Over the last few years, I've probably photographed close to 400 events, a thousand different teams and countless athletes. I've been fortunate to have access to some great games and to witness exciting and memorable performances.
Many of the photos I take are ordinary, and I never even show or post most of them. Sometimes the point of focus is wrong or I didn't time the action right. A good sports photo almost always has the object (e.g., basketball, football, frisbee) in the frame, so if it's not there I just let that one go automatically. In addition, most sports photos don't have a chance of being memorable without a recognizable face or two included. Also, in a fast sequence of shots, there is usually only one good one to share.
In most sports, things happen so quickly that you're really only following the action through your lens. You mostly hope that you got the right moment. That's not always true, and sometimes I know it right away, but most of the time I'm hoping for something good. Granted, the more you do anything the more likely you are to get better results, but I'd say my percentage of "keepers" is at about 20% on a regular basis.
But here's the cool thing. Sometimes you get REALLY lucky and an image spills out of your camera that you weren't expecting. It tells a story beyond what you saw through the lens and it has an emotional impact that is much more than the sport or the game might seemingly have offered. Here are a few examples:
This photo was taken at one of the first track meets I ever covered. The lighting was bad and the weather went from early spring warmth to winter chill as the sun went down. The last event of the meet was a long relay for girls and it was delayed for some reason, which caused everyone to stand around shivering. I saw this team waiting for the race to start and sensed that I could capture them trying to stay warm, but instead the athletes look as if they're praying together before they run.
At a volleyball game, I moved in a position to photograph the players on the bench. I often do that to make sure that everyone on the team has at least one shot in the online gallery. I got lucky to capture the moment the ball hit the court, but this could have been an ordinary shot of the team calling the ball OUT. It got a whole lot better when I realized that I also got the referee's flag... calling the ball IN.
At most games I try to take a photo or two of the athletes or coaches during the National Anthem. That moment is often poignant and emotional and the photos depict a commonality that transcends that action and the competition. When I took this shot, it was one of several at a multi-team gymnastics meet. It was only when I saw it later that I noticed how well it represented the diversity of our country. Coincidentally, this moment occurred the night before the 2017 presidential inauguration.
This might be the oddest photo I've ever published. It's really not very good at all technically. In fact, I was trying to focus on the gymnast in flight, and I totally botched the attempt. As I processed my images after this meet, I almost threw this one away. But then I noticed that I had inadvertently focused on the judges watching the athlete perform. This one makes me smile because I think it looks like a gymnast balloon floating by.
This kind of photograph doesn't happen often, and while sports photography is a lot of fun it's also hard work. Getting some unexpected, fun results makes the effort more than worth it.