Streaks don’t work well with human nature. It must be something in our DNA. We say streaks are meant to be broken, and we treat them that way.
The narrative about any streak—in sports or otherwise—is always the same. It starts out as a nice storyline, then pressure mounts and people watch in awe as the number climbs and climbs until it inevitably ends.
This seems rational to us. Something in our minds tells us that any impressive streak is about to end, even as we’re immersed in it. At some point, we cease living in the moment and realize what’s happening, and that’s when streaks are broken.
There’s a famous biblical story about Jesus’ disciples crossing the sea in a boat when strong winds begin to toss the boat around, making the journey more perilous. While the passengers are trying to keep the boat afloat and on course, they see Jesus walking toward them on top of the water.
One of the disciples, Peter, asks Jesus to let him walk out toward him on top of the water to prove he wasn’t a ghost. Jesus obliges, and Peter steps out of the boat and walks toward Jesus. As Peter approaches Jesus, his mind starts to focus on the wind and he becomes afraid. Once fear hits his spirit, he begins to sink until Jesus reaches out his hand to rescue him from drowning.
I’ve heard that story a million times over my lifetime, but recently this thought has occurred to me: How many steps did Peter take before the full realization of what he was doing hit him? How long was he “in the zone” before reality set in?
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the practice gym at Littlejohn Coliseum waiting to play pickup basketball at lunch. As another game was going on, I began shooting free throws. At one point, I hit seven or eight in a row, and immediately my mindset changed.
See, I know that I make about 75 or 80 percent of my free throws. That’s what I’ve done forever. My rational mind recognizes that, so when I get to seven or eight, my mindset goes from “Make this free throw” to “I’m probably due to miss one soon” unless I’m totally immersed in my process.
I wasn’t immersed. I missed the next one.
A factory or construction site might have a sign that reads “We have worked ____ days without an accident” (or something similar) somewhere on the premises. We glorify that number and work in pursuit of the next one, but if it gets too high, we tend to assume a mistake will soon reset it back to zero.
That’s what makes Clemson football’s consistency so impressive. Until last Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh, there were streaks long overdue to be broken that had continued for several seasons. Predictability existed where the presence of college students would seem to lend itself to the unpredictable.
The streaks that ended Saturday were remarkable. 44 straight wins against unranked teams, 23 straight wins in regular season games, 21 straight wins at home, 15 straight wins against ACC teams, 9 straight wins in 2016—all of those streaks were reset by the Panthers.
Human nature says each of those streaks should have ended before they did. Call it the law of averages. Call it regression to the mean. Call it whatever. It still doesn’t make sense to do what Clemson has done.
It is virtually impossible to keep a group of people as focused on the task at hand as Clemson football has been. Over the past few seasons, there have been very few moments where wandering minds within the program have let the big picture distract from the task at hand. Each day, each game or practice, each play truly has been the most important thing more often than not.
Some streaks remain, but many have been reset back to zero heading into this week’s game at Wake Forest. In some ways, that can be a freeing thing. The pressures of keeping all those streaks alive disappear, leaving only the game itself as the focal point.
Losing is never fun. It stinks in the moment, and it’s always challenging to respond. Still, erasing big numbers and writing a “0” up on that proverbial white board might be the best thing for Clemson right now. It shouldn’t take long to find out the answer in Winston-Salem on Saturday night.