How Being the Favorite/Underdog Affects your Mindset and Performance

Last week I talked about how the score can affect your mindset and performance. Today I want to talk about how being a favorite or an underdog affects your mindset and performance.

A favorite is the athlete or the team that is expected to win against a certain opponent. An underdog is the athlete or the team that is expected to lose against a certain opponent. You can be anywhere on the spectrum. You can be heavy favorites, slight favorites, slight underdogs, or heavy underdogs. Two teams can be evenly matched with no clear indication who is the favorite and who is the underdog.

Being a favorite and being an underdog can affect an athlete's mindset and performance in many ways. Here are many examples:

Being a favorite can give you confidence. If everyone thinks that you can/should win, this will help you believe you can win. This confidence can be great for motivation. This improves performance.

Being a favorite can cause complacency. If everyone thinks you should win easily, you may become overconfident and believe you will win without needing to try hard. This hurts performance.

Being a favorite can put pressure on you to win. If you are expected to win, you may be motivated to reach these expectations. You may try hard because you don't want to be embarrassed about losing to an underdog. This pressure can be good for motivation but it usually hurts your ability to relax in games. With too much pressure, you may be very nervous and play tight and overly cautious. This pressure, if too high, can cause you to choke, which obviously hurts performance.

Being a favorite can be boring. As a favorite, you may think "If I win, so what? I'm expected to win anyways." You may think it is a meaningless game with no upside. This lowers motivation and therefore hurts performance.

Being an underdog can discourage you. If everyone thinks you will lose, you may think you have no chance of winning. This lowers confidence, which can lower motivation. Obviously this hurts performance

Being an underdog can motivate you. If you know that your opponent is better than you, but you still think you can win and you want to win, then you may be very motivated, knowing you need to play your absolute best in order to win.


Being an underdog can motivate in other ways also. The thought of beating the favorites can be very exciting. Not only is it rewarding to upset the favorites, but it also feels good to silence the critics who labeled you as underdogs. There is a lot of upside in winning as an underdog. All this extra motivation improves performance.

Being an underdog can lower pressure. An underdog may think, "If I lose, so what? I'm expected to lose anyways." If you don't care if you lose, you may too satisfied with sub-par effort. This obviously hurts performance. However, in many cases, this reduced pressure can improve performance. An underdog may think "If I lose, so what? I'm expected to lose anyways." With this rationale, there is no downside in losing. This can take a lot of pressure off of you, which helps you play more relaxed and makes you more willing to take risks. If you ease your nerves by thinking in this way, while maintaining your motivation to play well, your performance will improve.

The mindsets of favorites and underdogs interact in many ways during games to influence the outcome of games. For instance, upsets usually occur when the favorite is either overconfident or emotionally indifferent while the underdog is extremely motivated and relaxed. Blowouts often occur when the favorites are confident and play hard while the underdogs are discouraged and give up.

As a coach or a player, it is important to understand how being a favorite and an underdog affects your mindset and performance. You should want to use all the positive aspects of being a favorite and an underdog and never want to fall victim to any of the negative aspects of being a favorite or an underdog.

Better yet, you should understand that you don't have to follow the outside narrative about who is the underdog and who is the favorite. Know that these are just opinions and predictions made by people who often aren't qualified to make accurate predictions. These people may not know how truly good one team is or how overrated another team is. Not only this, but games are not played on paper. When a game begins, it doesn't matter who was labeled the favorite and who was labeled the underdog. Both teams still have to play the game and follow the same set of rules. When a game starts, both teams technically have a chance of winning. Understand that you have a say in whether you are a favorite or an underdog. As Michigan State's head football coach, Mark Dantonio says, "you're only an underdog if you think you're an underdog."

The best attitude to have to is not worry about who is the favorite and who is the underdog. Just focus on playing your absolute best no matter who the opponent is. However, you can still use the favorite/underdog narrative to your advantage. If you think adopting the underdog role will help you perform better, then adopt it. If you think adopting the favorite role will help your perform better, then adopt it. However, in my opinion, it is best not to do this too much, because it can get you out of the mindset of just playing your best no matter what. You may get too used to adopting these roles and end up only playing good as an underdog or as a favorite.

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