Underdog Wisdom

Underdog Wisdom

It happened last week while I was in Europe.

Soccer fever fired up my heart. The European Championships in full bloom.

My 91-year-old mom and me, howling at the tv screen in her living room, cheering the German team. The joys of soccer run deep in my family. Decades of tv watching with mom and dad and my brother Thomas. Yup, sweet.

The win that most captivated my heart, however, isn’t a German one. It is Iceland advancing to the Round of 8, beating England 2:1.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. In the history of international soccer championships, Iceland had not won a single game in the Eliminating Rounds, let alone advanced to the Play-offs. Iceland doesn’t have a professional soccer league, is ranked #34 by FIFA among the soccer nations of the world. England is ranked #11 and boasts some of the most heralded soccer stars in the world.

Iceland’s win is THE most significant sports victory in the country’s history. 99.8 % of all television sets in Iceland were tuned to the game. British tabloids dubbed it the most shameful defeat in the fabled history of English soccer. England’s coach Roy Hodgson instantly resigned in shame.

The heart loves an underdog win.

Iceland’s startling run makes me think of how you and I win, every day, in our less chronicled lives. What does winning look like for us? What insights can we gleam from an underdog tale?

  1. Believe you can win.

It’s part of our Viking history, says Icelandic Journalist Alexander Einarrson in a ViceSports documentary. We’re just a little bit crazy. We think we can do everything and go for it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve all been taught to believe. We have all told ourselves that we can win whatever it is we think we want to win at a particular moment in time. And then the gnawing thoughts pop in. No, not really. If I get lucky. Highly unlikely. Won’t happen.

We kinda sorta believe. That’s not belief. It is wishful thinking. It instantly diminishes belief. And “belief lite” doesn’t do the trick.

Here’s what I love about everyday winning. It isn’t as clear-cut as a soccer score. Decide what your everyday wins look like. A great conversation with your boss? An inspired lunch with a client that opens the doors to new collaboration? A joyous date with your spouse where all discord is momentarily forgotten?

Those are wins, aren’t they? Can you believe in that sort of win? Sure you can. Channel the Viking within yourself. Believe without the gnawing doubt.

  1. Prepare to win.

It may be an underdog story. It isn’t a Cinderella story. Iceland didn’t just, overnight, start to play championship soccer. In 2000, this tiny nation of 325,000 citizens faced the music. There was a reason why Iceland was then ranked #131 among the world’s soccer nations. Because of its harsh winters, there simply wasn’t enough time in the year for budding soccer players to hone their craft. Iceland built 7 state-of-the-art indoor soccer facilities. It built 150 outdoor soccer fields with in-ground heating. It trained over 600 elite-level coaches in their communities.

No wishful thinking here. Wanna win? Prepare. Train and train and train some more. Train with rigor and commitment and joy. Get a coach. Set yourself up for the win.

True for sports. True for business. True for life.

  1. Play like there is nothing to lose.

It’s the gift of being the underdog. The underdog doesn’t have a thing to lose. The rest of us, we hedge our bets. We overthink. We get cautious and second-guess. We have one foot on the pedal.

We play to not make a mistake. Play it safe. Don’t play to win.

Nurture your underdog mindset. When we play to not lose we preserve our status quo. We also don’t get to the Elimination Rounds. And we sure as heck don’t experience the gift of momentum or the thrill of the win.

Iceland didn’t make it past France to the Round of 4. I am relieved. It would have played Germany, and my conscience would have been tested. But I cherish my Iceland lessons.

Define your Wins. Believe you can Win. Prepare to Win. Play like there is nothing to Lose.

Great underdog wisdom. And yet I forget. You forget.

Let’s not.

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Achim Nowak is an author, speaker, C-Suite coach, international authority on personal presence. His book "The Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating a Mindful Life in a Distracted World" (New Page Books) has just been published. His previous books have become prized resources for entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe. Achim and his work have been featured on 60 Minutes, Fox News, NPR, in The New York Times and The Miami Herald.