Training The Underdog

By Crista Samaras, Founder/CEO of Brave Enterprises, entrepreneur, and former collegiate lacrosse coach @getmorebrave

I was a great lacrosse player – effective and efficient, devoted to improvement, greedy about accumulating more skill, and ambitious enough to think I could come up with better ways to teach the game than it was taught to me.

Graphic courtesy of the author.

Then I became a coach to kids. For years, I worked to break down the skills that took me so long to develop and teach them in ways that made it easy for all kinds of people to quickly understand and execute. As an entrepreneur, I found that being able to do something well in a short period of time also made it more fun to do, which brought paying customers back to my clinics.

Then I became a club coach to high school athletes from non-traditional areas who wanted to compete for spots at top Division I schools. People played for our team less because they wanted to have fun (though we did!) and more because they were improving in real ways that they could see and feel. In order to be recruited by the best you had to play well against the best but closing the gap for our kids didn’t mean accumulating equivalent skill or lax IQ relative to players from traditional hotbeds – there was no runway for that on an aggressive recruiting timeline. Instead, it meant teaching our players to be tougher, to go for respect rather than the win, and to learn how to mitigate the ability of better skilled teams to use their skill against us.

Concurrently, as a player on the U.S. Women’s National team, I was dedicated to dissecting my own ascension to lacrosse super-skilldom, curious how I could be so hungry for the ball, so eager for the back of the net and so ready – at any time – to work/run/play/win. I wanted to know how to improve reliably in my own game. I wanted to measure that improvement and project it across all aspects of my game. I wanted to know what the scaffolding to my skill was, what the genesis of my ambition looked like and what factors helped me to maximize my ability to cauterize the impact of my opponent against me. In time, I became more than just a student of my own game or even the game. I became a scientist of improvement, a mechanic of foundational skills, an artist of the competitive spirit.

For the 2012 season only, I stepped in as interim Head Coach for the University of Richmond and discovered on day one that the fear of failure was a python wrapped tightly around our players’ necks, strangling them and weakening their optimism. I was shocked that such a competitive team had such a crippling problem How much better could they be – how much more free could these women be in their play – without this fear? Players left practice tired from worrying about making mistakes, worried about what the social and emotional consequences would be for them, what I would think of them, what their teammates would think of them, and what they would think of themselves. It was devastating to witness and negatively impacted their confidence and our culture and camaraderie.

I had a hunch that fatigue might help to eliminate worry and so immediately, I set out to use the first 45 minutes of our 90-minute practices exclusively to bankrupt their emotional reserves and try to exhaust the energy sources dedicated to fueling their fears. They needed to be so tired that they had nothing left in them to use on overthinking and inhibition. And so, our drills were devoted to tiring their brains and their bodies enough so that they had nothing to expend on fear. Forty-five minutes into practice, we could get them to a place where they needed all remaining energy to finish practice and none left to worry about what would happen if they took risks. So, for the rest of practice, they took them and dealt with the consequences in real time.

Full disclosure: We were explicit in what we were doing and why. The Spiders were dedicated in their own fight against fear, pushing harder with every minute to get into the zone where they were more tired but less encumbered by the force of worry and the inertia of anxiety. Every day, they came to practice eager to shed their fear weight. They became obsessed with putting action into the smallest pockets of the game and sucking out all the space their opponents had to make better decisions and bigger moves.

After that remarkable season (we went from #31 national rank to as high as #13), I returned to XTEAM, the high school club I started in 2001. I began to hear from former players (the first class was ‘03) who were now women, doctors, mothers, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, who felt it important to tell me how the things they learned at XTEAM were helping them remarkably in life. I realized that the value of my coaching approach had less to do with girls becoming better lacrosse players in high school, even if that happened, than it did with providing girls with robust and transferable tools for long-term and sustainable core confidence as women.

Understanding my own game and psyche, growing a business, coaching high school girls, coaching a highly competitive and driven group of elite college women and finally, connecting with former players-now-women-in-the-world were confluent critical elements that has resulted in the work I do now at Brave Enterprises. All of these experiences contribute to the design of our programming, which “helps people do hard things by playing outside of their comfort zone.” More specifically, all of it contributed to a foundational construct that can help anyone re-frame hard things and go after them with gusto.

It’s called the Underdog Mindset. In addition to my 20+ years of coaching, playing, leading, the Underdog Mindset weaves in the work of Angela Duckworth (Grit), Carol Dweck (Growth Mindset), and Anders Ericsson (Deliberate Practice), and is sprinkled with proven and effective tactics regarding goal-achievement, curiosity, self-control, purpose, and motivation.

Adopting the Underdog Mindset is an exercise in developing confidence, which is especially important for women. Not only is it a hot topic right now, it’s a data-driven problem we need to solve.

In our work with over 3,800 people, approximately 1,500 of whom are female lacrosse players ranging from middle school through college, we see confidence decreasing at the same rates as female non-athletes.

In both our own dataset and in the existing confidence research, we see an alarming decrease in self-reported bravery and confidence in girls beginning at the age of 11 and continuing all the way through college. Compared to boys, girls are far more likely – as they go from middle school to high school, from high school to college – to classify themselves as LESS confident than their peers. We have found that only 9% of middle school girls would say they are LESS confident than their peers, which is the same as middle school boys. But in college, a whopping 19% (and climbing) – 1 out of every 5 women – would say she is LESS confident than her peers, compared to only 10% of college men.

This is not okay.

