The head-to-head record between Kirk Ferentz and Joe Paterno is well known now. In the days leading up the epic battle in Happy Valley, the blogosphere revealed a Hawkeye fan worldview that saw Ferentz's success as a testimony to a belief in one's self and a willingness to work hard to achieve one's goals, if not some rather compelling evidence of equality between the two programs. To Penn State fans, Ferentz's record in Happy Valley and overall record against their beloved Nittany Lions was merely an asymmetrical sign of error, a tilted record of deceptions.
On blog after blog Nittany Lion fans offered little excuse or explanation for Paterno's record, for that would require analysis and introspection. To many Hawkeye fans engaged in the usual trash talk that constitutes much of the football blogosphere, they were taken aback by the Nittany Lion fan's disinterest in the record, as they almost showed no desire to understand it; indeed, most refused to even acknowledge it. For those few who begrudgingly discussed it, they did so as if a detached statistician explaining the flip of a coin that lands continually on tails...describing it as an anomaly, an inexplicable deviation from the norm, and not to be taken seriously. Ah yes, it will right itself on Saturday they seemed to say, and the world will return to order.
The culture of privilege that is Nittany Lion football is not exclusive to their rabid fan base either. Daryll Clark this past week explained endlessly to the press that he was the reason for Penn State's defeat last year. "Look no further than me," he would essentially proclaim. To Hawkeye fans it seemed an odd backhanded rationalization by Clark. They heard him as saying Iowa's players and coaches deserved little if any credit for the win, but rather it was a gift from Clark to Iowa.
Many athletes think self-confidence is believing you will win. One of the tenets of American sports creed is that athletes should always think they will win. To think otherwise is sacrilegious. But mistakes made in the heat of competition happen, and when they do they don't shatter the self-confident athlete. A loss does not become a tragedy. Self-confident athletes know mistakes and losing are part of process of sports. Insecure athletes, on the other hand, fear failure and so much so that they are easily intimidated and act with trepidation. Consequently, insecure athletes become psychological prisoners of their own embedded negative self-image. They see themselves as losers, and become losers. Self-doubts become self-fulfilling prophecies-the sheer fact that you expect something to happen causes it to happen. But there is a middle ground, a third psychological way of the athlete-false confidence. False confidence (commonly referred to as over-confidence) is having a confidence greater than the competencies warrant. A classic false confident athlete is one who acts extremely confident on the outside, yet underneath is lurking insecurity and worry about failure. Psychologists believe that when these sorts of people fail it is more difficult for them to recover their confidence and in extreme cases, they never do.
Think of Ian Baker-Finch, the former Australian golfer and current TV golf analyst. After winning the British Open in 1991, in what nearly every golf writer labeled a surprise victory, he assumed that his success at The Open was definitive proof of even greater success to come. But, when that success was not forthcoming, he quickly disintegrated and was out of competitive golf in a matter of a few years. Along the way it became so dreadful that he was unable to break 80, he had become a shell. Baker-Finch is a heartbreaking example (he's considered a helluva nice guy by all in the world of golf) of one assuming great past results, more so than a greater work ethic, are a guarantor of greater future success.
Whereas self-confident athletes distinguish reality from fantasy by accurately judging their abilities and efforts, over-confident athletes confuse what "is" with what they wish it to be or believe ought to be. Self-confident athletes see hope in their personal efforts to achieve their goals, over-confident athletes expect breaks to come their way and lead prophetically to success. And so we have the story of Daryll Clark, a wonderfully gifted athlete who is a very fine quarterback. But the reality of his skills and the role they should realistically play in Penn State's overall success evaded him on Saturday night, and distinguishes him from, say, Ricky Stanzi. As the night wore on, Clark lost his confidence and it reminded me of the famous Alexandre Dumas quote:
"A person who doubts himself is like a man who would enlist in the ranks of his enemies and bear arms against himself. He makes his failure certain by himself being the first person to be convinced of it."
By game's end, on a college campus nestled in the Nittany Mountains, a group of self-confident athletes and their unflappable coach had led an honors seminar on winning. In reading over the various Penn State blogs after the game it seemed that many Nittany Lion fans had taken copious notes. Even Paterno himself explained to the local press who questioned him in disbelief, "Look, we were licked." Here's hoping Daryll Clark and the legion of previously cocksure Penn State fans will sit down with the notes from this game and learn that this is not a tragedy, but a lesson that the past does not equal the future. As Bill Parcell's would often remind New York sportswriters who would question him after a loss with the presupposition that the Giants had somehow been robbed of their destiny, "you are what your record says you are."