.

Now, I’m not so much interested in the “what” of this phenomenon so much as the “why.” Going forward, the scientist in me thinks it’s important to point out that all of what I’m about to say is pure conjecture. I have neither researched the scholarly work on this (if it even exists), nor have I conducted any research myself. That said, the following are my initial impressions of what may contribute to this phenomenon, and how one might avoid it moving forward. In the interest of time, I’ll split my comments into 2 parts. The first being my impressions of what causes the hangover, and the second by my impressions of how to alleviate some of the effects.

Culture: In looking at this problem from a cultural point of view, there seem to be two main types as it relates to the “hangover.” First, there are those who strive for success and then, having achieved it, relax. They look around, enjoy the air on the top of the mountain and revel in their newfound success. And why not? Isn’t the whole point of what they’ve been doing to reach this very moment? At the same time, there are those who, having achieved the summit, yearn immediately for more. They enjoy the achievement, sure, but take less time to enjoy it, since they are already focused on their next conquest. Efforts are redoubled, and the success is simply more fuel to the competitive fire. Either one of the above traits can be attributed to both individuals and organizations, but this difference may contribute to the length and severity of a hangover insofar as one stays content with what one has done. I think in the end, all champions come around to wanting to taste more victory, but, especially for first time winners, this may take a while before the post-victory glow wears off and the drive to climb the mountain begins once again. 

Overconfidence: Having spent the immediate aftermath of a championship being lauded as heroes both at home and abroad and (rightfully) being hailed as “the best (team/individual) in (insert sport here)”, its hard not to get a big head. Work ethic may stay the same, but there’s the possibility that a change to one’s approach to competition, however subtle, can have a large effect on the ultimate outcomes. Perhaps a golfer gets too cavalier about a difficult course. A hockey team might underestimate a retooled opponent from last year. A tennis player may take a bit too much time signing autographs or giving interviews, rather than warming up. All of these things can lead to problems when the rubber hits the road. 

Routines: As humans, we are creatures of habit. We like to do things a certain way, and any disruption to that can be very unsettling, whether we are conscious of it or not. Especially in the case of first time champions, but more generally in the case of all champions, reaching the apex of one’s sport necessarily involves a great deal more attention than one may have ever gotten before becoming a champion. Parades, talk show appearances, guest spots on SNL, while fun, can often have the effect of distracting one from the job at hand – that is, winning again. Not only that, but the increased attention and commitments necessarily leave less time for training, travelling, and relaxing. 

Visibility: No longer just another player on the field, a championship also brings a certain level of visibility (and notoriety) among one’s competition. All of a sudden you are the one to beat. And your competition will do everything they can at every turn to do just that. Champions are no longer a team to play or an individual to face; they become circled dates on calendars, marquis match-ups, and “games of the week.” The champion’s attitude may not change, but you can bet the competition wants to make a name for themselves as “the one who beat the champ.” 

Now having said all that, the really important question is – if you’re an aspiring champion (or a current one), how do you keep your foot on the accelerator after you win, rather than falling into the many traps that have just been laid out? More on that in Part 2. Stay tuned!!

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