Victorious warriors win first and then go to war,
while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. – Sun Tzu
The above quote summarizes a side of the Alabama Crimson Tide that isn’t mentioned very much, if only because it gets into a certain unquantifiable aspect of athletics. The psychological side isn’t one where a generalization can be made. How each individual player reacts in a given situation can be markedly different. However, mainstream media, particularly the many rankings, can create a state-of-mind such that even Sun Tzu himself would appreciate.
What is the mindset? Succinctly put, Alabama is bigger, faster, and stronger everywhere. The Tide is made up of superhuman monsters that devour any football team in their path. Is it completely true? No. It is heavy with hyperbole. A defensive end isn’t just lining up against Cyrus Kouandjio. He is lining up against Cyrus Kouandjio, potential top five NFL Draft pick. The Ole Miss quarterback isn’t just trying to complete passes against a secondary that is patrolled by Landon Collins. He is trying to complete passes against a secondary patrolled by Landon Collins, former #1 safety coming out of high school. The superlatives could flow from here until the end of the season. All of them add to this superhuman perception of the Alabama football team.
The effect on an opposing team can be profound. Most of the talk leading up to the Alabama versus Colorado State game: How can Jim McElwain get his players to buy into the fact that Alabama ISN’T anything but another football team, and is therefore beatable? Admittedly, that might not have been such a major theme inside the program, but the anxiety exists. Players are not nearly so tone deaf to the world anymore. Interconnectivity has put the planet at a person’s fingertips.
Interestingly, Alabama’s next opponent, Ole Miss, may not suffer from this phenomenon. The Rebels think they’re great and rightly so. They are unbeaten thus far with two wins on the road against legitimate teams. Fan pride has not run so high since Eli Manning. The players, many true freshmen, are naive in many cases and it could have either an empowering or disastrous effect. How does a player respond when an opposing team punches him in the metaphorical mouth? Robert Nkemdiche, all-everything true freshman defensive lineman, has never been truly dominated. Cyrus Kouandjio may be the first player with the athleticism and skill set to nullify Nkemdiche one-on-one. What will he do? What will any of the true freshman playing at a high level for Ole Miss do? The scary thing for Hugh Freeze and his staff is that they simply don’t know.
There is a psychological blowback that can effect the supposedly superior teams. Fans need to only remember the 2010 Alabama team to see the negative side. Many coaches have called the 2010 team the most talented team at the Capstone since Nick Saban took over yet it lost three games due to players not working as hard and just showing up due to an overconfidence generated by the aura of the 2009 championship.
The psychology surrounding sports, and competition in general, is a fascinating, and burgeoning field. There’s a reason that Nick Saban brings in so many speakers about this topic. How players react to mindsets created by the media, the fans, or whoever, is something that every coach has to deal with. Alabama/s recent success has had recently adds a little more of a competitive edge to the Crimson Tide as they compete for another title.