In 2016 Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League. The Foxes, as the team is known, started the season at 5000 to 1 odds. They narrowly avoided relegation just one year earlier, and had a player list that was just a fraction of the value of teams like Manchester United. This was one of the most amazing and unexpected victories of all.
Australia has seen its share of unlikely victories as well. It’s impossible to forget Steven Bradbury, who won short-course ice-skating gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics when his four competitors crashed on the very final bend. Further back, the 1983 America’s Cup Yacht race saw Australia II, skippered by John Bertrand, come back from a 3-1 deficit in the final to beat American Yacht Liberty, ending America’s 132-year domination of the event.
These unlikely winners capture our imagination. They surprise and delight us. They give us hope that anything is possible. When Australia II won the America’s Cup Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was so excited he called for a public holiday. But how do these underdog wins happen, and what lessons are there for those of us who don’t play football/soccer, skate fast or sail expensive yachts?
Lesson 1 – Moments of Brilliance are Underpinned by Years of Hard Work
For Leicester City Football Club, the journey to 2016 success can be tracked back 132 years, in 1884 when the club was founded. For both Steven Bradbury and Australia II skipper John Bertrand, the journey to success took about 25 years. Steven Bradbury had his first go on ice skates at age 5, and John Bertrand started competitive sailing when he was 12.
As Steven Bradbury says “you don’t always get the reward you’re looking for overnight but if you’re prepared to show up and show up and show up, one day you could be the last man standing too”.
Lesson 2 – There is no Journey to Success Without Setbacks Along the Way
Leicester City had 132 years trying and failing to be the best in England, 4 trips to the FA Cup finals and not a win to show for it and 10 years out of the top league until 2014. The club was a whisker away from relegation in 2015, and top goal scorer Jamie Vardy was languishing in the fifth level of English football just a few years earlier. Steven Bradbury went to 3 Winter Olympic games before his ultimate success, he suffered a gash in the leg from a skate in 1994 which caused him to lose 75% of his blood, and he sustained a broken neck just 18 months before his Olympic success. John Bertrand had debilitating seasickness and nerves when he started sailing competitions, he competed in 4 unsuccessful America’s Cup campaigns, and was beaten at 2 Olympic Games including capsizing the boat he was sailing in 1976.
All 3 could have quit many times along the way and undoubtedly many similarly talented individuals and teams did. Instead, in each of these 3 cases, the setbacks became platforms for learning, motivation and success.
Lesson 3 – You Can’t Succeed On Your Own
While the players and the manager of Leicester City FC received most of the limelight and credit for the 2016 success, good on-field results for the club are impossible without a group of assistant coaches, a host of reserve players, well-qualified medical staff, thousands of loyal club supporters, and much more. Australia II’s success was also the result of numerous people working together, from yacht designer Ben Lexcen, skipper John Bertrand, the hard-working crew and many, many backers and supporters who dedicated enormous amount of time and energy to the ultimate result. Even an apparently individual effort like Steven Bradbury’s unlikely gold medal needs plenty of helping hands – such as his parents who started him off in the sport and took him to practice, various coaches, the doctors who patched him up after those terrible injuries and plenty more people.
Wherever there is success, in sport or in life, there is almost always a committed group of people lending their support and their talents.
Lesson 4 – Make Some Changes, But Not Too Many
When Leicester City brought in new manager Claudio Raineri at the end of its 2014/15 season a number of the club faithful were concerned that big changes would be made. In his previous stint in England, Rainieri had earned the nickname “The Tinkerman” for his tendency to keep changing players, tactics and just about everything else. This time round Ranieri, who had learnt from his time with Chelsea, made just a few well-conceived changes. He welcomed a small number of new players to the club and made a few tweaks to on-field tactics but he left most personnel, players and club structures well alone.
Steven Bradbury made a small but important change in winning Olympic Gold. He used the same dependable skating technique that had got him to 4 Olympic Games, but in this particular race, where he knew he was outgunned for pure speed, he adopted the tactic of deliberately skating just behind the lead group rather than in it. This way when the fall anticipated fall happened he was able to stay on his feet and cross the line.
For Australia II the one big change was to the boat itself. Designer Ben Lexcen became the first to apply a “winged keel” rather than a conventional keel to a 12 metre yacht. This design tweak produced additional stability when sailing upwind and gave a slight edge over the American boat Liberty. In other respects Australia II adopted fairly conventional tactics in the races.
All of us can learn from Leicester City FC and other unlikely winners. We can put in lots of hard work, use setbacks to make us better, surround ourselves with good people and we can make a few changes, but not too many. If we do this there’s a fair chance that we, too, will achieve much more than we have come to expect.