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The mentality of an underdog

As we celebrate Underdog Week, let’s examine the mental aspect of going against the odds.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Underdog Week at SB Nation, so we thought it would be a good idea to dive into a unique perspective: the mentality of an underdog.

From a coaching standpoint, motivation and mentality are incredibly important to the outcome of a game. The state of mind of a team needs to be strong, unified, and healthy if they are to achieve a desired result. Perseverance and sacrifice are required from each individual on the team to reach those goals. There’s a lot of moving parts to motivation and, frankly, a lot to be cognizant of.

As an underdog, you face different mental hurdles than you would in a more balanced contest. What are some of those hurdles, and how do teams and individuals most clearly leap past them?

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Us Against the World Narrative

External expectations can be a pretty powerful motivator. “You’re wrong and I’ll show you” has been the narrative to countless success stories, as evident throughout The Last Dance documentary. There’s a distinction to be made between going against public sentiment and actually being the underdog though. The odds might be 51-49 against you, but it’s hard to capture the mind of being an underdog when the margin is so slim.

Those athletes or teams who are severely overlooked are the ones who can seriously lay claim to the underdog label. They’re the ones who nearly everyone expects to fall short of their goal and such widespread disbelief is a really powerful unifying factor.

I’ve been a coach of and a part of several teams as the underdog. We’ve lost far more than we’ve won in those instances, but there are some common themes that can propel a team farther than expected.

Playing with House Money

In some instances, the game can have very little at stake for the favorite. NBA fans are familiar with the “trap game” label that can pinned on an inferior opponent. Usually the favorite is on a hot streak or may have a more impactful contest on their postseason bid upcoming. CelticsBlog’s Jeff Clark went into detail on the dangers of trap games a few years ago.

Whether due to overlooking their current opponent or having all the pressure on their shoulders to succeed, the favorites are the ones weighed down by expectations of success. For the underdog, that can be liberating in so many ways. It’s like playing with house money–you can gamble a little more freely than you otherwise would because the consequences of failure don’t seem as great. In Isaiah Thomas’ two full seasons in Boston, the Celtics were an impressive 22-13 in second-games-of-a-back-to-back.

Ride the Wave

As soon as an underdog gets momentum, they can begin to feel like the task ahead of them doesn’t seem so impossible. Conversely, stopping momentum of a team with nothing to lose is easier said than done. Whenever an underdog starts playing well, their confidence can spike.

The perfect example of this is the explosion we saw back in 2012 with Linsanity. New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin went from a bench player struggling to get his contract guaranteed to global sensation in about two weeks. Over an eleven-game span from February 4th to February 22nd, Lin averaged 23.9 points, 9.2 assists and shot 36.9 percent from 3-point range while improbably leading the Knicks to a 9-2 record.

Daily News back page Photo By: NY Daily News via Getty Images

In hindsight, Lin obviously wasn’t able to sustain this magic throughout much of his career and blended in with other score-first point guards. What he did over this time was as much influenced by momentum as it was by talent. When he had the ball in his hands, both he and his teammates believed something special was going to happen. Just as importantly, so did his adversaries and often, it happened.

Let them underestimate you

Some guys walk into the gym and immediately are cast as the underdog. Their physical stature causes them to be constantly overlooked and undervalued. As their opponents underestimate them, the player rises to the occasion and does more than catch everyone by surprise. They win.

Nobody has exemplified how to succeed as an underdog more than former Boston Celtics hero Isaiah Thomas. Whether it’s on an individual level (as the last pick in the 2012 NBA Draft) or from a team standpoint (not being the favorite against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Playoffs despite owning homecourt advantage), Thomas’ mindset has rarely changed: who cares what everyone else says or thinks? At 5’9, he went out there and had his play do the talking.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For those reasons, he’s beloved. He was the consummate underdog that overcame adversity and perception. He lead teams to the playoffs, he had heroic scoring outbursts in big games, and was a selfless team-first guy through it all. He was fueled by playing against the odds, and put in the work to let his actions silence his critics.

Belief & When Things Go Bad

Confident players and teams don’t view themselves as underdogs. Instead of embracing their position as David and not as Goliath, supremely confident groups view themselves as more than belonging; they believe they are superior to whomever they face. The inverse is also true. In order to view yourself as an underdog, you have to partially embrace the notion that you don’t belong where you are.

Such a belief--no matter how small--can be dangerous and crack the foundation of belief. Those show up in moments of adversity, particularly against great opponents.

Shaking the Foundation

Let’s be honest: if a team is an underdog, there’s a reason for it. Usually it’s due to inferior record, a prevalent size disparity, or skill mismatch between the two foes. The labels aren’t assigned by accident.

During the course of battle, singular moments can arise that can remind both teams who is David and who is Goliath. Those “shaking the foundation” plays are ones of hundreds, but they can energize (or rattle) teams to their core.

It may be an eerie memory, but the Celts were deer in headlights to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. After Boston took a 3-2 lead heading home to the Garden, LeBron went into takeover mode and played perhaps the best game he’s ever had. Miami won Game 6 in Boston to even the series behind his 45 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists, and broke away late when James propelled the Heat to a 24-18 advantage in the fourth against an older Celtics team on their last legs.

The Celtics were not severe underdogs in that series, but it was clear they didn’t have the best player on the floor. Going against such a powerful foe can force you to question yourself. Do we need to play absolutely perfect to beat these guys? Does it even matter if our opponent is playing like this?

The moment a crack in the foundation starts, it’s almost impossible to stop.

Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Voice Within

A timeout and a coach’s words during these moments can be inspiring. They can be right on-point. Calming. Motivational. Light a fire under your butt. The list goes on.

But none of it matters if the player’s don’t truly believe.

The voice within an athlete’s head telling them what to believe can be influenced, but it’s also evidence-based. When the going gets tough and you’re against a really good team, how do you tune that out and stay focused? To Stevens, it comes from hard work and acing the process of getting better:

“ build confidence from doing really hard things over, and over, and over. That’s your focus, that’s your intent. Your job is your focus–you know what you’re supposed to do, you perform every assignment, you do it physically, you do it tough. And then, all of a sudden, the ball goes in. It’s kind of funny how it works. The game honors it... the game honors toughness. Boy, is that true. You see that over and over.”

Only the mentally strong weather the storm, and only the most calming of leaders can influence others to weather it. But the confidence doesn’t come from anywhere irrational or purely motivational–it comes from belief that your process towards success is the right one. Stevens has preached growth mindset in Boston since arriving seven years ago and the team’s steady development has been a product of his leadership.

The Snowball Effect

As soon as a crack in the foundation occurs, that voice within has to take over and seal the crack before it can splinter. Confidence isn’t organic, and if it’s not built upon, the snowball effect occurs. One problem turns into two, which turns into three, and the list keeps growing. Against the Bucks in last year’s playoffs, the Celtics couldn’t capitalize on a Game 1 win in Milwaukee and lost the next four. At that point, the underdog mentality isn’t as much a perception as a reality. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and is darn near impossible to stop.

Everyone loves a good underdog story, and those without an investment in the outcome tend to cheer on their behalf. But viewing one’s self as an underdog can be dangerous because of its implicit acknowledgement that you are outmatched or undermanned in some way.

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