With football season just around the corner, teams around the country are working hard in preparation to compete for the next championship. But what is it that ultimately determines whether a team hoists the trophy at the end of the year? Clearly, a team must be composed of a group of exceptional athletes, but might there be more than athletic ability that ultimately gives teams the competitive edge? Might the mental make-up of a team also play a significant role in determining their success? Curious as to what drives those that win, we sought out to study the minds of champions.
To do this, we were fortunate enough to study one of the most dominant football programs in all of America. There are few programs in the entire country that can boast the accolades and accomplishments of a football program located in Maryville, Missouri: The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats. Since the year 2000, Northwest Missouri State has won more football games than any other team at the FBS, FCS, or Division II level – that’s more wins than teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and other Division I football powerhouses. Having played in 10 of the last 19 Division II national title games and winning three of the last four national championships, the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats have clearly figured out a winning formula. Beyond winning on the football field, the Bearcats also report tremendous academic success. Touting a 79% academic success rate (the national average is 54%), the Bearcat football team most recently obtained a team grade point average of a 3.16/4.0 during the semester prior to when our research with them began. If fact, in showing the team’s commitment to academic excellence, players on this year’s team with a GPA of 3.0 or higher will wear a special decal on their helmet highlighting their GPA, major, and advisor’s name.
Curious as to what drives such a high-performing team, we had the Bearcat coaching staff and student-athletes take the MindVue Profile, a psychometric assessment used to measure an array of mindset skills such as grit, resilience, self-control, hope, and conscientiousness. As previous research has illustrated, mindset have been shown to predict academic achievement, leadership performance, economic success, as well as overall health and well-being. Could these same skills also help explain the success of one of the nation’s most dominant football programs?
To answer this, we started by first having the Northwest Missouri State football coaching staff complete the MindVue Profile. What we found was amazing – as an entire group, the coaches obtained some of the highest mindset scores we have ever seen for a collective group. We found that the Bearcat coaches had especially high levels of grit, self-discipline, self-control, self-awareness, adaptability, and resilience. In other words, our data suggested these coaches possess the ability to persevere, be disciplined in their work and delay gratification, know their strengths and weaknesses, adjust well to change, and bounce back when faced with tremendous adversity. In seeing these results, it became clear that a key component to building a championship team may lie in having a group of coaches possessing these mindset skills at very high levels.
Next, we had the Bearcat football players take the MindVue Profile assessment. As a team, we found the Bearcats to be quite high in self-efficacy – which is the confidence you can complete your goals. Further, the football players also had higher levels of self-discipline and grit, supporting the notion that high-performing teams are those that pursue their goals with great passion and perseverance while possessing the ability to do work that is often not overly enjoyable.
We then compared the data from the Bearcat football team with another team* of student-athletes from a separate university, whose team does not share the level of success experienced by Northwest Missouri State. We found that in comparison to this other team, the football players at Northwest Missouri State scored equally well or better on 80% of the mindset factors measured by the MindVue Profile. We found that the Bearcat team was especially more advanced in their levels of self-awareness (11 percentile-points higher), grit (13 percentile-points higher), self-discipline (18 percentile-points higher), and conscientiousness (21 percentile-points higher).
After collecting data on the current players, we tracked down seniors from last year’s undefeated, national championship-winning team and had them take the MindVue Profile. Of these former Bearcat football players that the coaches spoke very highly of, we noticed a relationship: the players the coaches said were great leaders for their team were scoring well on the MindVue Profile. In fact, we had an individual who scored one of the highest scores we have ever seen on the MindVue Profile. Intrigued by who this person was that was scoring in the 99th percentile on our assessment, we asked the coaches about this individual. They went on to tell us that this particular player was their quarterback** from last year, who they described as the epitome of a successful student-athlete - one of the best they have ever coached. He not only helped lead his team to win the championship, but in doing so he earned his conferences’ Offensive Player of the Year award, was the runner-up for the Harlon Hill Trophy (most valuable player in NCAA Division II), and was selected as the Division II Academic All-American of the Year.
Next, we wanted to explore whether the student-athletes’ mindset skills were related to the players’ non-athletic, mental attributes contributing to the team’s performance, as evaluated by their coaches. We hoped to get at those hard-to-measure “it factors” that coaches desire to see in their players. To accomplish this, we had each member of the coaching staff develop an “intangibles score” for each player. In evaluating each player on their intangibles, we asked the coaches to rate the players on the personal attributes outside of their athletic ability – such as the player’s motivation, leadership, attitude, mental toughness, and work ethic - that positively contribute to the team’s performance. For each player, we then averaged all of the coaches’ “intangibles scores” and then compared these data with the student-athletes’ mindset
In doing this, we found the student-athletes’ composite scores of their mindset skills correlated*** with the coaches’ evaluation of the players’ intangibles. In seeing the positive correlation with the composite score of non-cognitive skills, we then wanted to know which specific non-cognitive skills were most valued by the coaches.
What we found shocked us. In the rough and tough world of football, we expected that grit and resilience - characteristics we often associate with mental toughness in sports - would be the best predictors of whether coaches felt a player had the intangibles needed to succeed. Although both grit and resilience were correlated with the players’ intangibles, the mindset factor that correlated the best was integrity. This was amazing, especially when considering that nowhere in developing the “intangibles score” did we make note of integrity. Instead, in developing those “intangible scores”, we had coaches think about the student-athletes’ motivation, leadership, attitude, mental toughness, work ethic, and other mental factors they wished all of their players possessed at high levels.
The players the coaching staff reported were making the most positive impact on their team were those with high moral character. In sports, we sometimes assume that it’s the teams and players who cheat that obtain a competitive advantage. With Northwest Missouri State, we found the exact opposite. The players who responded that it is necessary to break the rules in order to win and get ahead were obtaining the lowest performance evaluations from their coaches. Likewise, the players holding the sentiment that getting results is more important than doing what is right were receiving some of the lowest scores. Ultimately, it was the players who had high levels of integrity and honesty that were being evaluated most favorably by their coaches.
Beyond integrity and honesty, another mindset factor valued by the coaches was the player’s self-control. We found that it was the players that can resist their temptations, those that think through possible consequences of their actions before making a decision, and those in control of their emotions that were receiving the highest intangibles scores from their coaching staff. Finally, self-efficacy was also shown to be highly valued by the coaches. The players reporting greater confidence in their ability to accomplish their goals received better intangibles scores.
In summary, our goal with this project was to get inside the minds of one of the most dominant teams in the country. We wanted to know: what made these guys tick? What was driving their success, and what role might the team’s mindset skills play in this process? In having the opportunity to study this elite group, we came away with the following conclusions:
In the end, it became clear that a major reason why Northwest Missouri State has dominated its competition may be due to the mental make-up of their coaching staff and players. When looking into the minds of these champions, we found these mindset skills to be a crucial piece in providing the Bearcat football team a competitive edge. Taken together as a collective whole, these factors help to create a culture of excellence driving high performance, allowing the Bearcat football team to hoist the championship trophy year after year.
*In order to protect the confidentiality of this other team, we will not disclose the name of this team/university.
**We want to thank Kyle Zimmerman for granting us permission to share his scores on the MindVue Profile.
***Scores correlated at r = .27 (p<0.05) with the mean intangibles score and r = .28 (p<0.01) with the median intangibles score.