Rethinking Gladwell: Maximizing talent vs “insurgent strategies”?

. Thursday, May 21, 2009
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There are probably a few hundred commentaries floating around the web about Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece entitled, “How David Beats Goliath”.

While the early commentaries were positive saying the article was “worth a read” or provocative, the latest commentaries have torn Gladwell to shreds for the most part.

Most of the critiques are focused specifically on his framing of basketball strategy (I find that the basketball arguments are best articulated by Brian McCormick’s article at the Cross Over Movement blog). The two major themes of McCormick’s argument are that teaching girls to press abdicates the coach of responsibility for skill development in youth basketball and that the press as a strategy has diminishing returns at the higher levels of basketball.

I agree with McCormick on his assessment of basketball strategy in Gladwell’s article (with a caveat described below).

However, I am also sympathetic to the fact that Gladwell was not actually talking about basketball in that article at all. He was talking about the underdog broadly. And a few people who defend Gladwell’s article have picked up on that point.

In an article written yesterday (thus giving me another chance to finally jump in with my opinion) entitled, “Leave Malcolm Gladwell Alone” by John Gassaway at Basketball Prospectus, Gassaway writes the following.

What I took from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece was that far too often coaches–much like everyone else–rely on custom and the settled inertia of habit when instead they should, particularly if they’re facing a team that’s better than theirs, ask themselves a simple question: How can I surprise and discomfit my opponent? Gladwell found two coaches who have asked themselves precisely that question, as did T.E. Lawrence some 90 years ago. Coaches, writers, or anyone else can surely benefit from trying to attain their own prosaic “Aqaba, from the land!” In this Gladwell is better than correct. He is correct on something foundational.
While multiple people have taken this “element of surprise” argument from Gladwell’s article, it seemed like Gladwell clearly had a more specific claim. And perhaps that more specific claim was lost in the fact that his article tried to connect rather divergent examples and extract common principles, occasionally at the exclusion of critical attributes…which led to the complaints about his representation of basketball strategy.

Thankfully, Gladwell actually restated his argument more concisely…in two separate places. Which opened up a whole other can of worms for me: should we even accept his fundamental premise? And if we were to develop a theory of the underdog that “worked” for basketball, how would we do it?

Gladwell’s Argument

After I read Gladwell’s article and made a few notes, I came across two separate explanations of the article from Gladwell himself:

One from his own blog on May 13th (emphasis added):
The press is not for everyone. But then the piece never claimed that it was. I simply pointed out that insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it's surprising that more underdogs don't use them. The data on underdogs in war is quite compelling in this regard. But it's also true on the basketball court. The press isn't perfect. But given its track record, surely it is under-utilized. Isn't that strange?
And another from a ESPN Page 2 e-conversation with Bill Simmons (always a fan of the WNBA) also on May 13th (emphasis added):
Then, of course, Pitino takes one of his first Louisville teams to the Final Four in 2006 and this season's team to the Elite Eight, and no one's going to argue that either of those teams were filled with future Hall of Famers. Given that, then, why do so few underdog teams use the press? Pitino's explanation is that it's because most coaches simply can't convince their players to work that hard. What do you think of that argument?

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.
So the point Gladwell is trying to make is not really about basketball at all – he’s using a basketball example to represent a broader principle that had apparently captured his interest: substituting effort for ability and challenging convention.

At one point I was really sure that I hated this underlying argument. Now I’m not sure what I think because it still just seems like a narrow and shortsighted argument…for two reasons.

My counter-argument: Re-articulating insurgent strategies…?

What I came to realize is that what I take issue with in Gladwell’s article is a matter of articulation more than a true disdain for his argument. So let’s just take his premise and examine it a little more closely:

...insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath.

1) Is there really a true substitution of effort vs. ability in the case of successful underdogs or is it a matter underdogs developing the ability to do something very well?

