Full Court Press

In Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell suggests that talent and hard work are two of the factors responsible for outstanding achievement in any field. Neither one alone is sufficient to guarantee success but in combination with three other factors—opportunity, luck and timing—they account for the notable achievements of the likes of Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer and The Beatles.

However, Gladwell “switches gears” a bit in his latest essay, How David Beats Goliath, in the May 11th issue of The New Yorker. Here he asks why is it that the underdog so often defeats a superior opponent. He cites statistics that this occurs in over 25% of the wars fought in the past two hundred years, where weak combatants defeated more powerful opponents. And when the weaker army chose an unconventional strategy, their winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63%

To account for this “remarkable fact” Gladwell turns to the Biblical story of David and Goliath. He says that David defeated Goliath because he didn’t play according to Goliath’s rules. Goliath was clearly the stronger of the two and David didn’t stand a chance in hand-to-hand combat. Instead, he did the unexpected, “reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” Gladwell says this broke the “rhythm of the encounter” which in turn “must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target.”

He discusses the surprising victory of the Arabs, led by the Englishman T. E. Lawrence, over the Turks near the end of the First World War. Gladwell explains how Lawrence led the Bedouin warriors in an unheard of march across six hundred miles of blazing hot desert to the port town of Aqaba. The Turks were expecting an attack from the British fleet patrolling off the water off the Gulf. Instead, Lawrence’s masterstroke was to attack from the rear following their audacious march across the desert. Here again Gladwell concludes, “substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life.”

The life of T.E. Lawrence, his relationship with the Bedouins, and the desert march he led them is vividly depicted in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (with Peter O’Toole as Lawrence) and Lawrence’s own The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence, by profession an archeologist (“a dreamy poet" according to Gladwell) was never accepted by British Army officers; “The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider.”

Much of Gladwell’s article illustrates this point by way of yet another example of defensive strategies for overcoming superior opponents—in this case, applying a full court press in women’s basketball. He writes about Vivek Ranadive, founder of a computer software company, who decided to coach his daughter’s Junior League basketball team. Ranadive knew nothing about the game and couldn’t understand why teams retreated to the opposite end of the court each time they scored a basket.

Instead, he wondered why didn’t they defend the players who were inbounding the ball at the other end of the court. He reasoned that a full court press, applied consistently throughout the game would give weak basketball teams a chance against far stronger ones. This required considerable endurance and constant pressure on the part of the weaker players, like those on his daughter’s team.

Gladwell concludes his discussion of successful applications of this technique by Ranadive and other coaches with this generalization: “We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability…because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.”

He also suggests that underdogs not only work harder than the Goliath’s, “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 coordination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable…”

You might wonder why the full-count press is not more widely employed in college and professional basketball games. Perhaps it is too exhausting. Perhaps it only works against players who are poor ball handlers. Or perhaps a team that knows how to pass quickly and thereby move the ball rapidly up the court can easily counter it. No doubt that is true for most first-rate college and professional basketball teams today.