How to Lead a Kid Who’s an Underdog

By: Tim Elmore

Even if you’re not a big Kentucky Derby fan, you’ve probably heard what just happened in the last race at Churchill Downs. To say the winner was a long shot is an understatement. A horse named Rich Strike won the derby, a race in which he did not even belong. It all took place on May 8th (less than two weeks ago). 


Let me remind you of the stunning realities of this race.


First, the horse had been purchased for the relatively low price of $30,000. Many of the other horses were far more expensive. In the end, Rich Strike brought in $1.86 million.


Second, Rich Strike wasn’t even supposed to be in the race. He didn’t qualify. It was only after Ethereal Road was scratched that a spot opened up for jockey Sonny Leon.


Third, the horse had never won the Kentucky Derby before. This was a first for Rich Strike and Sonny Leon to pull off such a victory. He didn’t seem to belong in the winner’s circle.


Fourth, the odds were against him. Rich Strike had an 80-1 shot at winning. He started in the 20th post and is only the second horse ever to win the Derby from that starting spot.


Finally, Rich Strike was in 17th place as he entered the final lap. The announcer felt it was a two-horse race, but in the final length, Rich Strike came out of nowhere and won.


Do You Know Any Kids Like This?

Over the years, I’ve spotted kids whose stories resemble Rich Strike. They are underdogs. They are outsiders. They are often late bloomers. They’re long shots at doing anything significant. They don’t seem like they belong in the group at all. 


But somehow, they step up.


Something triggers them to act. Someone encourages them to put their gifts to work. A problem surfaces that beckons them to solve it. Look at the parallels to Rich Strike. 


In the same way that Rich Strike had been bought for a relatively low price, many kids don’t appear to be worth investing in. You haven’t seen them win. Albert Einstein started school at six and a half, not five years old, and later flunked some of the language subjects of his schooling. 


Just as Rich Strike didn’t even qualify for the Kentucky Derby at first, loads of students will be late bloomers. We’ve all heard the stories of how Michael Jordan got cut from his varsity basketball team the first time he tried out. That late bloomer did quite well in the end.


Like Rich Strike’s story, some kids don’t feel like they belong. Rich Strike was an outsider who didn’t fit in, just like many students experience today’s “loneliness epidemic.” They don’t measure up. Early on, Walt Disney was told he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”


Just like Rich Strike won against 80-1 odds, some of your students will need you to bet on them even though you haven’t seen them win yet. People had given up on Helen Keller as a kid who was deaf, dumb, blind, and mute until Anne Sullivan came along. The rest is history.


Finally, in the same way, that Rich Strike was way behind going into the final lap and then came out of nowhere, many kids will do the same if we encourage them. Harlan Sanders began his journey to create Kentucky Fried Chicken at age 65. His whole life had prepared him.


What Do We Know About Underdogs?

Research reminds us that those who are underdogs or late bloomers become resilient. They are good at handling setbacks, replanning, and managing their expectations. It’s why they are often happier and more successful than peers who enjoy early success.


Before J. K. Rowling turned 30, she had a miscarriage, a divorce, and a child to raise as a single mom. She was jobless and had to survive on government welfare payments to make ends meet. But, as she said in her speech at Harvard, she had two things that were enough for her: “an old typewriter and a big idea.” The rest is the amazing story of Harry Potter.


Julia Childs had a mediocre life for nearly five decades. At 49, the underdog published her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. At 51, she had her first televised cooking show, premiering in 1963. At 69, she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food.


Remember Ray Kroc? At age 52, while trying to sell a milkshake machine to a hamburger joint, Ray ended up buying McDonald’s. His life was full of setbacks, but he built the franchise brand into the largest food chain in the world. He was a late-blooming underdog. 


There are loads of kids who cross our paths who are not fashionable or famous. They may not be beautiful. They may be forgettable. They may not be social media influencers. They may not possess obvious talent. But mark my words, they’ll share a story much like Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, or even, Rich Strike.

  • A long shot to win it all. 
  • A person who’s at the end of the line.
  • A person who doesn’t even belong here…but they win. 


NBC’s Larry Collmus was the TV announcer who called the Kentucky Derby. He kept talking about the favorites, Epicenter and Zandan, who shared the lead. He said nothing of Rich Strike until the final few seconds. Suddenly, weaving between the other horses came this unknown contender who moved from the back of the line to the front. And so will many of your kids.


Here’s to the underdogs. The ones who fail to show up on most people’s radars but the ones who bloom later and often make a huge difference in the end. Don’t stop betting on them. 

How to Lead a Kid Who’s an Underdog