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Meeting Her Match

How To Succeed As An Underdog

Meeting Her Match“Challenging” and “sports” seem to go hand-in-hand. Athletes are expected to push themselves; Teams are supposed to bond together; Underdogs are expected to rally. But in reality, looking at challenges and discrimination as a motivator can be a daunting task for a struggling team. As a coach, how can you use adversity to pull your team through?

Imagine a high school girls’ volleyball team forced to play against high school boys in a state championship final. Today that may seem outlandish – but in 1975 that game was the reality of athlete-coach Debbie Powers.

Debbie grew up in basketball-crazed Indiana during the ’50s and ’60s, during a time when, despite athletic ability, there were no organized sports opportunities for girls. With an unrelenting passion for competition, Debbie enrolled herself in a growing women’s basketball team during her years at Indiana University to gain her first experience with organized sport. During her college years she also experienced firsthand the cultural and financial gap existing between men’s and women’s sports.

Soon after her graduation from Indiana University, federal law Title IX was passed mandating equality in sports. Debbie saw this as an opportunity to redirect her passion into coaching. She began coaching high school girls’ volleyball and found a renewed sense of joy in providing them competitive sport opportunities that she herself had been denied. Before long Debbie and her team of girls were faced once again with inequality. It was a monumental and unprecedented challenge when her girls’ volleyball team was forced to play against boys in a dramatic 1975 state championship final.

Demosphere was able to catch up with Debbie after her session at the 2015 AVCA Convention on “Strategies for Overcoming Adversity and Succeeding as an Underdog” to ask her a few questions.

Debbie shared with us the top three takeaways from her presentation on discrimination, obstacles, and unprecedented challenges that every youth sports team should be aware of:

 1. Roadblocks and hardships create more strength than privileges and entitlements.  

Today’s athletes need to “suffer” some. The notion of having everything given to them can be detrimental to their athletic development. Athletes that have fewer entitlements are more risk adverse, hungry, resilient, tenacious, and less afraid to fail.

2.  Adversity is not easily forgotten and can create immense potential. 

Once an athlete has felt the pangs of struggle, it is not easily forgotten.  They will have gratitude, resolve, and tend to rise to the occasion when the going gets tough.

3.  There is an underdog “pack mentality” that is fused by blended personalities and passion for a cause.  

It’s alright if the players on your team aren’t necessarily clones of each other. In fact, it’s good to have a “bulldog”, “thinker”, “comic”, “peacemaker”,  etc. as long as they have a common goal or cause to fight for.  A culture of togetherness can be developed without everyone being best friends.

Fuel your team’s fire by changing the way they think of challenges. Banding together and fighting for a common cause can be used as motivation to achieve your most rewarding victory yet.

Debbie recently released an emotionally-charged memoir, Meeting Her Match, that unveils the circumstances and challenges she faced throughout her life as an aspiring athlete before Title IX, and as a coach after. More information on Debbie Powers and the impact of Title IX on her opportunities can be found on her website.


Kris Baker

Kris Baker is the President of Demosphere and has been serving the Youth Sports Community since 2006.