How Underdogs Can Win: A Lesson From The Swiss

Last night something amazing happened. While the Swiss hockey team ultimately lost in a shootout to the powerhouse Canadians, they earned a point for tying the game. How did this happen?

On paper, the two teams don’t even compare. The Canadian roster is full of superstars while the Swiss have largely a ho-hum roster. In terms of payroll, this would be the same as the Yankees facing the local high-school baseball team. The game should have been a blowout. No one expected the Swiss to win or, for that matter, even compete.

The Swiss knew if they played the conventional way — that is, if they let the Canadians move and pass without opposition — they would certainly lose.

So they employed an unconventional strategy which didn’t rely on skill: The Swiss found a way to greatly reduce the skill advantage held by the Canadians. Much like the basketball teams highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s How underdogs can win, the Swiss conceded nothing and applied constant pressure.

Applying pressure over the entire ice surface requires a lot of work but very little actual skill. In hockey, much like basketball, teams often concede a large percentage of the playing surface before trying to stop the other team. This favors the skilled teams over the unskilled teams. Applying relentless pressure over the entire playing surface, like the Swiss, neutralized the skill advantage of their superior opponent.

Only when the game went into a shootout, when the Swiss could not apply their skill neutralizing strategy of constant pressure, did the Canadian skill win the game.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Blink, Outliers and most recently, What the Dog Saw.