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Think Like A Royal: The Psychology Of Kansas City's Postseason Successes

Sam Zeff

I wouldn't make a good Royal. 

In Game 4 of the ALDS in Houston, after the Astros hit back-to-back home runs in the seventh to go up 6-2, facing near-certain elimination from the postseason, I gave up. Stopped watching. Walked out of the bar, swallowed the bitter bile gathering in my throat, looked up resentfully at blue sky and thought it might be a good time to rake some leaves.  

Bring on football season, I thought. 

Psychologists will tell you I was CORFing (or "cutting off reflected failure") but even that doesn't help to totally wipe away the uncomfortable truth: I didn't see any chance the Royals would beat the Astros that day. 

Luckily for me and the rest of Kansas City, I don't play for the Royals. But Eric Hosmer does.

"We always feel like we're still in games and we still have a chance," Hosmer said after the Royals rallied in Game 4. "That's the mentality of this whole entire team. It's never quit. And the character we showed today, that's what championship ball clubs do." 

While I'm usually inclined to dismiss such post-game boilerplate as tiresome athletic cliche, in this case, I wanted to know: how could Hosmer and his teammates have possibly felt this way facing such dire odds? 

And, more importantly, could I get me some of that? 

Sport psychologist Andrew Jacobs says fans could learn a lot from how the Royals have repeatedly overcome adversity this postseason. 

"They're not worrying about what isn't there but about what is in front of them. They're not worried that they're down 6-2. They aren't focused on being negative but focused on what they want to do." 

Jacobs once worked for the Royals and personally knows several players on the current roster. He says many fans watching the Royals in tense competition this October are thinking about all that can go wrong, about potential failure, about what it would be like to lose.

The athletes, he says, can only afford to think about one thing: "Execution. Successful athletes are not thinking about the results but only about their execution." 

Consider, then, Alex Rios's response to a reporter's question after Game 5 of the ALDS, another Royals' victory. The reporter asked Rios whether he felt redemption for getting a critical hit. 

"You know what? We're not thinking about those kinds of things. We're thinking about winning games, putting good games together. That's what is making us successful."

Credit twitter.com/royals
The Royals won the ALDS courtesy of at least two stirring comebacks, most notably in Game 4.

It's this focus on the job at hand, Jacobs says, that allows athletes to deal with adversity and come through in the clutch. This is a lesson that can be applied beyond sports. 

"An athlete, a radio talk show host, a janitor, a salesman, a business executive: just focus on the process. We spend too much time worrying about the results and what-if's. We get caught in our own negativity."

But is it that simple? I mean, I feel focused on the small daily 'process' of my job most days. And there are some days I don't feel successful. 

Jacobs says failure in life, as in sports, is inevitable. How one deals with it is the important thing. 

"Take guys like Hosmer or [Lorenzo] Cain. When they're at bat they know they could strike out or pop out. But they also know they are going to get another chance. They don't dwell on it." 

And if they do fail in a big spot? Say, in the postseason, on national television, with their team's season on the line?

"They don't like it. Generally, professional athletes want to come through, want to do well. But if they screw up, they may be mad and angry but then they let their emotions subside and ask themselves, 'What can I learn from this to get better?'"

Jacobs says this is an attitude all successful people have. And one that he often finds lacking in fans who come to his office on the Plaza, who are depressed and anxious about their favorite sports teams' on-field failures. 

"These people are depressed because the Chiefs lost, the Royals lost, KU basketball lost. They have so much of their existence tied up in the team. But it's just a game. The key thing is: what are you learning?"

I put Jacobs's advice to the test a few night's later when the Royals were once again facing a jam. Game 6 of the ALCS versus Toronto. A trip to the World Series on the line. Tying runner on third, nobody out. 

Wade Davis on the mound, implacable as always, while I sat there with my heart in my throat. I tried to put myself in his shoes: focused on the execution of each new pitch, not worried about losing this game and being forced to play a do-or-die game seven, willing to learn from the failure if it came. 

We all know what happened next. Ground ball to third; Royals win. On to the World Series. 

I like to think my newfound insights would have helped me better absorb a defeat if it had come, but I'm glad I didn't have to test that just yet. 

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's Morning Edition anchor and reporter. Reach him at kyle@kcur.org.

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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