On March 27th 2005, Oxford won the annual boat race against their rivals, Cambridge.
A commentator remarked that both teams believed 100% at the start that they would win. Cambridge were described as the beauty because their technique was so good. Oxford were described as the beast because they were heavier and more powerful.
However, as the race started, one of the Cambridge crew did not dip his oar deep enough into the water and it skimmed the surface. As a result, the Cambridge boat got off to a bad start.
Immediately the confidence and belief in the Oxford boat went up a few notches as they soared ahead and the belief in the Cambridge boat went down a few notches.
The reality is that belief does not exist on its own. It feeds on the actions that we take. Belief can recover from mistakes but in the heat of a competition there is not always time to recover enough to win. Fortunately in ordinary life there is more time. You can make hundreds of mistakes and still succeed.
Other factors influence belief like the past history of a competition. These factors are not always decisive but they can be powerful. 63% of the Oxford v Cambridge races have been won by the heavier crew. The Cambridge crew drank lots of water at the start but that could not make up for the weight and power of muscle! They should have picked bigger and stronger men.
In the end and at the beginning, the technique of the Oxford boat was better. It was the newspapers who had fed the lie that the Cambridge technique was superior in order to make their stories more interesting and to create the imagery of the beauty v the beast.
Belief probably did win the race for Oxford but it was a belief that grew as they began to move ahead and realize that they could win and it was a belief that was accompanied by six months of hard training which built power and technique.
In January 2005, Steve McLaren, manager of Middlesborough, was facing Manchester United in one of the biggest domestic English football competitions.
Manchester United is one of the top soccer clubs in the world today but Steve's team have beaten Manchester United in the past and he took the view that this past success might give them the belief they need to win:
"Belief comes from past performance. We know what it takes to win at Old Trafford (the Manchester home ground) against Manchester United".
Steve believed that his team needed both belief and a bit of luck. In the end his team lost 3 nil. What went wrong? Maybe the belief was just a vague hope. To be effective belief needs to be expectation.
Horatio Nelson understood this at the battle of Trafalgar. His famous signal to the British fleet was:" England expects every man to do his duty."
By expecting the best from his sailors, he brought the best out of them. It is interesting that he did not say: "England expects victory."
No one can decide in advance who wins in any competition whether it is a game or a war. Any gambler will tell you that. The other side may well have some secret weapon. However, every one can control how they perform as individuals. Everyone can do their duty.
Results in any type of competition are out of our hands. Good results will usually follow hard work but the competition might be working harder than us and they may be more talented than us. All we can do is work our own socks off.
Maybe Steve McLaren should have told his team that he expected them not to rely on luck or past performance but to work as hard as they possibly could. Sheer effort is an element that can make beliefs come true even against heavy odds. Certainly luck is important but we all know the famous saying: "The harder I work, the luckier I get."
Belief is not overrated but it must be strong enough to create some great expectations and must be accompanied by hard work and skill.
It also helps if the other team have a bad day and get off to a poor start.