First impressions are everything. The firmness of a handshake, random mannerisms and that little bit of ketchup still on your shirt because you didn’t realize it had fallen there can all have an impact on how that person you’re meeting for the first time will view you.
The sports world is no different.
One of the better examples of this right now is Johnny Manziel. Anybody who follows sports—and plenty of people who don’t—know who Johnny Football is. Maybe on their morning commute they heard the disc jockeys of WRAL mention the photo of Johnny at a party with a rolled up dollar bill. Maybe they turned on the local news and the image of Johnny in a Las Vegas pool surrounded by more than 10 beautiful women popped up. Or maybe they actually happened to see one of the countless highlights of Johnny being Johnny on the football field.
Manziel’s personality is polarizing—you either love him or hate him—but one thing that everyone can agree on is that we view him as someone who loves to party and has a bit of an attitude problem. And that’s the image that he’ll have to try and shake off to be a successful player in the NFL.
The first impression is the one that sticks and the one that takes years to overcome—that is if that first impression isn’t an actual depiction of who you are.
It’s not just individuals who are susceptible to the curse of the initial assumption, though. Teams are just as vulnerable, maybe even more so.
Prior to a team’s game in any sport, whether it be basketball, curling, football or sailing, pundits love to dig deep and analyze the team based on the sum of its parts as well as the individual components that make that team up. Fans do it too, to some extent, as they argue amongst friends about whether or not Team A will beat Team B—from experience, this particular form of discussion involves the raising of voices, but then again so does every episode of ESPN’s First Take.
But as soon as that team takes the field for its opener everything changes, and it can go one of two ways.
Scenario One—If the team loses and/or does not live up to expectations: it doesn’t matter who the star quarterback is, how good the role players off the bench are, how many goals were scored, or what the head coach said in his or her press conference after the game. The team could come out the next week and play considerably better but the impression that is left with everyone is “Will this team revert back to the team we saw before?”
Since the Patriots repeated as Super Bowl champions in 2005, no Super Bowl winner has come back the next year and won a playoff game, and half of those teams failed to make the playoffs following their hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy. One of those teams was the 2012 New York “Football” Giants. Big Blue was coming off its second Super Bowl in four years and looked poised to compete for another. But the Giants lost their opening game to the Cowboys that season and everyone started questioning this team and its stability. The G-Men ended up having a good season despite missing the playoffs, but nobody remembers that. They remember the impression left on them after that opening game.
Scenario Two—If the team wins and/or plays very well: there is a tendency to make an excuse or two when the team plays poorly afterward. An example of this is Duke basketball last season. After all of the preseason hype and excitement surrounding Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, the Blue Devils walked into Cameron and smacked Davidson up and down the court on their way to a 111-77 shellacking. And after Duke was not able to keep up with Kansas in Chicago a few days later, our minds wandered back to that day in Cameron where we saw Jabari and Rodney combine for 44 points. “The team just had an off day” and “it’s tough playing against such great competition when you’re still trying to find yourself” are two of the reasons that I heard from both friends and professionals on television trying to explain the loss.
The first impression that was left with us was one of a young but dominant team and it was hard to push that memory away.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. If a team plays in a consistent manner—either well or poorly—for an extended period of time, that first impression can be erased momentarily and is replaced by this new version of the team. But that first impression is never forgotten. It dwells in the back of our minds, biding its time, waiting for an opportunity to spring forth.
To return to a previous example, after Duke struggled against East Carolina, Vermont, Arizona, Notre Dame and Clemson, the perception began to shift. The idea that was once inside our heads as to what that team was started to change. The image morphed to that of a team that struggled not just against good teams but average ones became the prevailing view. And it took a while for the Cameron Crazies to regain the confidence they once had.
So the next time you’re introduced to a friend of a friend, or you have the opportunity to write a column for the first time, remember that your first impression will be a lasting one.
All you can hope is that your first impression is a good one.