The dumbest motivational stunts ever tried in sports

“They want us to do what?”
“They want us to do what?”
Image: Reuters/Ray Stubblebine
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Earlier this week, the manager of Washington Nationals baseball team surprised his team by bringing three camels to spring training practice in Florida. The dromedaries were there as shaggy, ambling metaphors for the team’s struggles in the post season over the last few years, ie. the Nats’ inability to “get over the hump.”

“My intentions were to bring the hump to us—the proverbial hump question that we all try to answer,” manager Dave Martinez told the Washington Post. Naturally, this all occurred on Wednesday—hump day.

The Nationals include stars like Bryce Harper, who may find the prospect of landing baseball’s first $400 million contract more inspiring than a trio of ungulates. Whether the gimmick works won’t be apparent until October.

The appearance of the camels was only the latest in a long line of goofy, silly, or just plain dumb stunts designed to motivate athletes when the glory of victory is no longer enough. Here are a few of the most egregious:

No bull

In 1992, Mississippi State’s football team was scheduled to play the University of Texas Longhorns. In the week before the game, MSU coach Jackie Sherrill arranged for a young bull to be castrated in front of his team in an effort to—well, to be honest, it’s not really clear exactly what the intended message was. As criticism rained down on him, Sherrill claimed his goal was educating his players in animal husbandry. And since the animal was going to be castrated anyway, he said, no one was really harmed. As crude a tactic as it was, it may have worked: MSU beat Texas 28-10.

He axed for it

As coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003, Jack Del Rio was eager to spur his players to better their 0-3 record. He introduced the slogan “Keep Chopping Wood” to emphasize the importance of grinding out improvements, and installed an axe and tree stump in the locker room. Players were encouraged to play lumberjack by taking swings with the axe and, well, you can probably see where this is headed: punter Chris Hanson ended up taking an axe in the foot, leading to a deep gash and emergency surgery that cost him the rest of the season. The axe was gone before the next game.

Holy Cow!

Before their World Series win in 2016, the Chicago Cubs were one of the most beleaguered teams in all of sports, having last won baseball’s championship in 1908. Lore held the team was hexed in 1945, when William Sianis, owner of the city’s famed Billy Goat Tavern, tried to bring his pet billy goat to a World Series game and cursed the team when he and his animal were turned away (it’s not clear why the bar owner thought his goat should have been admitted, nor why denying him was curse-worthy behavior). But before the Cubs’ first game of the 2008 playoffs, the team’s chairman arranged for a Greek Orthodox priest to sprinkle holy water on the players and pray over them. “He said, ‘I’m a devout Catholic, and I’m not superstitious, but if there is anything there, I want to take care of it,’” the church officiant, James Greanias, told the Chicago Tribune (the goat’s owner was Greek, hence the team chairman’s call to an orthodox priest). The Cubs lost the game, were swept out of the series, and had to wait eight more years before their demons were exorcised.

Burn, baby, burn

Less than a dumb stunt, and more of a dumb trend, is the misappropriation of an ugly chapter in Meso-American history. In 1519, the conquistador Hernan Cortes, on his way to the pillage of the Aztec empire, was forced to burn his own ships to put down a mutiny among his men who plotted a return to Cuba. That episode has in recent years been misinterpreted as a motivational technique in sports and business—”burning the boats” has become a slogan for committing oneself fully, and not looking back. It’s been used by football coaches, baseball general managers, and even members of Congress, without any apparent appreciation of just how bad Cortes was at motivation.