November 6, 2013 • Coaching

Preparing Your Underdogs for the Postseason

Find yourself with an underdog team as you prepare for the postseason? Let’s take a moment to assess your situation in terms of disadvantages of and advantages.

Disadvantages: Insufficient talent; pessimistic players and parents; likely playing on the road.

Advantages: Opponent overlooking you; nothing to lose; often only need to win one game.

While the odds are obviously stacked against you, there are several things that you can do to give your team a fighting chance when you are the Underdog including these 10.

1 On Any Given Day…

There are countless examples of underdog teams who have shocked the world and beaten higher ranked opponents. The NCAA basketball tournament is always a prime example of highly ranked teams getting beat by teams few people have heard of in the first and second rounds. You need to remind your players that on any given day, any team can beat any other team.

2 Nothing-To-Lose Mentality.

Play up the fact that the pressure is really on the other team not to lose. Because of the lower expectations on your team, you’ve got nothing to lose and should just go out, have fun and trust yourselves. Reconnect your athletes with the fun they had playing their sport as a child and encourage them to enjoy the moment like a bunch of 10-year-olds. Having fun and playing like kids can be a key to get them to play over their heads and take down a better opponent.

3 Highlight Your Successes.

Show your team a highlight film of a game you might have won against a better team earlier in the season. Help them see that they have the ability to beat better teams, they just need to put things together from start to finish, like they did in that contest. Or, even if you lost a close competition against a better team, remind your athletes how close your team was to success. With a few adjustments, you can compete with and beat them (and teams like them) this time around.

4 “The Game Doesn’t Know” Concept.

Michigan assistant softball coach Jen Brundage shared a concept with me that her former UCLA coach Sue Enquist used with them. Enquist reminded her players that the game itself didn’t know who “should” win or lose the contest. The game didn’t know who the All-Americans were or who had the highest batting average or lowest ERA. The game only knows that two teams are competing that day. Honor the game by giving it your all no matter what your past stats or status might be. Some people might think they know who is supposed to win and lose based on past records and personnel … but the game doesn’t know. It just requires you to play it.

5 Find Bulletin-Board Material.

If your team’s confidence is intact, look for any kind of bulletin-board material your opponents might have said about disrespecting you, overlooking you and planning for the next round. This sign of disrespect by the other team should get your athletes competitive juices flowing and have them come out with a vengeance to prove them wrong. (Caution: If your team’s confidence is shot, this might backfire on you if your team believes they have no chance.)

6 Speak Softly But Carry a Big Stick.

Be sure to not give your opponents any bulletin-board material yourself. In public comments, generously praise your opponents and play up their strengths in an effort to soften them up and potentially make them overconfident. Privately with your team, let your players know that you have a plan to take down Goliath and if executed properly, you believe you can win. Use the ideas above and privately get your team ready to attack.

7  Motivational Movies: Show Them Miracle or Hoosiers.

Share with your athletes the amazing story of how the U.S. Hockey team beat the seemingly unbeatable Russians in the 1980 Olympics. Have a movie night with the team to watch the movie Miracle, which chronicles the amazing story. Hoosiers is another great movie to show an underdog team.

8 Abraham Lincoln & The Failure Story.

Share the story of how Abraham Lincoln failed in business, had a nervous breakdown, lost members of his family and was defeated numerous times for a variety of political offices before ever becoming president. Remind your players that they can’t let their past losses dictate their current chances.

9 Start Strong, Manage the Momentum & Keep It Close.

As an underdog, do your best to get a strong start to the competition. If you can start off on the right foot, you can make your opponent (likely their home crowd) a little nervous. The longer you can maintain the momentum and keep it close, the more pressure the “favorite” team feels. They might start tightening up and bickering with each other because they are worried about the embarrassment of losing to a lower-ranked team. Manage the tempo and momentum of the competition with your game plan and strategic timeouts when necessary. Keep it close for as long as possible and you give your team a fighting chance to pull off the upset.

10 Create a Motivational Themes For Your Team.

Finally, developing a “motivational theme” for your team is a great way to create some fun and focus heading into the playoffs. Motivational themes help teams be inspired, confident, focused and loose going into key tournament games.

The key to creating an effective theme is to find an analogy or story best fitting your particular situation. Come up with little reminders of the theme to motivate your teams before games and keep them inspired during games. I’ve used a variety of themes with teams including Top Gun, a Cross Country Road Race, Pirates and a Safari.

In summary, while you’d likely much prefer to be in the “favorite” or  even the “up-and-comer” position, your team still has a fighting chance if you can frame the underdog role effectively. Some of sports most memorable moments have come when the underdog team has knocked off a favorite. You too have a chance to make history and leave a legacy with your underdog team using the strategies shared above.

For more practical tips and articles from Jeff Janssen, visit


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