For example, it is unclear whether Ranadive did in fact have to teach fundamental principles of defense – exploiting angles, good defensive stance, steering ballhandlers, or properly trapping (as explained by Glenn Nelson of HoopGurlz) -- in the process of teaching the press. The way he framed the Redwood City case did in fact represent the point he wanted to make about effort over ability. However, one could argue from the same argument that with the help of Rometra Craig – a defensive stopper who played for Duke and USC, according to Gladwell – is that this team actually just developed the ability to play defense really well.

Which brings me to one of my initial gripes with the article – a good press is not imposing “chaos” on an otherwise orderly game of basketball. As Kevin Pelton describes on Basketball Prospectus in his article entitled, Gladwell On Underdogs,
...if you talk to head coaches, you find that there is so much that is out of their control that they become borderline obsessed with consistency. From a mathematical perspective, consistency is good for good teams and bad for bad ones, but it’s easy to see its allure to the coach.
Basketball is not really an “orderly” game to begin with, so it’s not as though the press is imposing chaos. The press is a systematic means of speeding up the game by forcing the offense to make quick decisions.

As Glenn Nelson pointed out, you have to have a pretty good command of some basic defensive principles to even make a press work. Moreover, you really need to have quick guards that can even rotate to apply the pressure. A slow “David” would be foolish to apply the press.

Which leads to my second point…

2) Is defying convention really the best underdog strategy? If we think of the NBA circa 2007, we can see that defying convention was actually an underdog and dominant strategy – both the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns played an up-tempo small ball strategy. Now if you really want to argue that a team with Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion is an underdog, that’s your own business (which is an entirely separate point).

Being innovative at some point is probably the most effective strategy for anyone to win anything. Does the underdog bear an increased burden to be innovative? Possibly. But what happens when an underdog (Golden State) faces a dominant team (Phoenix) that employs the same unconventional strategy?

Prior to adding Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, Golden State lost 3 times to Phoenix. After adding them, they went 3-2 over two seasons. One could argue that what happened there was a change in talent, not the deployment of an unconventional strategy (that Nelson has used forever with differential effects).

So just being unconventional is neither sustainable nor inherently effective for the underdog. They have to have the ability to apply their effort to a strategy that wins games.

So I would argue a slightly different point that we might find more applicable to a wider range of underdogs – what the underdog does is know the conventions exceedingly well such that they are able to challenge the assumptions that the dominant team’s dominance is built upon. Therefore, it’s not just being unconventional for the sake of doing so, but making a reasoned decision to attack the dominant team at a blind spot that may have been disguised by their own assumptions of dominance.

Maybe what the underdog needs is a really good understanding of their own abilities and the abilities of their opponents and a strategy that attempts to exploit weaknesses. When you frame underdog strategy in that way, suddenly you come to the conclusion that the underdog might not ever be defying convention but challenging assumptions of what that convention means in practice.

And this still leaves a third question that I don’t have an answer for within Gladwell’s framework…

3) What is an underdog?

Kentucky’s 1996 team was not an underdog. Pitino’s team was loaded – “eight [NBA] journeymen and one marginal star” as Gladwell asserts is what I call loaded (and people often forget that Derek Anderson may very well have been the best player on that squad before his injury).

Given that Pitino’s 1996 squad could make a legitimate claim as one of the best teams in NCAA history, it’s puzzling to use them to support an argument about “underdogs”.

(This leads to another point that one could glean from watching the 1996 Wildcats: full court presses in my experience work best when the other team is taking the ball out after a made basket, which means the effectiveness of the press is partially dependent on a team’s ability to score baskets, which means that contrary to Gladwell’s argument, pressing is probably a better strategy for teams that can score more frequently.)

But it seems like Gladwell here is not talking about an underdog in the game to game matchup sense (as in who’s favored) but more about maximizing talent.

And that’s where I want to go here – the better discussion for youth basketball in particular is how do you maximize talent while simultaneously encouraging positive youth development (not only skill development, but learning that learning is hard and failure is a part of life)?

