The 10 Worst Sports Movie Clichés

More worn-out than a punching bag in a training montage.

By Brenden Gallagher

Every film genre has its clichés. What would a romcom be without a meet-cute and a sassy best friend dispensing advice over a latté? What would a horror film be without sudden power outages and phones that have conveniently lost service? The difference between sports movies and most other film genres, however, is that sports movies aren’t just filled with clichés, they’re defined by them. All but the most creative filmmakers approach sports movies as a paint-by-number operation. They all hit the same several dozen beats, just in different sports and with different characters.

Some sports movie clichés are essential to drama. If the team doesn’t overcome incredible odds, they aren’t heroes. If it isn’t all on the line at the last moment, there is no climax. (This is the case in super-ripped Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie, Southpaw, where he plays a boxer who loses everything and has to fight his way back to keep his family together.) But, some clichés have carved out a spot in sports movies because of tired tradition or sheer laziness. It’s time to hang those tired tropes in the rafter where they belong. Here are The 10 Worst Sports Movie Clichés.

  1. The Bad Boy

    He doesn’t play by the rules, despite the fact that he plays a sport that operates by a set of rules. From Happy Gilmore to Tim Riggins, we love maverick sports stars who do things their own way, damn the consequences. Why do we like these athletes who live outside the law and aren’t afraid of a little unnecessary roughness? Just like we love cowboys, slightly crooked cops, and brooding anti-heroes, there is something alluring about someone who refuses to play by the rules, because that’s exactly what most of us spend our cubicle-bound lives doing.

    Screenwriters: If you’re going to include a bad boy in your next script, do us a favor and think outside the box. If he is a long-haired, strong, silent, playboy who parties a little too hard, and finds the establishment to be hypocritical, but ultimately has a kind heart, then we may be forced to take our Netflix queue elsewhere.

  2. The Accidental Athlete

    Sports movie heroes often stumble into stardom by chance. It can happen to anyone, no matter how much prior athletic experience they have. Whether it’s a dog who can play basketball (Air Bud) or a hockey player who is actually great at golf (Happy Gilmore), we love it when our legends appear out of thin air. If only this happened in real life as much as it does in movies, we’d for damn sure have an ESPY by now.

  3. The Coach Who Has Demons

    The bad boy of the team isn’t the only one who has problems. The team’s coach is often using his job as a step on the path to redemption. The same can be true of an aging athlete, depending on the story. Either way, this character’s arc begins in a bar, court room, or dilapidated house. They’re in a bad place. When it is suggested that they take up coaching or attempt a comeback, they are quick to remind everyone that “they don’t do that anymore” and “they’re too old for that shit.”

    Of course, 10 minutes of screen time later, guess what happens? Turns out they’re down to be the subject of a sports movie after all.

  4. The Coach Who’s a Saint

    Equally annoying and equally prevalent is the coach who just happens to be the perfect mentor for their ragtag band of misfits. The coach in Air Bud was the school janitor, but it turns out he used to play for the Knicks and loves to drop wisdom. Dorky Danny O’Shea takes a group of misfit nerds and turned them into Little Giants. When your coach is a saint, there is nothing you can’t do. Talent and skill don’t matter when the guy helming your team is just a damn swell guy. Sure, you might lose the championship game, but everyone will remember you for your pluck and determination, and just how damn nice your coach was.

  5. The Motivational Speech

    This is the number one weapon of the saintly coach and the coach with demons alike. Regardless of what kind of moral ground they stand on, by this point in the movie, the coach has changed this team for the better. But after all of that hard work, things are starting to fall apart. The other team is just that good. The pressure is just too great. There’s only one thing left to do: give one helluva speech.

    They say actions speak louder than words, but in sports movies, if those words come when there are about 15 minutes left in the movie, those words are more powerful than any action you can imagine.

    Southpaw Body?"]
  6. The Comeback

    Sports movies are suited to sequels because we love when any film character comes back for “one last ride.” Even Magic Mike XXL uses the plot of getting the gang together for one last run at gold. Hell, Rocky has come back for one last fight a half-dozen times now. If you’ve had enough of the Rocky movies, don’t worry, pretty much every fighting movie uses the same cliché. Just put on The Fighter, The Wrestler, and Cinderella Man, or go see Southpaw if you want to see someone take on all the odds for one last shot at glory and permanent brain damage.

  7. The Locker Room Sadness

    If you ever find yourself in a sports movie, do yourself a favor and make sure you’re never alone or with just one other character in a locker room. If you’re alone in a locker room, odds are that you’ll find out about a family tragedy, discover what you thought was a slight pain is actually a career-ending injury, or you’ll take the opportunity to do the PEDs that will ultimately get you kicked off of the team.

    Just like you never leave a friend alone in the house in a horror movie, true teammates don’t leave a fellow player alone in the locker room.

  8. The Training Montage

    What is a comeback without a training montage? It’s boring to watch people work out, eat right, and silently develop an iron will. Yet, these are all things that have to happen before a washed-up drunken has-been or an upstart young underdog can hope to take on the reigning champ who also happens to be a real piece of shit. As moviegoers, we should all make a pact that we’ll just assume the training took place, if filmmakers promise to never again end a sequence with a triumphant athlete jogging into the sunset.

  9. The Key Injury

    No matter how well a character trains, they are still susceptible to injury. They are particularly susceptible to injury if they are the best player on the team, but somehow not the main character. Even though this character carries the team on his back throughout the movie, it turns out that grit and/or the kid sitting on the bench that nobody believed in will more make up for the MVP’s absence.

  10. The Last-Second Loss

    Yes, it can be very cheesy when a team of underdogs manages to win a championship, but it’s even cornier when they lose it all at the last second. The movie we all thought was about the big game turns out to be about “the lessons they learned” and “the time that they had.” At one point, the idea that the team loses must have seemed original, but after decades of failed buzzer beaters and last-second knockouts, crushing defeat at the last second has become the cliché that most needs to be buzzer beaten into a pulp.