So, why are girls getting less confident over time? Simply put, girls are not getting practice being internally and externally assertive. And, social and societal signals create a gravitational pull to perfectionism, which exacerbates their confidence recession. In other words, they are not getting enough at-bats taking risks with encouragement and support, which results in a predisposition to wait, pause, or let someone else go first. Over time, this practiced inaction forms a massive buildup of fear. Breaking down that plaque is our mission at Brave.

An important thing to note is that bravery and confidence are heavily linked in the existing literature as well as in our own research. When confidence is down, so is bravery. When bravery is up, so is confidence.

We define bravery as taking action when you are afraid. And, we believe that confidence happens between skill and action, where belief in one’s ability leads to expression of it.

Building that belief is an ongoing process that requires learning the following:

  1. How to prepare for failure
  2. How to use fear as a cue to be brave
  3. How to be resourceful, not just resilient
  4. How to want to intentionally get outside of your comfort zone

In my 20 years of experience taking emotional data, and more formally over the last two years at Brave reading thousands of pieces of quantitative and qualitative data from our sessions, we have compelling reasons to state that the adoption of an Underdog Mindset is the best way to learn how to practice building confidence.

The Underdog Mindset is map and method, approach and advance. And, once it becomes your doctrine, curiosity replaces fear of failure, preparation becomes the gateway to creativity, grit is the only food for a hungry belly and your comfort zone is the lamest thing on earth.

There are four elements to the Underdog Mindset:

> Chase

Put the thing you are going after in front of you. Way in front of you. Make this the goal, the point, the result, the feeling you are going after. Forget about who is running next to you and whether they are slower or faster. You don’t get to chase other people’s things and you don’t get to start running towards something unspecific. Call it out. Then, chase it down. This is hard. And, it’s your first act of vulnerability, a critical act of bravery.

> Work Hard

This is the very least it will take for you to keep your eyes on the prize. This is, at minimum, what the pursuit of the thing way in front of you demands. It’s not still – ever. It’s moving as you are moving. Consider how you can work harder and longer. As your intake/resources/practice/experience expands, think about how you need to begin working smarter. When the work begins to feel necessary to your spirit, when it fatigues you AND rejuvenates you, then you are in the zone. If it gets easy, you’re off track. 

> Expect Obstacles

Things are going to get in the way. Your job is to keep your eyes on the target and when the weeds grow, it’s also your job to whack ‘em, and when the potholes in the road flatten your tire, it’s your job to figure out how to replace it and get your foot back on the gas. When you determine what you are chasing, identify the things that could get in your way – internally and externally. For every one you can troubleshoot on the front end of the chase, the more you are ready to manage in real time when it appears while in pursuit.

> Demand Risk

Come to terms with the fact that to get closer to what you’re chasing means you are going to have to try things you’ve never tried before. Uncertainty is going to be integral to closing the gap and there are going to be steps you have to take or moves you have to make that threaten your internal or external status quo. This means you will be outside of your comfort zone. You must expect discomfort as a property of the chase so that you don’t seek to avoid it, but instead learn how to wade through it. And once you are intentionally outside of your comfort zone, you will experience rapid gains in competency and clearer paths to reaching your target. Once you discover that you want to surf outside of your comfort zone, you’ll be eager for bigger and bigger waves.

Before getting to work in these ways, you have to accept the position of the Underdog. As Americans, we love an Underdog story because she/he is not popularly expected to “win” and it’s always exciting to see persistence and resourcefulness pay off for the little gal/guy.

How often do we put ourselves in the position to rise, like the ones we see in the movies?

Most people never define the thing they want clearly enough, and they never put themselves in a chase for it. Starting with this is a foundational element to re-framing the challenge and getting yourself ready to go for it. Anecdotally, I have found that the Underdog Mindset undoubtedly gave me – and all those who I have coached – the critical tools to find success. But most importantly, the Underdog Mindset affords one the ability to recognize and maximize the lessons that come from what comes before success.

I stopped coaching lacrosse in 2016, burned out from the deafening permission parents gave their kids to take the easy road, breeding an impatience for experiencing the hard stuff that comes before success. I saw so clearly a direct translation to how fragility in the face of hardship led to depression in kids, how a lack of self-awareness was a conduit to a lack of self-worth and how fear of not being perfect caused nearly every girl to stop trying altogether.

Though I am no longer a player or lacrosse coach, I have advice to impart that incorporates my entire lacrosse experience with what we now know from the efficacy of our programming:

To Players: Things that are easy don’t help you win, improve or be prepared for the realness of life. Things that are hard do all of those things. Chase hard. Work hard. Expect hard. Demand Hard.

To Parents: You wanting it to be easy for your kids is not helping them. You wanting them to have early success is crippling their interest and capacity to practice toward meaningful expertise.

To Coaches: Strive to be a “warm-demanding” teacher so that your players know you love them, AND that you will hold them to high expectations based on what they say they want for themselves.

Get to it, Underdogs.


Crista Samaras is a former US Women’s National Team member, World Champion, 3x Princeton All-American, 2x Ivy League Player of the Year, former Yale University Assistant Coach, former University of Richmond Interim Head Coach, and former Founder/CEO of XTEAM Lacrosse. @CristaSamaras

Crista lives in NYC and is the host of Brave Your Fear, a popular podcast featuring a great list of current and former lacrosse coaches and players. @braveyourfear


EDITOR’S NOTE: Supporting articles to these trends are The Confidence Code for Girls: The Confidence Collapse and Why It Matters for the Next Gen and Global Self-Esteem and Specific Self-Esteem: Different Concepts, Different Outcomes.

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