The Underdog Mentality

One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was playing on my city’s club soccer team. We had two great coaches, Coach Ralph and Coach Mike, who were with us throughout our elementary, junior high school, and early high school years. They were there through every step of our growth from boys to men.

Playing soccer under their mentorship taught us a lot of really important lessons. One important thing I learned was how to really push myself, especially on those tournament weekends where we’d have two full games on Saturday and three full games on Sunday. Another was to push yourself for the purpose of the team. Don’t do it for yourself, but for your team. Suffer for your team. Die for your team. Leave it all out there on the field, whether it’s a normal practice or a State Cup semifinal. But perhaps the most important lesson was the underdog mentality.

We learned it the hard way more times than we can count. For example, we’re ranked first in our league, going up against the lowest ranked team during a season match. We get destroyed. Or we have a really good first half, then get overconfident and lose it all in the second half. Or we just come out of a tournament win, then laze around at practice the following week because we think we’ve made it. Coach Mike and Coach Ralph would be swift and severe in their reprimand, even if it was right after a game, to destroy this tendency to ease up the throttle just because we’re ahead. The underdog mentality is practiced by a group of people or a single person, and it means to never believe that mediocrity is sufficient, no matter how convincing the circumstances may be to that effect.

When our team followed our coaches’ guidance and played as underdogs, we accomplished great things. When we played in this way, we never kicked the ball and ran after it, nor tried to dribble the ball and attempt juking out defenders for personal glory. We adhered to what we learned in practice, passing the ball in a controlled, smart way, emulating drills we learned at practice on the field. When played this kind of way, we won scrimmages, we beat state champions, we won State Cups. When we didn’t, we lost to the worst teams in our brackets and were knocked out of tournaments in the first two rounds. Our coaches’ lessons are burned into my memory with the sweet taste of triumphant victory and the bitter taste of humiliating defeat.

I think this lesson is so important because everything that we do to in order improve ourselves always relates back to this underdog mentality.

Indirectly, they taught us that the core belief of a true underdog is that any misstep will lead him to failure. He is up against an opponent, imaginary or real, who is far better than he is. Only through diligence, strict discipline, and a bit of luck can he overcome it.

While the underdog mentality worked for soccer, it applies to everything we want to get better at in life. Improving a skill. Refining a perspective or mentality. Gaining knowledge. Attaining a higher level of religious/spiritual enlightenment. Anything and everything you think and do is able to be subjected to the underdog mentality, because anything and everything we do can be done in a better way. Always.

“The enemy” is always the state between your current level of skill and your next level of skill, regardless of the level of skill. Believing that you’re always up against this superior enemy cuts your pride and gives you something to work towards. I think that’s why people who are great at something rarely think they are as amazing as we do – their underdog mentality is what brought them there.

Part of the underdog mentality is the strong presence of motivation to get better. Self improvement is constantly on the mind of an ideal underdog. Contained within the mentality of the underdog, then, is the self-regulatory mentality. The constant questioning of even the most deeply held convictions that tell you you’re at a certain level of competence. Your acceptance of the fact that you are not the best means you accept that with improvement, change is certain to be in the future and that that change may necessitate the updating or deletion of even those sacred protected convictions.

This allows one to be open minded, but leaves one to the danger of being swayed easily. So a strict criteria by which you judge what should change a conviction or not is also necessary. And this set of criteria is contained within our minds, completely subconscious and automatic – the filter by which we judge what to change about ourselves only improves with experience.

I think the ideal underdog measures himself by improvement, not absolute performance. It’s more important that he outperformed himself, not someone else. Because there’s always someone out there better than you, working harder than you, better at everything than you, and it’d be an unattainable and ultimately confidence-crushing goal. He’s always thinking, “I am not the best” even if he just set a world record in his skill. It’s so hard yet important to internalize this.

It all sounds so abstract, but it’s so concrete. It’s as concrete as studying hard for the class every upperclassman has told said “Don’t worry about that class, LOL.” It’s as concrete as accepting that you’re simply not as good at something as people tell you are. It’s as concrete as striving for excellence in things as minor as filling out an event form and things as major as college applications.

Coach Ralph and Coach Mike stopped pushing us at soccer practice years ago, but they continue to teach and reteach this lesson in underdoggedness each day of my life. It’s something I struggle with now, but I hope to internalize this one day so deeply that I won’t know what this post means because it’s so natural to me. That’s the dream.