Searching for Sporting Glory: the Underdog vs the Favourite

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In most sports, the competitors start on a level playing field. At the beginning of a game, the score is 0-0 and in a race, everybody starts on a line the same distance away from the finishing tape. However, it often seems like the tags “favourite” and “underdog” can have a big impact when it comes to performance.

Sport has an amazing capacity to get us talking, judging and predicting long before a whistle has been blown or a ball has been played. In the run up to any big sporting event, people across the world spend lots of time discussing and lots of money betting on who will win. Sportradar, a company that monitors sports gambling activity, suggests that the global sports betting market could be worth up to $1 trillion (that’s 12 zeros. 12!). We are bombarded with statistics, odds and opinions, but does this really have any bearing on a result?

Maybe it’s all about what goes on in our heads. Being labelled as the favourite can generate confidence, belief and a feeling of invincibility. But it can also create pressure and expectation. An underdog may struggle with self-belief or feel like they have no real chance, but for some sportspeople, the idea that there’s nothing to lose can help set a performance free. I have a strong belief that in sport, statistics don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story. Just because Team A has beaten Team B the last nine times they have played, it doesn’t mean that game ten is a foregone conclusion. If it was, we wouldn’t feel so excited, nervous, tense and emotional about it all. That said, if either team allows the past to play on their minds, whether those thought processes are positive or negative could have a big impact on what is likely to happen.

Why can external opinions have such a big internal effect? The concept of self-efficacy may be important here. This idea is centred on self-confidence being situational and affected by factors such as observational learning and social experience. Learned behaviours and previous experience can seriously impact on a player’s belief and their subsequent execution of skills, tactics and physical performance. It might seem easier to win if you have done it before, and if others also believe you can do it again. But this is where underdog stories come in. As well as giving some sportspeople a sense of there being nothing to lose, they show us that in sport, unexpected things are possible. An underdog can sometimes have a great performance under no pressure at all and on any given day that can mean that an unexpected result happens.

In the last month, my hockey team has probably been considered both a favourite and an underdog in the three matches that determined the success of our whole season. In the English Hockey Playoffs, we had to play against two teams who had finished above us in the league table and who historically have had more experience and success in top-level club hockey. In the Cup Final, we were up against a lower league team who had done brilliantly to make the final (against the odds, if you’re the gambling type). As much as I think we approached all of our matches professionally and confidently, there’s no doubt that our sense of where we stood before the game had an impact on how we played.

Of course the favourite and underdog tags have a bigger effect on some sportspeople than others. In global sports or events, where media and public interest can be unbelievably high, the effects can be hugely multiplied. Just think of Cathy Freeman, the defining face of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. I can’t think of many examples of a sportsperson with greater pressure and expectation on his or her shoulders. Freeman was hailed as a favourite for the 400m, but her bid for glory transcended the track: she became a symbol of Australia, of the Aborigine people, and of a person trying to follow her own dream with the hopes and expectations of millions of people behind her. Incidentally, Freeman handled the pressure and won a gold medal.

For many sportspeople, the Olympics is the pinnacle of performance. We consider Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Chris Hoy and Dame Kelly Holmes to be British sporting heroes. They aren’t the only famous names from Olympic history though. What about Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel? Aside from the obvious necessity to have an alliterating nickname, the thing that these guys have in common is their underdog status. The public (including those who watch and support the Olympics as the peak of performance) tend to admire the bravery and pluckiness of these sportspeople regardless of the fact that compared to most Olympians they are pretty useless. ‘Useless’ may seem harsh… but Eddie the Eagle came 55th in the 1988 Ski Jumping with a combined total of 57.5m, whilst even the guy who came 54th managed 110.8m. Meanwhile Eric the Eel (who had never even seen a 50m pool before arriving at the Olympics) took twice as long as the winner of his heat to complete two lengths. These two Olympians may have emerged as crowd favourites, but they are two of the best-known underdogs in sporting history.

