The underdog mentality describes a David vs. Goliath situation in which a smaller, less experienced, ostensibly less talented, or any other “lesser” competitor takes on the bigger, more experienced, ostensibly more talented, or any other “greater” competitor. The strength of the underdog mentality is that it allows the “lesser” to take advantage of the situation from a psychological standpoint – and is one of the most sensational aspects of sports.
Athletes wishing to create this mentality can work on the following:
- Focus on performance and not outcome
- Create a ritual (before and after performances – win or lose)
- Enjoy the moment
- Rely on what got you where you are, don’t expect to change (much if anything) because of circumstance
- If you choose to read about expectations (which is sometimes unavoidable but avoidance is recommended), remember that everyone has an opinion regardless of how much knowledge they may or may not have about you, your performance, the circumstances, or your opponents
- Reward yourself for your performances regardless of outcome
- Live in the moment rather than attempting to learn too much during the actual event (you will learn regardless and after the performance is complete will be the best time to review and refine your feelings, thoughts, and actions)
Iceland in the UEFA European Championship is an ideal example of the Underdog Mentality that allows a “Cinderella Story” to unfold. This was the first time the Icelandic football team had ever qualified for a major tournament. As such they were writing their own history entering into the weeks of play against top level countries. It would not matter if they lost all of their games – purely being a part of the tournament was in and of itself an accomplishment for which the players and fans could be satisfied. When a team or athlete is satisfied with their participation in the event alone, they are free to play to their utmost ability without the psychology of expectation (both internal and external) impacting their performance.
Iceland played Portugal in their opening game, a team whose country’s and team’s expectations were certainly high. In fact, they were picked as a favorite to win the competition. Iceland could play with nothing to lose and pit their best against the team with everything to lose. In dramatic fashion Iceland was able to move through the tournament further than almost anyone would have imagined – outperforming steep competition, even beating England to move into the Quarter Finals. After each match the players would move to their fans’ corner of the respective stadium and perform a ritual that connected the players to their countrymen, win or lose. The underdog mentality was in full force and history has now been written for the Icelandic national team’s first ever appearance in a major tournament. Perhaps one of the best and most inspirational observations of their performance was their commitment to playing their style – grit, never give up mentality, aggressiveness, and unity – regardless of the score line.