The "surrender cobra" is a fan's pose of anguished defeat
A communication coach says it's a sign of giving up
Coaches and players have been known to strike the pose, too
Editor’s Note: This article originally published in 2015.
Look around the stands of any stadium during the fourth quarter, and you’ll see it.
It’s the universal signal of anguished defeat, the gesture that shows you’ve all but given up hope for your team.
The “surrender cobra” made its debut in popular lexicon in 2013 in Grantland’s college football dictionary. It was defined as a “pose frequently adopted by fans witnessing unfortunate sports happenings, characterized by clasping hands on top of head as though one is under arrest and a slow, tense exhale of breath.”
The Internet embraced it, adopting the #surrendercobra hashtag and launching a Twitter account and other online forums to catalog the most impressive examples. Even coaches and players are susceptible.
ESPN celebrated the pose in a video. It featured a beleaguered University of Michigan fan whose perfect surrender cobra during October 2015’s Michigan-Michigan State game essentially summed up the game in the eyes of many. His 15 minutes of fame made him the subject of many a meme, earning him the unofficial title of Mr. Surrender Cobra 2015.
Sports are ripe for memes – see “crying fangirl” and “sad Virginia fan” – but surrender cobra’s beauty is its universality and applicability to observers and participants.
Grantland journalist Holly Anderson was high in the stands at the 2009 Sugar Bowl when she first saw the pattern. As No. 6 Utah came out of nowhere to wreck fourth-ranked Alabama, a crimson tide of fans started raising their hands and resting them on their heads.
“I remember thinking they looked like they were all under arrest,” she said.
Fast-forward to 2013, when Anderson was putting together the college football dictionary. She knew she had to include the gesture, but she couldn’t come up with a name. Finally, she and a colleague settled on “surrender cobra.”
“I liked it the best because it kind of looked like a snake, but but it also looked like you were about to be handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car,” she said.
The “surrender” part makes sense to communication coach Nick Morgan, author of “Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others and Maximizing Your Personal Impact.”
The idea of surrendering is very much embedded in the action of linking fingers, which signals withdrawal from a situation. It’s not an inherently negative gesture, he said. We clasp our fingers against our body when we lay on the beach or next to the pool in a sign of relaxation.
It’s when we raise our arms that things start to get increasingly emotional. When your arms are resting at your sides, that’s the “coolest emotional signal” you can send, Morgan said. As you raise your hands, it signals an increase in emotion as you become more engaged, maybe even defensive.
At concerts or political rallies, raised hands might signal excitement or exultation. But the combination of clasped fingers on your head imparts an entirely different signal.
As a communications coach, Morgan works with executives who frequently deploy the surrender cobra in unproductive meetings as a gesture of handing off the reins – and not in a good way.
“They’re checking out of the situation. They’re there, but they’re not there anymore,” he said.
Same goes for fans who strike the pose in moments of anguish during a game. They showed up to the game, they cheered and waved pompoms, but now this train wreck is out of their hands.
“It’s a good way to describe how a fan feels after they’ve done everything they can and given it their emotional all,” Morgan said. “They’re checking out, even though they still love their team.”
With college bowl games and the Super Bowl around the corner, you’ll no doubt be seeing more of the surrender cobra – or falling prey to its power. Which kind of fan will you be?