The Art of the Underdog

April 02, 2019, 7:07 a.m. (ET)

By: Staff Reporter

“Do you believe in miracles?”

If Team USA taught the world anything in the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympic Games, it’s to never count out the little guy. Never underestimate your opponent, never think it will be an easy win. Most importantly, never give them an inch, or they can go a mile. As an underdog, your best advantage is believing in each other, embracing the moment and let your hard work speak for itself.

The problem with the term “underdog” is that it is a term applied by people outside the field of competition, not necessarily those who are competing. It can, however, serve as a bit of added motivation to the players. Thoughts of “we aren’t supposed to win this game” or “nobody believes we can win” can play interesting tricks on someone, much as “we are supposed to win this game” or “this is our game to lose” will do the same. Basic sports psychology tells us that playing to win and playing not to lose are two very different things. In addition, playing with the pressure of being the favorite can be overwhelming, especially when you are playing in front of a home crowd.

In itself, defying the doubters is an incredible achievement from staff to athletes. And therein lies the key. It is a matter of character, and in turn, team culture. The 1980 U.S. Men’s Ice Hockey Team might have seemed to the world a bunch of upstart college boys, but unto themselves, they were players for whom “the name on the front [of the jersey] is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back,” as coach Herb Brooks said. The foundation was there, built over a year of coming together as a squad, in which they believed they could just go out and play.

A strong team culture will be the base from which any squad can build in preparation for a season, not just for one game. Obviously, if that one game happens to be a final of a tournament, a pool play match or the semifinals, that drama is heightened. As much as teams want to believe in a process, when it comes down to it, fans and history will often look at only a result, a single game, to determine a legacy. To be sure, there is a result after every game. Win, lose or draw, there is an outcome that will be recorded for all time. In a tournament, someone moves on. The drama of adding who should win or move on or host the trophy only adds to the excitement of the general public, whether or not they are ardent followers of the sport or only casual observers who just enjoy a good story.

It’s not as simple as a great Hollywood ending, however. Belief in yourself, a solid team culture, strong character and the support of the general public as the underdog won’t win games. Hard work is a crucial factor, to be sure. Miami University alumna Makenna Colby, MVP of the 2017 MAC field hockey tournament, once told her team, “The harder you work, the more fun the game is.” Colby helped her team to a number of upsets during a season that culminated in a berth in the final 16 of the 2017 NCAA Division I tournament, reminding her team constantly that it didn’t matter whether they were the favorite or underdog. It would require a combination of work and belief to get the result they desired. Three times that season the RedHawks were underdogs on the road and went on to the victory, each time citing the emphasis of a strong work ethic and belief that they played to win as key factors in the result.

Sports loves a good story. We create polls to add excitement to a story, so that as we talk about an upcoming game, the drama of the higher ranked team having to fend off a quick start, or a lower ranked team coming into the house of the favorite, looking to knock off said team, builds up the game.

While all of that drama is great for the fans, players on the underdog team can channel that energy into going back to the basics they have built for themselves - strong character, a solid team culture, consistent work ethic and a freedom to play, well, freely. Unshackled, a team can reach into its reserves when needed and in turn use that extra burst of speed, strength or simple awareness to get that additional inch when the game is on the line.

This call on reserves can be seen in looking back at the U.S. Women’s National Team’s win against Germany in the 1994 World Cup. Germany, the silver medalists in the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, were heavily favored against the team that had been the last to qualify for the event. In the bronze medal game, USA went up 2-0. In the second half Germany drew penalty corner after penalty corner. “Patty Shea and I had a system,” recalled Tracey Fuchs, USA striker. “She would stop the ball and I would clear it out.”

Meanwhile, USA’s strikers were using their training, sprinting back up to midfield with each short corner against them. “I remember running back to midfield with Laurel (Hershey),” said Liz Tchou. “‘We’re going to do it,’ I told her. All those 20-yard sprints were for just that moment.” And they did, holding on for a 2-1 victory to give USA the bronze at the World Cup. The underdogs of the tournament found themselves on the podium in Dublin, Ireland, a testament to their belief in each other. It was a simple formula, really, much like the ones used by the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2017 at FIH Hockey World League Round 2 in Trinidad and Tobago.


With the odds stacked against them, USA’s stunning run was sparked after rallying to tie Chile 2-2 in regulation to force a shootout. Paul Singh and Ajai Dhadwal cemented a 2-0 advantage with Brandon Karess standing tall in net. That set USA with a matchup against the host nation in the quarterfinals, where again down 2-0, they set to conquer the challenge. They tied the game late in regulation and won in a shootout fashion to head to the semifinals. With the podium within reach, Rutger Wiese’s squad pulled off the underdog hat trick to beat Russia in the third-place shootout. Karess, once more rising to the challenge in goal, finished the tournament stopping an astounding 12 of 15 shootout attempts. USA’s performance wasn’t just miraculous, it was a combined team effort from a group of men who never gave up.

Sports does love a good underdog. So does history. Using that underdog tag as extra motivation to compliment a strong foundation can have amazing results and add to great memories. Enjoy it, but enjoy it all.


This article is featured in the Summer 2018 issue of FHLife magazine. To read more inspiring, knowledge-packed and fun features revolving around hockey, fitness, healthy eating and how to strengthen your game, subscribe to our quarterly publication by clicking here.