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
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
George, T. R., & Feltz, D. L. (1970). Motivation in Sport from a Collective Efficacy Perspective.
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Melnick M. J. (2001). Relationship between team assists and win-loss record in The National
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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.
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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