Kyle Busch didn't expect to win, therefore he did

What we expect to happen can have a strong impact on our daily or even long-term behavior.

Many years ago a classic study on arm wrestling in the Journal of Psychology (Nelson & Furst, 1972) found some very interesting results. Twelve arm wrestling contests were held. In each contest, the stronger wrestlers were told they were getting ready to challenge someone stronger, although in reality their opponents were actually physically weaker. The arm wrestlers who were weaker were told they were stronger than the participants they were about to arm wrestle, though they were actually physically weaker. Amazingly, in 10 of the 12 contests, the physically weaker wrestlers won the matches. That means more than 80 percent of the time, due to their expectations to win — in contests of brute strength — weaker arm wrestlers won because they thought they would, and stronger arm wrestlers lost because they expected to lose.

Kyle Busch may have had a similar experience that helped him win the 2015 Sprint Cup championship

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Much of my sport psychology consulting with athletes has been to assist them with regaining or keeping their self-confidence. Athletes sometimes lose almost all of their confidence or may lose confidence about a particular task or skill. For example, a NASCAR driver may be very confident while racing around the track at high speeds, yet lack confidence when it comes to restarts after cautions. Even some of the most talented, high-level athletes lose confidence at times — it can be a fleeting state.

Yet there are occasions when not having expectations to win can actually be beneficial. This can happen particularly when athletes are injured, sick or have experienced a devastating life event. For these reasons, they may lower expectations for an upcoming performance and simply focus on trying to perform well.

Two well-known examples are Michael Jordan's outstanding performance while having the flu during the NBA playoffs and Brett Favre throwing six touchdown passes after the death of his father. Sometimes when athletes have lower expectations, they still play exceptionally well. In these cases, they felt less pressure to perform because they focused less on winning and more on playing the best they could under the circumstances.

On these special occasions, their expectations of a lesser performance is actually outweighed by the reduced pressure to perform as they normally would. Less pressure and reduced expectations from themselves and from others can lead an athlete to have an outstanding performance simply because they are not expected to do so. In other words, sometimes athletes with lower than usual expectations due to injury, illness or negative life events have great performances because of the lack of pressure they feel.

These type of factors may have been the case in helping Kyle Busch win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Busch suffered a severely broken leg in a crash in an Xfinity Series race the day before the season-opening Daytona 500. He missed the first 11 races of the season and needed a medical waiver from NASCAR to be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. 

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There are many reasons Busch was able to win the championship, including the injury putting life and racing in perspective while he faced the daunting physical and mental challenges of rehabilitation.

Yet one of the key factors may have been the reduced pressure he felt because of missing the first 11 races of the season and not being expected to be able to compete for the championship. Stated another way, he had nothing to lose. Because he was injured and missed several races, he was counted out of the championship picture, which likely reduced the overall pressure he felt from others and himself.

After his return from the injury, Busch won four of five races in June and July to make himself eligible for the Chase. He won the title last week by winning the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. 

When high-level athletes are able to focus on their performance and not be distracted by the self-imposed pressure to win, they generally have outstanding performances. On these rare occasions, athletes may actually benefit from lower expectations of themselves, as well as from others. 

Busch is the Sprint Cup champion possibly because he felt less pressure to have to win. This simple psychological contradiction can be a powerful proponent of outstanding performances.

Dr. Kevin L. Burke is a Sport Psychology Professor and consultant at Queens University in Charlotte. Contact Dr. Burke at and follow him on Twitter: @SportPsyching.

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