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Friday, May 15, 2009

David versus Goliath

Recently, Malcolm Galdwell (of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers fame) wrote a piece for the New Yorker on David vs. Goliath situations and how unconventional strategies are crucial to increasing an underdog’s chances of success.

The part that has gotten the most, electrons, in the sports blogosphere is an insistence that the full-court press can even the odds in an unbalanced basketball matchup. In a follow-up back and forth with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, he states
After my piece ran in The New Yorker, one of the most common responses I got was people saying, well, the reason more people don't use the press is that it can be beaten with a well-coached team and a good point guard. That is (A) absolutely true and (B) beside the point. The press doesn't guarantee victory. It simply represents the underdog's best chance of victory. It raises their odds from zero to maybe 50-50. I think, in fact, that you can argue that a pressing team is always going to have real difficulty against a truly elite team. But so what? Everyone, regardless of how they play, is going to have real difficulty against truly elite teams. It's not a strategy for being the best. It's a strategy for being better. I never thought Louisville -- or, for that matter, Missouri -- had a realistic shot at winning it all in the NCAAs this year. But if neither of those teams pressed, they wouldn't have been there in the first place.
So the gist of what he’s saying is that when you know you’re going to lose under normal strategies, there’s no harm in trying something wildly different. The worst that can happen is what’s nearly certain to happen anyway. I think he’s sticking to the press because of a singular lack of other examples in basketball.

Back when I was in high school, we had one. The second-best team in our league, Macomber, was without their center for an extended period of time due to mono, and were simply undermanned when they went up against the top team, St. Francis—who happened to be ranked #1 in Ohio going into the game. Macomber had a potent weapon, a freshman you may have heard of named Jimmy Jackson (a long-time NBA vet and current Big Ten Network analyst) but he wasn’t going to be enough by himself.

So they tried something different. Macomber held the ball. The final score was 13 to 11 in favor of Macomber, who then advanced to and won the league championship game. Oh, people were pissed. They said it was unsportsmanlike. But it was completely within the rules and used the one favorable imbalance—point guard—to neutralize the other eleven unfavorable ones.

So how does this apply to track & field? In general, strategy doesn’t play much of a role. The better athlete on the day of competition nearly always wins, and strategy mostly plays a role in that you don’t want to screw it up. (See Richards, Sanya).

There are examples of innovation in track & field, Dick Fosbury being the most famous example. In the shot put, there was the O’Brien shift and the Oldfield spin, and in the pole vault and javelin there were various innovations in materials and technology. But all of these represent serendipitous discovery of the best way to do things which were soon copied by everyone, not truly unconventional strategies that neutralize wide variances in ability.

On a more ordinary level, unconventional strategies can play a role. The standard setup for a high school team is to have the fastest kids running the sprints, the next fastest in the hurdles and 400, the next group in the middle distance, and the slowest in the long distances. And the only way you can win your league this way is to have superior levels of talent up and down the line. Furthermore, you’ll never discover the next Renaldo Nehemiah or Bernard Lagat that way.

Of course, a good coach will understand where an athlete’s true talents lie and direct them to whatever event that is. And if your team happens to be completely devoid of any real speed, you may end up completely abandoning the sprint relays in favor of the 800 and 300 hurdles and so forth—events that, around here at least, tend not to be terribly deep because they’re unglamorous and take some talent but also take a lot of hard work and guts. And that’s one of the things Gladwell touches on in his article: if your talent is inferior, not only must your strategy take this into account, but you must also work harder than your opponents. Much harder.

There is one famous example of a successful unconventional strategy in the annals of Olympic track & field, one that uses all of the elements Gladwell talks about.

In 1966 and 1967, Jim Ryun dominated the 1500 meters and mile in a way that has never been surpassed, before or since. He was the ultimate Goliath. There were issues he took into the 1968 Olympics, leg injuries and mono, but he had recovered from them and was still Jim F***ing Ryun.

Despite the Olympics being held at more than 7300 feet of altitude, and Kip Keino having lived his whole life in similarly thin air, he still thought he needed an unconventional strategy to win. Teammate Ben Jipcho took the pace out hard for the first lap while Keino and Ryun hung back. On the second lap, Keino surged to the front while Ryun continued to hang back. On the third lap Keino went for broke, and put so much distance on Ryun that the race was essentially over.

While I think the race was Ryun’s to win, Keino did make him face a moment of truth about 800 or 900 meters into it where he hesitated and lost. Keino’s strategy was unconventional, and made the most of his strength (endurance at altitude) and the least of his weakness (lack of finishing speed). He was willing to suffer the agonies of the damned and take an all-or-nothing risk while Ryun did not, who as the heavy favorite was expected to see anything but gold as failure.

But also, Keino did something that the establishment questioned in terms of its sportsmanship. Gladwell:
This is the second half of the insurgent’s creed. Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and co√∂rdination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable—a shocking mixture of broken plays and flailing limbs and usually competent players panicking and throwing the ball out of bounds. You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way.
The Kenyan’s teamwork was considered by some to be outside the bounds of fair play. Jipcho himself thought so within a few years. But such collusion is totally and completely within the rules, and the Keino still had to run faster than Ryun in order to win the race. But he managed to do it on his terms instead of Ryun’s terms.

And that’s the whole idea that Gladwell is getting at: if you’re supposed to lose, at least put yourself in charge of the situation.

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