Sports Movie Cliches We Can't Help but Love

Sid QuashieFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2016

Sports Movie Cliches We Can't Help but Love

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    Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

    Many of us can't help but fall for sports movie cliches we hate to love. No matter how hardhearted fans are, there is something deeply emotional about cliches such as "winning the big game" or "the lovable underdogs" because we identify with those tropes and vicariously celebrate them on the silver screen.

    The cliches on this list are common to many celebrated sports films, and despite our familiarity with them, we still go and see these movies because something within us just can't say no to the high of feeling good or having our hearts ripped out, even if we know exactly how it's going to happen.


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The Big Game

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    How It's Used

    The Big Game is set up to redeem the flawed hero and put them back on track in life.

    It represents everything that the hero has been fighting for or against, and in most instances the team that must be defeated is so good that victory seems impossible.


    Notable Films with a Big Game Plot

    Hoosiers, The Replacements, Any Given Sunday, The Mighty Ducks, White Men Can't Jump, Little Big League


    Why We Love This Cliche

    It's us against the world, baby, David vs. Goliath. We see ourselves as the discarded hero that no one believes in, the down-on-their-luck character who has to dig deep to summon a resolve that can overcome all odds.

    But what makes this cliche work is that the characters who win or lose the Big Game realize it was never actually about the game. It was about finding their inner strength.

The Training Montage

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    How It's Used

    The training montage is basically just an excuse to throw in some killer trailer moments and to compress time while also showcasing the journey from zero to hero.


    Notable Films with a Training Montage

    Rocky, Rocky III, Chariots of Fire


    Why We Love This Cliche

    Training montages are a must for any boxing film, because boxing is a solo sport, a contest that is dependent on the physical and mental domination of an opponent.

    But here's the secret no one will ever admit: We love the montage song.

    Who can forget the famous montage in Rocky III with "Eye of the Tiger" playing over shots of Rocky Balboa enjoying the perks of being champion and losing his edge, juxtaposed against the formidable Clubber Lang (Mister T) going through his training to claim the title?

    Think about it.

    The characters in sports films can't hear the montage songs unless they're playing on a radio or boom box in the scene, so why else would filmmakers include music in these montages?

    They do it for us, to get our blood going or to well us up with emotion. 

The Inspirational Speech

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    How It's Used

    Ah, yes, the inspirational speech that is often the most memorable and obvious part of a sports film.

    The speech usually goes hand in hand with the Big Game, because either a coach character or an athlete will stand before their team and summon the words to motivate everyone to victory.

    This speech acts as a kind of summation of the entire film.

    It recounts all of the obstacles and challenges the hero and the team have overcome to arrive at the climax of the movie.

    It also sums up a movie's theme and is often a high point, a time when the characters in the film and the audience watching are meant to surge up from their seats and yell, "Let's go!"


    Notable Films with an Inspirational Speech

    Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Any Given Sunday, The Replacements, Major League, The Karate Kid, Field of Dreams, Rudy, Brian's Song


    Why We Love This Cliche

    Because no matter how many times we know it's coming, we are suckers for the quavering-voice character who stands before their peers and pours out raw emotion.

    It's every speech we've ever wanted to give but were afraid to utter because it's corny and sentimental.

    We sometimes can't help but cry when we listen to Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams tell a doubting Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) that "People will come, Ray."

The Last-Second Victory

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    How It's Used

    A companion of the Big Game, the last-second victory always comes after the hero has hit rock-bottom. With the echoes of the inspirational speech having long since faded, the character we root for is in a bad way, physically and emotionally spent, ready to quit against overwhelming odds.

    This cliche is usually structured as the "It's always darkest before dawn" moment, when the hero must dig deeper than ever before to summon the will to win.


    Notable Films with a Last-Second Victory Scene

    The Karate Kid, The Bad News Bears, Rocky II


    Why We Love This Cliche

    The last-second victory is wish fulfillment, a triumph that we as sports fans and as human beings feel when we are caught up in a sports movie character's emotional journey.

