The psychology of March Madness: How a team’s seed can affect player performance

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) leans over as Wisconsin players celebrate their 65-62 victory in a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

(WTNH)–March Madness is a psychological condition in itself.

Spending all day watching games can release endorphins, which make people feel excited and at times–irrationally so. It can also leave you depressed–especially if you had Villanova in your bracket. &$%^#$^! Sorry.

But for the teams in the tournament, the psychology is completely different. It’s all about expectations and performance, and one can certainly affect the other.

The biggest factor in all of this? A team’s seed.

Where a team is ranked by the selection committee affects its collective mindset going in, and can have an impact on expectations, and subsequently, performance.

How so, exactly?

We asked Southern Connecticut State University psychology professor David Kemler to give us a brief rundown:

north carolina arkansas The psychology of March Madness: How a teams seed can affect player performance
North Carolina narrowly avoided an upset at the hands of Arkansas, which would have rendered its entire season, in the eyes of many fans, a failure. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Is there a psychological advantage to being an underdog in the NCAA Tournament?

Well, in short the answer is, it depends. It would be based on a few issues that need to be addressed prior to the tournament. One would be the success and expectations at that University/Program.

For North Carolina, anything less than a Final Four or even a national title would be defined as a failure, whereas for the University of Rhode Island, success would probably be just making it into the NCAA Tournament. These expectations can weigh heavily on a player and a program.

Secondly, what is the experience level of the coach in pressure situations? What are the psychological makeup of the players? Some players have a higher fear of failure dynamic while others have a higher need to succeed dynamic. These all would combine into stress and achievement motivation.

Is there a disadvantage to being a favorite, especially a heavy favorite that is expected not only to win its first round game but advance far in the tournament?

Or can that expectation lead to a higher level of confidence, which positively impacts performance?

xavier 11 seed The psychology of March Madness: How a teams seed can affect player performance
Did its 11-seed help Xavier, often an NCAA Tournament surprise, reach the Sweet 16? (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Based on the first question, it is often times a disadvantage to be a heavy favorite at the beginning of a tournament.

Sometimes, our expectation of success is unrealistic, so those teams tend to play down to their level of competition. The underrated team or the lower-seeded team may take a view point of nothing left to lose attitude so the fear of failure would be lower translating into more optimal level of arousal.

From an optimal level of arousal standpoint, every task has an optimal level of excitation, which would translate into higher performance.

Some individuals hit that optimal level but most in pressure-packed situations are either over aroused, meaning that too much effort is being exerted, while others are deactivated (think of this as fleeing) and are putting forth too little effort for success.

Remember that the population and experience level of these performers are still developing.

Most of these athletes should be considered advanced intermediates. Meaning that some days are played in the automatic zone and some days are played in the cognitive zone. As we become more advanced the days played in automatic increase and the days in the cognitive decrease. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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