For some sportspeople, even elite athletes, they can remain regarded as underdogs if they do not quite achieve the very highest levels of success. Lee Westwood has been the world’s number one golfer, won the golf money list and represented Europe for the last eight Ryder Cups. Yet because he hasn’t yet won a major championship, pundits never really seem to think he will win. They think he might, but they never say he will. Rory McIlroy carried a four-shot lead into the final round at the 2011 US Masters but crumbled spectacularly under the pressure of being favourite. Just two months later, he built up an eight-shot lead over the first three rounds and coped with the pressure just fine to become a major champion for the first time.

Meanwhile, Tim Henman and Andy Murray have spent the last two decades carrying the tag of favourite for Wimbledon, regardless of form, rankings and the fact that both have played against some of the greatest players ever to hold a tennis racquet. Until Murray broke Britain’s 77-year duck on male winners at SW19, these Brits have somehow been tagged favourites every year despite the fact that realistically, they were probably always underdogs. And then of course there’s Wimbledon’s true underdog story: Goran Ivanisevic. Although he had made three Wimbledon finals earlier in his career, Ivanisevic entered the tournament as a wildcard in 2001 with a world ranking of 125. He went on to win the tournament. To illustrate quite how unexpected this result was, let’s consider the bookies. Ladbrokes and William Hill didn’t even give out odds for Ivanisevic at the start of that Wimbledon.

As I type this, World Championship Snooker plays quietly on the TV in the background. Earlier, I spotted Jimmy White in the crowd. Despite being a six-time finalist, he has never managed to win the World Championship. Snooker is a game of angles, finesse and very fine margins. White emerged as a prodigious teenage talent, progressed to play as a favourite, and probably ended up as the eternal underdog every additional time he failed to become champion. Of course, only in Britain would we dub a six-time runner up “The People’s Champion”.

It is considered typically British to support an underdog. This trait may have come from outside the sporting arena – maybe it’s something to do with coming from a small island nation. We consider the little guy who makes it big to be inspirational. We want to believe that even if the odds are against you, it’s possible to succeed. These attitudes are to some degree perpetuated by films and popular culture. Sports movies such as ‘Cool Runnings’, ‘Miracle’, ‘Rocky’, and ‘Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story’ teach us that whilst the underdog sometimes wins the championship and sometimes they don’t, it’s possible to win the hearts and minds of others by giving it a go.

I can’t even begin to cover every underdog story in sport here. As a football fan, lots of examples spring to mind: Greece and Denmark becoming European champions; Wigan winning the FA Cup in 2013; Manchester United and Liverpool mounting famous comebacks to win the Champions League from losing positions. What about baseball’s Boston Red Sox finally winning the World Series in 2004 after an 88-year drought? How about Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson as a 42-1 underdog for the fight? There are plenty of other examples out there, many of which have been inspirational and become legendary.

Of course, top sportspeople thrive on pressure. They expect to win and they want others to expect it to happen too. They may not have started out as a favourite – some sporting greats may have even have begun as underdogs. But to become truly great over an enduring period of time, you have to learn to perform with the tag of favourite. Michael Jordan, Steffi Graf, Usain Bolt, Cristiano Ronaldo (and Lionel Messi, so I’m not accused of favouritism): they haven’t just got to the top – they’ve stayed there.

As for my team, we managed to win as both underdogs and as favourites. Based solely on our emotional responses, I can understand why victory as an underdog may feel more exciting than when you are expected to win. For us, it was pure delight to win the National Championship. I think it’s fair to say most people expected us to win the Cup Final. That didn’t mean it was a given, but it made our victory a little less dramatic and maybe the happiness was mixed in with a bit of relief. Either way, I’m really proud of each and every one of the girls for doing their bit, getting better as the season has gone on and performing well when it mattered the most.

Pressure and expectation can affect us in both positive and negative ways. The bottom line is, sometimes favourites can lose and underdogs can win, but things might just go by the formbook. I’m hoping that we go on from being double champions once, to being remembered for doing it again. Because in the end, there are two types of sporting story that are remembered for the longest: the truly great and the underdog champ who defies the odds and makes the unexpected possible. Which would you rather be?

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