    Sure, we realize it's only make-believe, but who cares?

    When Rocky Balboa grips those ropes inside the ring and pulls himself up before the ref finishes counting to 10 in Rocky II, we still feel that static buzz of underdog-makes-good that is the hallmark of many great sports films.

The Lovable Underdogs

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    How It's Used

    The underdog story is the easiest way for sports filmmakers to create a rooting interest in their characters because stacking the deck against an individual or a team makes them much more appealing to a wide audience.


    Notable Films with Lovable Underdogs

    Hoosiers, The Bad News Bears, Major League, The Karate Kid, Rocky


    Why We Love This Cliche

    Everyone loves an underdog story, because we all have areas in our lives where we don't feel we get the credit we deserve.

    Underdogs tug at the parts of ourselves that we wish the world could see, and they provide us with inspiration to pursue goals we may have thought were forever out of our reach.

    Hoosiers is a perfect example of this kind of storytelling, in which a boys high school basketball team from a small town in Indiana battles its way to an improbable state final against a better team from South Bend.

    But the boys from Hickory have learned hard lessons on the way to the title game, and in a mashup of sports cliches that includes the Big Game and the Last-Second Victory, they prove it's never impossible to overcome the odds.

    The film's simple yet powerful underdog story and lived-in performances led by Gene Hackman's portrayal of coach Norman Dale are two of the reasons that Houston Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times ranked Hoosiers as the greatest sports film of all time.

The Hard-Edged Coach with a Soft Heart

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    How It's Used

    Every sports film worth its salt has a tough-as-nails coach or a mentor with a heart of gold. (Count the number of cliches in that sentence.)

    The grizzled coach who has a complex relationship with players and holds their emotions in check is meant to show us how far the team has to go before they can become winners.

    Because if they can finally earn the coach's respect, it really won't matter what happens in the Big Game.

    None of these sports films are ever about a game or a contest; they're always about what's going on in the hearts and minds of the characters, and none is more difficult to crack than the veteran coach who can't tell their team how much they mean to them.


    Notable Films That Feature a Hard-Edged Coach with a Soft Heart

    Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Major League, The Bad News Bears, The Karate Kid, Any Given Sunday


    Why We Love This Cliche

    The inscrutable coach who never gives compliments is like the boss at work who sets impossible standards or parents who can't ever admit that their kids turned out to be decent human beings.

    Like the characters in sports movies with gruff, demanding coaches, we want to see the moment when that coach or mentor breaks down and admits how well the players or students have learned to play the game or demonstrate their skill in a sport.

    But as audience members, we aren't just reacting to that moment when the characters please their coach, we are refracting that experience through our own lives and imagining the time when we earn respect and praise and acceptance from our greatest critic.

The Comeback

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    How It's Used

    The comeback is a sports movie cliche that is all about a down-and-out character who gets the chance of a lifetime and doesn't blow the opportunity.

    Actually, rewind a bit, because sometimes the hero does blow the opportunity and gets a second chance a la Rocky III, when Rocky Balboa has to go back to his gritty roots to reclaim the "Eye of the tiger" and defeat Clubber Lang with an assist from Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy.

    Filmmakers understand that audiences can relate to second chances, and that emotional connection creates rooting interest and anticipation for the moment when the hero gets that chance, as well as for what happens next.


    Notable Films in the Comeback Genre

    Rocky III, Southpaw, The Fighter, The Wrestler, Cinderella Man, The Natural, The Rookie


    Why We Love This Cliche

    We love comeback sports movies, because we can relate to the idea of getting to fulfill a dream that was deferred or shattered by some unforeseen circumstance.

    Coming back from adversity or injury or from some other obstacle reaffirms the notion that it's never too late to chase a dream, no matter how many people tell you to quit.

    In an interview with's Page 2, Dennis Quaid, who played real-life pitcher Jim Morris in The Rookie, said: "This one's really about unfulfilled dreams, which we all have. This guy got a chance to do it in real life. It's a beautiful tale."

    Anyone else need a Kleenex?


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