How David topples Goliath

I’ve often wondered how managers prepare their teams to play a game against the overwhelming favourite, knowing they’ll lose, unless a major upset happens. The reason we still watch is because the psychology of giant-killing is one of the major appeals of sport.

Why does Goliath fall? When they have all the skills and advantages on their side, how does David strike him down? Usually, it’s pressure. When there is nothing tangible to gain, it’s harder to focus on the play. This is where Dublin manager Jim Gavin, and other coaches who are at the top of their game, excel. One of the ways that they keep their teams motivated is by creating massive internal competition for places. Players know if they don’t perform, the shepherd’s crook will whisk them to the sideline.

The danger zone for the favourite is when the belief of ‘we can’t lose,’ seeps in, but crucially, this belief is followed by doubt. Put simply, you hit the field feeling you’ve already won it, and you get taken out, or the person you’re marking hits you with a dummy. Bam. Your mind, unless very well trained, begins to explore the what ifs and the doubts. The overwhelming favourite has to figure out how to ignore those thoughts all the way through and not allow them to infiltrate them. They have to cope with the pressure of expectation. Every result should be a hammering, and if not, questions are being asked. So, pressure can break them.

On the other hand, the weaker team, or David, has nothing to lose. The most anyone expects of them is respectability against the giant. Therefore, instead of going to the field with plans to contain the favourite, plan to upset them instead.

Remember the recent Champions League semi-finals where few believed that Liverpool could overcome their 3-0 first leg beating at the hands of Barcelona, and fewer still forecast that Tottenham could have the same resurrection against Ajax? The muscle between the ears was the difference. It’s more than simple belief, it’s based in knowing that all the physical work has been done and all scenarios mentally prepared for, wrapped up in a package of optimism.

Meanwhile, their opponents are trying to ‘hold on,’ and this can foster doubt, which allows mistakes, especially in big matches when there is a lot at stake.

So, back to GAA. We’ve seen that teams that go at Dublin can often give them a game and cause some trouble, at least for a while. Carlow did it. Cork did it. You could argue that Meath nearly did it in the 2019 Leinster Final, except that their shooting let them down. There really is very little to separate the fitness levels of any elite intercounty team. It’s the other ingredients like support structures, nutrition, finances, travel obligations and mindset that makes the difference. The Mayos, Kerrys, Donegals and Tyrones do a better job of it, as they know inside they’re as good as any man in sky blue. Good coaches will ensure their team will gain something every time they take on the best. It doesn’t have to be a win. It can be improved performance, or the execution of a new tactical manoeuvre. Or stopping an attack that has worked against other teams before.


Making Goliath fall. What can you do?

  • Complicate things for them: Frustrate them, surprise them, make them take a few extra steps. This all increases the chances of the favourite making a mistake.

  • Get the crowd on side: A plucky move, a quick fistpump, asking the crowd to cheer you on can add momentum and make a champion feel very unpopular.

  • Stay positive: Remember that you have trained for this and are capable of playing just as well as the person you are up against. They might not expect that, but you know it.

  • Put the work in: Know when you take on the best, you’ve prepared to your best, physically and mentally.

  • Use the opportunity: Instead of focusing on what the other team can do, see every time you play the best as an opportunity to grow and improve.

  • Everyone has an off day: Remind yourself that everyone has an ‘off day.’ Even the best. They still have to play and an off day affects them more, as perfection is expected of them.