Sporting shocks remind us that even the most successful players and teams aren’t invincible. The possibility of an unexpected result gives us a reason to back the underdog and a chance to celebrate the against-the-odds story. Sometimes we can be most inspired by the seemingly unrealistic dreams of an unlikely hero, because they make us feel like anything is possible.
Last week, my Surbiton team lost a domestic hockey game for the first time in over 18 months. It wasn’t a top of the table clash or a playoff final – we were defeated in the second round of our National Cup defence by Barnes, a side who play several league divisions below us. Of course, this is what the ‘magic of a cup run’ is all about: David vs Goliath, giant killings and the underdog progressing against the odds. This result might not make headline news outside the world of English hockey, but it’s definitely an outcome that surprised a few people.
On a wider scale, a shock can become the unforgettable or defining moment of a sports event. Despite the All Blacks’ record breaking victory, in some ways the 2015 Rugby World Cup will be best remembered for Japan’s astonishing last-gasp victory over South Africa in the pool stages. Germany’s 2014 Football World Cup victory was amazing, but I think I’ll remember it more for their 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the semi final. What about Greece winning Euro 2004? They started the tournament as 150-1 outsiders who had never won a game in a major tournament.
Of course sometimes a little shock can be the precursor to a seismic shift in sporting power. There’s a reason we talk about new stars ‘exploding’ onto the scene. Roger Federer had to start somewhere… when he beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, perhaps it seemed like a tremor. In the following decade, that tremor became a tsunami of Grand Slam titles and tour victories.
Shocks definitely provide some good material for headline writers. Unless a lucky punter wins a huge, unexpected payout, most of the time they’re not too bad for the bookies either. And for a player or team who wins against the odds, it might just be the best experience they ever have in a sporting arena.
Of course, if you’re on the wrong end of a shock result, it’s not a very nice feeling. In addition to the disappointment of defeat, you often have to deal with a bit of embarrassment too. However, I believe that the greatest sportspeople are humble in victory and gracious in defeat. So learn lessons and try not to let it happen again – but when you shake hands with the opponent who has just handed you a shock defeat, look them in the eye and mean it when you congratulate them.
There’s a kind of raw beauty to the feeling of shocking yourself. This can happen at every level of sport. You might surprise yourself by managing to finish a tough work out, by reaching the top of a hill without getting off your bike, by completing a run more quickly than you thought you could. At Olympic level, I’ll never forget Kelly Holmes’ face when it dawned on her that she had won 800m gold at Athens 2004. More recently, the wide-eyed disbelief of lightweight rowers Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland when they realised, “We’ve won the Olympics!” was a defining image of London 2012.
For me, that’s why sport needs shocks. It’s not about headlines or big wins at the bookies. It’s about how seemingly unbelievable outcomes can make us feel, irrespective of whether we are watching or competing. It’s about those moments that make your heart jump and your eyes pop out of your head. Sometimes magic happens when you least expect it.