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Benefits of being the underdog

Friday, June 20, 2014
Dirt Under the Nails
Uruguay's Maxi Pereira (16) tries to help Costa Rica's Joel Campbell (9) during the group D World Cup soccer match between Uruguay and Costa Rica at the Arena Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil, Saturday. Pereira was given a red card for the incident. AP Photo

It has been a goal-filled, penalty-stricken and quite exciting World Cup football tournament thus far, and emotions and anticipations are running high. 


Disappointing play from hosts Brazil and football giants like Argentina and even Italy, have left fans at the edge of their seats, wondering “What next!” The surprising bulldozing of former defending champions Spain by the Netherlands and Chile, and of two time champions Uruguay at the hands of Costa Rica, a clear underdog who has not won an opening game since 1970, has blown this World Cup wide open. It seems to be anyone’s for the taking, and has highlighted the power of the underdog.


The general definition of “underdog” is the person or team that is expected to lose a game or fight. The term originated from nineteenth century dogfights. The beaten dog would normally be pinned underneath the winning dog, giving rise to the terms “underdog” and “top dog,” as the winning dog would be called. 


Despite this glum imagery, there are some interesting advantages to being the underdog in a competition like the World Cup, that can lead to an astonishing upset as in the Spain/Netherlands, Spain/Chile and Uruguay/Costa Rica matches. 


Firstly, there are no expectations made of an underdog team, except that they should lose. Therefore, the underdog has nothing to lose. Because there are no expectations, there is little pressure on the team to win and players can focus more on the process, rather than on the outcome. 


It can be quite a liberating and freeing experience, as the athlete can just enjoy playing the game without the weight of world expectations. 


I bet that this reason was partly responsible for Costa Rica’s victory over Uruguay. Although Uruguay scored first and initially pressured the Costa Rican goal, Costa Rica’s play showed ease and enjoyment. Spain also felt the pressure of being the “top dog” and crumbled against the Netherlands and Chile under the world’s expectations, much to the disdain of millions of football-frenzied fans.


However, Spain and Uruguay also fell victim to what I like to call “adverse top dog psychology” and underestimated the Netherlands and Costa Rica. Underestimating causes players to unconsciously cut corners in their mental preparation and become lazy in the first part of the game, until it is too late. I am no football analyst, but I almost wanted to reach through the television and tap Gerard Pique on the head for what even I could see was some lackadaisical defending. This underestimating by the top dog team opens up avenues for the underdogs to sneak through to score. 


Then, panic-stricken, the top dog attempts a haphazard scramble to regain control. Often times, it is in vain and detrimental to the team, resulting in red cards and suspensions as it did when a frustrated Maxi Pereira was sent marching to the locker room. Spain, in a desperate attempt to defeat Chile, seemed to fall victim to the pressure that resulted from the hole into which they had dug themselves against the Netherlands.


Another advantage to being the underdog is an increased level of motivation that comes with the position. Underdogs tend to want to prove their worth to both themselves and to those who expect them to lose, and often will work longer and harder than the top dogs, prepared to fight for as long as it takes. There is great satisfaction that comes with beating a superior team, and this can provide high levels of motivation to underdog teams…and it does not get more motivating than beating a superior team on a global stage like the World Cup!


The typical overwhelming crowd support for the underdog can also increase motivation for such teams. Fans love an unexpected victory, and the drama associated with it. Research studies have shown that there is usually overwhelming support for the underdog. Their persistence of spirit makes for a charming attribute and draws in the fan, who develops an emotional attachment to the underdog. Ultimately, the fan would like to see persistence, fight and hard work win the battle against all odds. Also, as one person put it, a close game is far more exciting than a lopsided one, and fans will therefore root for the underdog so that the game can be more closely contested and therefore more exciting. 


It will be interesting to see how the Brazilian team responds in this World Cup. Will the team rally under the encouragement of their fans? Or will they crumble under their expectations and succumb to “adverse top dog psychology?” Only time will tell in this World Cup of upsets and underdogs.



Carla Rauseo, DPT, CSCS is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Total Rehabilitation Centre in San Juan.


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