A Message to the Underdogs

In today’s sports, winning is the only thing on everyone’s mind, and the inclusion of all team members has slipped the mind of players and coaches alike. Do the underdogs still have a chance in today’s athletics?

By: Elisabeth Riisnaes

We all know the stereotype of the underdog. The one who is hated and cast aside but is the hero of the story. They work hard, persevere, and end up proving to everyone that they are the diamond in the rough, saving the day. However, a lot of sports today have a negative mentality and push these underdogs toward a much sadder ending, where they’re ridiculed rather than revered.

In my experience, sports are often driven by the wrong motives. I have played soccer for 13 years and have seen many teams meet the same fate: their coaches have a toxic need to win. These coaches pick the players they believe will bring victory and they fixate on them. They will bend over backwards to please these athletes, and, quite frankly, couldn’t care less if the others walked away. The favorites are the ones who start the game, play for most of the time, and are given credit for scoring the goal, winning the game, and saving the day. These players are given the most attention and are given any opportunity to succeed, leaving the “underdogs” feeling overlooked and underappreciated.

The problem with this mentality is that no one improves. The starters are treated as if they have no more room to improve. They are constantly praised and never pushed to challenge themselves and grow. The underdogs, however, are treated as if they are unteachable. They are discouraged and are pushed more toward quitting than improving. The team never grows to understand how a team works, the intricacies of the game, and how to adapt to different situations. The group becomes immobile, leaving them with the same results. Underdogs feel that there is no reason to continue, and they often leave the group—or sport—feeling frustrated. The team loses numbers and leaves the starters with limited options, forcing everyone to feel the negative consequences of the wrong mindset.

This coach’s attitude was that we were there to simply enjoy the game for what it was. He focused on having fun instead of winning, which made the team appreciate the game.

Around the time I was 11, I joined competitive soccer, and then hopped to different year-round teams and the high school team. At 17, I have only enjoyed two coaches. Comparing the experiences on each team, the reason these two stood out was because of the mindsets that drove the team.

The first coach brought a very relaxed environment. There had been two teams for our age group in this program, and I was on the “lower team.”  The program was fixated on their upper team and its scores, so not a lot of pressure was put on our secondary group. This coach’s attitude was that we were there to simply enjoy the game for what it was. He focused on having fun instead of winning, which made the team appreciate the game. This pushed the group to want to win and work together to achieve that. There was room for growth, and he gave advice to each player, making the player decide to push themselves to improve, or to not. Players who decided to push themselves became determined to do so because it brought more fun to the game. Players who realized that they didn’t want to improve, and that the game wasn’t for them, left the team with a positive appreciation for the sport. It had become a defining season, one that left players either satisfied with themselves or inspired to work harder.

Considering myself an underdog, I know how toxic a sport can be.

The second coach had the mindset that he was a teacher. He considered himself a soccer educator instead of a coach. He believed that the game was a metaphor for life and that it was his job to prepare the team for success on and off the field. He believed that his players were to grow as players, and as people. He shaped the team with the environment that encouraged such growth. It was up to the player to better themselves, and he expected players to do so on their own time. He lectured on strategy of the game with life lessons woven in. He constantly challenged players to grow in as many ways as they could. Despite some players leaving his team, intimidated by his intensity, the team became determined to grow and built individual soccer skills and character.

Neither coach focused on winning, and the team benefited from it. Each player was treated equally and was given the same opportunities for success. Each team was pushed to grow, and it made the teams’ success rates increase. Players learned more about the game and themselves.

Despite how effective these two coaches and their motives were, youth sports today constantly falls back on the winning-mentality. Instead of every player being treated equally, the underdogs still face the discouraging and biased teams. Considering myself an underdog, I know how toxic a sport can be. But if someone truly loves the game, then they should push through and keep playing for themselves. The reason we all love the underdogs in stories is because they never give up. To all the underdogs, keep working hard and never stop trying. Give yourself the happy ending the audience is rooting for.

Photo: “Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders – Desert Friendlies 2017” by John Floyd on Flickr