Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons

The Kansas City Chiefs pulled off a historic comeback last month: Playing against the Houston Texans, the Chiefs became the first team to win a playoff game by 20 points after trailing by 20 points in the same game.

The first 20 minutes were tough for Chiefs fans to swallow: Multiple dropped passes. A blocked punt. A fumbled punt return. Each mistake contributing to what became a formidable lead for the Texans.

But the Chiefs responded in a big way: scoring seven touchdowns on their next seven drives. (Quarterback Patrick Mahomes tied an NFL record by throwing four touchdowns in the second quarter alone.)

In his postgame press conference, Mahomes gave some insight into how his team was able to claw back into the game.

“The biggest thing that I think I was preaching to the team was, ‘Let’s go do something special,'” said Mahomes. “Everybody’s already counting us out. Let’s just go play-by-play and just put our best effort out there … play-by-play we just chipped away at that lead.”

“One play at a time,” Mahomes would go on to repeat.

This five-word-phrase is simple enough, but it’s much more than a sports cliché. It’s a core tenet of emotional intelligence, and it can help you climb back from the brink of failure to do great things.

One play at a time

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions–including when you’re under big-pressure moments. 

But how can the principle of “one play at a time” help you build and exercise emotional intelligence?

When you or your teammates make a crushing mistake, the natural response is to get deflated or down. Your inner voice will say things like, “You’re not good enough,” and “It’s time to give up.”

That certainly happened to some of the Chiefs players yesterday. For example, with the score at 24-0, wide receiver Sammy Watkins admitted he thought the end of the Chiefs’ season had come.

“A couple of times, I was like, ‘This is over,'” Watkins told ESPN in an interview. “I kind of got down, like, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.'”

But tight end Travis Kelce soon set him straight.

“He said, ‘Hey, don’t look like that, your body language,'” Watkins said. “I was like, ‘OK, he knows something I don’t know.'”

What did Kelce and Mahomes know? 

They knew their team wouldn’t continue to commit the same blunders. They were too talented; they had run these plays thousands of times.

Taking one play at a time doesn’t mean that you don’t learn from your mistakes. But it does mean refusing to let those mistakes, or even your successes, define you. Rather, you strive to keep balanced emotionally, so that you can stay focused on the task at hand. Taking one play at a time also means continuing to move forward, instead of living in the past.

And now, by taking one play at a time, the Chiefs are on their way to their second AFC championship game in a row.

It was last at last years’ AFC championship game that Mahomes and the Chiefs suffered defeat at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Brady made headlines when he privately approached Mahomes after the game to share a few words of encouragement with the up-and-coming star.

Also following that game, reporters asked Brady how he did it, how he managed to stay calm in the biggest moments. How he continued to win, year after year.

Brady’s answer was interesting.

“Part of playing sports is just staying in the moment,” he said. “You know, we always say…’one play at a time.'”

Looks like Mahomes has learned a lot in a year.

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A version of this article originally appeared on