Greatest Comeback in Super Bowl History!

Super Bowl 51 saw all time win records for Tom Brady (including an All Time MVP record) and Bill Belichick while James White set a record for receptions and touchdowns. How did all this happen? The psychology behind it may never be known, however, there is nothing like the laboratory of professional sports to get some hints and ideas.

As you may know by now, the Patriots overcame the largest deficit in Super Bowl history to set the records mentioned above. There were a number of psychology factors worth mentioning.

Group Dynamics and Managing Adversity

The psychology of group dynamics and managing adversity along with individual perceptions of adversity have to be considered. During the first half the Patriots were dominated by the Falcons on both offense and defense. In addition, the Patriots made errors in performance on their own. In the second half there was a major momentum change. What happened? Football is an interesting sport as the teams execute a play, regroup, and repeat. The Patriots appeared to be focused, one play at a time, not dwelling on the last play or earlier plays that did not go well. Brady never appeared to be rattled or distressed and neither did his teammates. Focus appeared to lead to better execution and communication in second half. Even when odd things such as a missed extra point occurred, the team did not let up.

Situational opportunities are part of resilience and subsequent performance. There were passes caught (Edelman with three Falcon defensive backs around him) that were the result of being in the right place, with the right preparation and skills, at the right time. A half-second earlier or later and it would have been incomplete rather than sustaining the drive. Later, a holding call after a sack on the Falcons’ quarterback took the Falcons out of field goal range. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time makes all the difference.

Preparation and Performance

Brady reported in an interview earlier this year that his self-preparation prior to the season has allowed him to perform better physically than five years earlier. At 39, one could argue Brady is in the best shape of his career. Psychologically, Brady had significant adversity and outside distractions. Any one of the setbacks suffered by the Patriots could have affected his focus and his performance. He had personal distractions as well including his mother who has been ill all season. The Super Bowl was the first game she came to all season. Additionally, he overcame the adversity of his 4 game suspension as did his team (going 3 and 1 while he was out). Brady has made adversity his personal challenge starting in college as a backup, then again when he entered the NFL as a backup. He reportedly approaches every practice doing his best assuming he could be beat out on any given day. Super Bowl Sunday he appeared centered and calm regardless of what was going on in the game. Was experience a factor? Again, it appeared to be so once the momentum started to change. The team did not give up. Atlanta appeared to tighten up to a degree. Mistakes were costly to both teams and Atlanta seemed unable to recover, while New England just kept moving past their own – adapting as the game went on.


Belichick has earned the accolade of “greatest coach of all time.” What makes him such a great coach? The speculation will continue for a long time. He is focused on his job, and he demands high levels of performance from everyone in his organization. The team handrail this year was “do your job.” He has developed his system and his players each have their role to play. He holds people accountable.

It may take a while for accounts of what happened during half time, what adjustments were made, what was seen by the coaching staff, and what the players did regarding their own individual performance psychology factors, for us to have a better understanding of this unprecedented performance. Regardless of who anyone rooted for, there are significant psychology of performance lessons in this historic game. We can all look forward to learning what they may be over the next few months!



Have a day filled with loving kindness and compassion,

Robert A. Mines, Ph.D., Chairman and Psychologist


List of records set or tied in Super Bowl LI between New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons: