How underdogs become sports gods

How did Leicester City's football team race to the top of the Premier League, an unseeded Italian ruin Serena Williams’ shot at tennis history, and Japan dominate in the Rugby World Cup?

Some sports players are born to win medals, others are destined for participation ribbons. But sometimes, sometimes, the underdogs bring their A game and make their transition from zero to hero.

The question is: how do these players and teams do it, and can they ever hope to replicate the act?

Science says "yes" ...with a little bit of rule bending.

Go ambidextrous


Underdogs rely on the element of surprise and you can bring that to your game if you reassess your right-handed tendencies. German scientist Norbert Hagemann found that left-handed tennis players are so rare that opponents struggled to predict their next shot. It’s brilliant – and worth one-upping the phenomenon by mastering ambidexterity.

Play for the win


Ever been told to leave your worries at the door? Heed to this advice because mental baggage is heavy. Stanford University’s Claude Steele and his colleagues performed a series of experiments to show low self-esteem is a key ingredient in less-risky behavior and anticipation of regret. There’s little room for this kind of attitude on the sports field, so if you think tough, you’re more likely to play tough. And go hard from the start because kicking off a competition with a win is a definite morale booster.

Wear red


Wearing red gives sports players more confidence. It’s weird but true, according to a team of German scientists. They found that fighters in taekwondo, boxing and wrestling who wore red won more often than those in blue at the 2004 Olympic Games. I know, I know, Leicester City wear blue and they’re making fools out of red-shirted Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. But hey, who are we to argue against scientific fact? Don that shirt and play like a king.

Pick your coach wisely


If you’re feeling down and out with your limited sporting success then your coach needs to step up their game. Leicester City’s football coach Claudio Ranieri showed it’s possible to restore a winning feeling into a once-fledging, bottom of the table team. His secret? An interpersonal approach. UK sports psychologist Sophia Jowett explains: “While Ranieri may have made very small adjustments to the ways his players train and compete, his attention to each one player in the team appears to have played a significant role in the players’ development and sustained enthusiasm. He may have lighted the fire within his players.”

Hack your mantra


Serena Williams has been known to wear the same socks for an entire tennis tournament, and Michael Jordan wore his college team’s basketball shorts underneath his Chicago Bull’s shorts in play. The list goes on when it comes to sporting rituals and that’s because they can ease psychological tension and uncertainty. So devise a few mantra hacks (the more outlandish the better) and wait for the medals to come rolling on in.

Featured photo of Ronnie Macdonald.