The Effect of Team Rankings on Motivation: A Case Study of St. Peter's


Everybody enjoys a good underdog story: athletes, specified fanbases, and the general sports realm. The most well-known underdog moments emerge when the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament, famously known as March Madness, arises. Most recently in 2022, a 15-seed, the Peacocks from St. Peter’s University stole the spotlight of most top-ranked teams due to their incredible Cinderella story. Eyes were opened across the entirety of the United States proving that a ranking does not define a team’s ability. But, why? Studies prove efficacy, in-and-out of the locker room, motivates teams to exceed given standards – given low-rankings lead to better team cohesion, group success, and greater motivation to strive for an ultimate standard within any competition.

Review of the Literature

The excitement of being seeded in the March Madness bracket brings motivation within itself. But, advancing through the tournament raises another form of motivation teams need to adopt and apply. Beyond rankings, St. Peter’s University was highly unfavored and disadvantaged heading into the tournament. From poor-conditioned practice spaces, shared locker rooms, minimal operating expenses, etc., the Peacocks had no obvious potential – Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s annual salary ($8.5 million) is more than five times Saint Peter’s annual men’s basketball expenditures (just under $1.6 million) (Sweeney, 2022). With all odds stacked against them, they believed in themselves, and believed in their program, creating team efficacy. Group belief of success influences the actions that are needed to reach the desired goals (George & Feltz, 1970). These undesirable factors developed strong bonds between the players, this indirectly fueled their efforts and dynamic within the tournament, sparking motivation for the Peacocks. Battling through these challenges brought forth team cohesion, the known framework for group motivation. This is an essential characteristic within successful teams; it is known high team cohesion exerts considerable influence on team motivation (George & Feltz, 1970). These great influences in their success prevailed, proving to the world that even an underdog can make history.

Team cohesion does not only arise from challenges being overcome. According to a study conducted by Merrill Melnick, a positive correlation was discovered between assisted team points and a team win-loss ratio in the National Basketball Association. Melnick concluded, players who trust their teammates, pass them the ball, and allow more scoring opportunities for others benefit the team as a whole (Melnick, 2001). Assisted team points are more important than the number of points scored, meaning players should trust and depend on their teammates more than ever. Teams would benefit from reserving time to implement bonding experiences within practice time – this would increase morale and trust within the players, furthermore improving their performance as a whole.

In any sport, a team requires motivation in order to be successful. A team that lacks motivation is likely to not match up with a team who has the desire to win. A study was once constructed regarding the Union of European Football Associations in tournament play, displaying that a team in the predicted winning position performs less than the underdog (Page & Page, 2009). The team less predicted to win, was observed as outperforming their opponent. This clearly displays the motivation, or lack-there-of, in sports and how rankings may affect it. Lower ranked teams seem to be more motivated to prove themselves and their abilities (Vandello et al., 2007). It is known rankings of sports are constructed from team record, ability, and strength of schedule; what is not put into consideration is the character, spirit, and courage teams exhibit. Commentators seem to emphasize these character qualities to cover the lack of ability the underdogs may hold, degrading the underdogs’ abilities and credentials of being placed in a tournament. It is now known that “underdogs” really do just perform better than what their opponent is playing.

Implications for the Practitioner

There are a variety of solutions for the challenges underdog teams seem to face. Coaches and teams must understand that a program cannot be successful without proper preparation and motivation. Regularly scheduled practices are a given in preparation for a sports season. There are more options aside from running drills and conditioning that should be implemented - some examples such as team bonding, watching film, rest days are great additions. Power, worth, and recognition is based on the notion that many strive to show off and outperform others because they crave the attention that comes from doing so successfully (Parish, 2007). Finding fun within the sport is an essential motivator in sports as well. Even at the collegiate level, athletes remain in the sport due to their passion and enjoyment while playing. Lack of retention in collegiate sports is typically due to the organization of programs.

In preparation, coaches must clarify and educate the importance of not undermining lower-ranked opponents - any team can win on any given day. This was presented with #15 St. Peter’s University and their matchup against the #2 University of Kentucky. More previous games for the strongest player decreases the probability of winning the current match, whereas more previous games for the weaker player increases the chance that the stronger player wins (Brown & Minor, 2011). The Peacocks preparation skills could be credited for their outstanding performance within the tournament. Ways to prepare for competition can include, focusing on technique, understanding how stress can benefit you, visualizing your performance, picking the right pre-event environment, positive talk, and self awareness - these can all be utilized in preparation for March Madness (Person, 2021). One of the most popular pre-game methods is practicing at the event facility the day before. This leads to an advantage of adapting to foreign surroundings before the game starts. This is an important tool for all teams to utilize traveling to game locations in March Madness is required. Eliminating uncontrollable factors and focusing on controllable factors is integral – for example, technique, positive self talk, and playing an efficient game determines success within the tournament. Ignoring playing factors they cannot control: their fanbase attendance, low-ranking, home practice facilities, etc., allows for a team like St. Peter’s to excel due to their motivation and focus in winning the National Championship.


Team cohesion and trust develops within a team when accomplishments are reached, statistics are upward moving, and challenges are being overcome. It is concluded that underdogs display more motivation and preparation across all sports programs. Rooting for an underdog due to low probability of beating their opponent is now exposed. St. Peter’s University clearly separates their program from other high-ranked teams due to their drive, motivation, and focus within the tournament. A team never nationally recognized before has now made a name for themselves, all because of team efficacy, belief, and the madness of March.


Brown, J., & Minor, D. (2011). Selecting the best? spillover and shadows in elimination tournaments.

George, T. R., & Feltz, D. L. (1970). Motivation in Sport from a Collective Efficacy Perspective. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 98–116. Retrieved April 13, 2022, from Motivation in Sport.

Melnick M. J. (2001). Relationship between team assists and win-loss record in The National Basketball Association. Perceptual and motor skills, 92(2), 595–602.

Page, L., & Page, K. (2009). Stakes and motivation in tournaments: Playing when there is nothing to play for but pride. Economic Analysis and Policy, 39(3), 455–464.

Parish, T. S., & Williams, D. (2007). Some tips regarding how to motivate athletes. International Journal of Reality Therapy, 26(2), 39-40. Retrieved from

Person. (2021, February 25). 6 winning ways athletes mentally prepare for competition. ASICS. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from

Sweeney, K. (2022, March 25). Why Saint Peter's is the Most Improbable Cinderella of All. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from

Vandello, J. A., Goldschmied, N. P., & Richards, D. A. (2007). The Appeal of the Underdog. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(12), 1603–1616.


Last Updated: 05/03/2022