For that, I look at a different model from men’s NCAA basketball in 1996.

The 1996 Princeton Tigers

If you haven’t seen Princeton’s 1996 upset of the defending champion UCLA Bruins, check out the clip…and think about Coach Pete Carrill’s description of the game and his relationship to conventions:

Back cuts are quite conventional.

I’m not saying this clearly disproves Gladwell – it could be the exception to the rule. But in watching NCAA tournaments year after year in which there are a number of true underdogs (by any definition of the term), this certainly calls into question whether being unconventional is the way to go for an underdog.

What can we gather from this story?

Perhaps we could extend Gladwell’s inquiry by saying that what the underdog did here was control the tempo of the game to maximize their abilities.

Would we say that Princeton substituted effort for ability?

I wouldn’t…and in fact, I’m not even sure what that really means – unfocused effort does not win basketball games. It’s usually some combination of effort, ability, discipline, and reflection. Sometimes that might mean challenging conventions, sometimes not.

You figure out how to control the game, you execute your strategy, and find a strategy that puts your players in position to succeed.

Implications for Youth Development

The idea that underdogs substitute effort for ability is problematic for me because I’m not sure it reflects reality…or what reality it reflects.

I’m not going to apply this to other social phenomena at this time because there are some significant differences between underdogs in basketball, war, politics, or the workforce that I think are really difficult to ignore.

But in terms of youth development, if I were to coach an underdog squad, I think I would focus on their strengths and bolster those in addition to strengthening their weaknesses so if they wanted to go on in basketball they would have the skills to do so. In other words, I would maximize their talent and empower them to play to their best ability, rather than trying to challenge conventions.

And to reiterate, it’s not clear from Gladwell’s account that Vivek Ranadive failed to teach some skills. I would in fact assume that the girls did learn quite a bit about basketball strategy…since there was a D1 player present in Rometra Craig. A press does not work if you cannot score…or defend…or cut off certain angles.

To be clear, it’s not that Gladwell is completely wrong as much as that he’s just partially right – certainly effort is one part of the equation, but I would venture to guess that there is much more than that to basketball, war, or politics.

I’m not as revolted or disgusted by Gladwell’s article as others, I think the article just reflects a shallow understanding of successful basketball and what underdogs do in order to succeed.

Transition Points:

The PostBourgie blog makes an important point
about a problematic racial undercurrent of Gladwell’s article that I think the Princeton-UCLA example is susceptible to as well. An excerpt:
But the other part speaks to a very old, very insidious meme in the sports world, and basketball in particular: Black players are natively talented, and white players work hard and play smart. This is in no way a compliment to black folks, of course, what with its insinuation that black athletes are lazy, dumb, and possessed of some kind of peculiar physicality. But the idea is so much a part of the way sports are discussed in America that people will try to shoehorn reality into it.**

Remember the whole Geno Auriemma controversy around his comments about race and how some people dismissed his claims about racial stereotypes mattering in sports? This is exactly what I believe he was talking about and demonstrates how pervasive these stereotypes are in society. And the problem is not that they affect how we see sports, but that those perceptions have concrete consequences for how we understand race (and gender…and class) in the world beyond sports.

What intially caught my eye about Gladwell’s argument
is the age-old belief (myth?) of hard work leading to success. The same myth that everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Booker T. Washington to George Bush or Barack Obama might advance. We in the U.S. love the idea of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”. We U.S. citizens love the Horatio Alger myth. Hard work is fundamental to our adherence to the “American Dream”.

And it’s a farce.

But there is no need to challenge the Horatio Alger myth here – even the Wikipedia page contains a summary of those critiques. The point here is that there is something else at work underlying the success of an underdog. And really, I don’t think Gladwell believes that… so consider this point moot.

It would be really interesting
to look across a broader range of NCAA “Cinderellas” and see how they worked within/outside of conventions…but that would take way more time than I have.