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The talk that led to the Final Four

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In 2005, Bob Rotella gave a pep talk to George Mason University’s basketball team. A sports psychologist, Rotella sought to spur the players to see themselves as champions.

Preparing his remarks, he flipped through a copy of USA Today. The newspaper listed its preseason rankings of college basketball teams and Rotella noticed that George Mason wasn’t included.

Rotella realized he had found a great prop for his speech. During his presentation, he waved the newspaper in front of the players and exclaimed, “You’re not ranked!”

But instead of making them feel like losers, he lifted their spirits. He paused and said, “How dumb can these poll ­voters be? They don’t know that you’re going

to win the national championship? How embarrassed are they going to be when you win and they didn’t have you even in their top 25?”

Turning to the team’s coach, Jim ­Larranaga, Rotella added, “How smart is Coach Larranaga? When he was recruiting, he saw talent in you that other schools didn’t. How dumb are all those other coaches?”

Rotella’s talk struck a nerve with the team. The next day, they jotted their goals for the season, and almost all of them wanted to reach the Final Four and become national champs.

Even the coach was stirred by Rotella’s speech. In every practice, he emphasized that he was leading an elite squad of national contenders and that they should see themselves as winners.

Amazingly, George Mason qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2006, beat three heavily favored opponents and reached the Final Four.

— Adapted from How Champions Think, Bob Rotella with Bob Cullen, Simon & Schuster.

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