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Frontlines of the Non-digital (Super Bowl Edition): Executing As a Team Under Pressure

So about a week ago, I found myself in the midst of a heated discussion with an avid sports fan (Matt Parker) and amateur saber-metrics wannabe (think: high school calculus meets baseball statistics). Anyway, over Kentucky Fried Chicken in the middle of Manhattan, Mr. Parker, myself, and Charles Pratt (who knows very little about sports) discussed the role of psychology in an athlete’s performance… specifically who would win this match: a team of college basketball players who had practiced together for two years or a team of all-star professionals who had never played together… with one caveat: the players must all be the same age to regulate physical development (say 21 years old). In other words, it’s Duke vs. the all NBA rookie or 2nd year team. Who wins?

Well being a huge fan of college basketball, it’s obvious to predict which side of the debate I came down on. Matt Parker, being a huge NBA fan and stat whore, disagreed with my position. And Charles Pratt, who’s not even 100% sure as to the shape of a basketball, brought up the topic of psychology in athletics. With the Super Bowl only days away, what better non-digital gaming discussion to have than to talk: panic, choking, and general high-intensity sporting moments where an athlete must maintain “the zone” in order to perform. In honor of Matt Parker and his New York Giants, simply think Scott Norwood.

Before I give my side of the debate, here’s some required reading: it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 New Yorker article about panicking and choking in sports. This is a favorite of mine and I think Frank Lantz’s too. In a nut shell, to panic means to lose concentration to the degree that one cannot think… at all. The player is unable to fall back on training. To choke means to think too much, or over-think, and can no longer rely on things like muscle memory. Now as for the basketball debate, my take is that basketball is a game that rewards team chemistry unlike any other sport. The game was designed to teach itself (without a coach actually). Five players working as one unit and the team that does this better usually wins. The most important single element to a great basketball team is not shooting or defense, as often misunderstood. It’s passing. If team A can prevent team B from passing well AND execute their own passes efficiently, then team A will usually win assuming it’s not midgets vs. giants. That’s why a team that’s practiced together for 2 years will always beat a team that’s never played together: passing takes great anticipation; anticipation takes playing with the same players long enough as to learn and subsequently predict their movement. Steve Nash (a short white Canadian) is a great point guard (and 2 time NBA MVP) because he anticipates his teammates so well (something he learned from soccer).

It’s also why “the Dream Teams” of mega NBA stars are often upset by lesser foreign opponents (teams like Puerto Rico have been playing together for years while the NBA guys are all on different teams). The Olympic committee recognized this recently and now makes the Dream Team practice for years in advance before world competition. They also brought in a college coach to do the coaching (Mike Krzyzewski from Duke). I think I can rest my case, considering Puerto Rico’s best team could never beat a Duke or any well coached college team. Take a look at the 1958 University of Kentucky team if you don’t believe me… they not only won the NCAA championship, they brought back the gold medal from the ’58 Olympics. So what does this have to do with psychology, or more importantly football? Well our little conversation in Kentucky Fried Chicken shifted once we began comparing the NBA to the college game. Eventually we talked about home court advantage and Matt Parker is a non-believer. “Athletes are trained not to be affected by environment,” proclaimed Mr. Parker. He wanted to know why the Giants had won 9 straight road games and performed more poorly at home. Well the answer is that playing in front of the critical home crowd that is New York is tough and leaving that pressure-cooked environment is actually a relief to New York teams, I surmise. About this time, Charles Pratt chimed that we should not forget that professional athletes are like actors on a stage and that when a crowd applauds your performance you are launched deeper into your character, or for an athlete: deeper into “the zone.” On the road, it becomes much easier to slip out of the zone and therefore panic or choke in desperate moments. This is my theory anyway.

As for the Super Bowl — a neutral playing field — rarely does the game boil down to one defining, climactic moment. Although in two instances it has. One, the aforementioned Scott Norwood shank, and two, the Adam Vinaterri game winner. Both of these men serve the most pressurized role in all of sport: the field goal kicker. 300 pound men knock the life out of each other for 48 minutes just to have a 150 pound, often barefoot teammate walkout that most fans have never heard of with the game on the line. Kicking a field goal isn’t easy, but when you’re paid millions of dollars to do so, it should be and the statistics prove that it is: about 81% of all field goal kicks are made. But when the game is on the line, the statistics are out the door. Adam Vinaterri is famous for kicking a Super Bowl winning field goal. Scott Norwood is famous for missing one.

To sum up, to be a great team in any sport requires so many intangibles that in some ways it’s silly to try boil it down to just a few items… but I’m a silly guy. Executing as a team means to execute as one — being able to anticipate teammates as you would one of your arms. Being able to continue to do that in moments of great stress is the mark of a champion. And as for a Super Bowl prediction, well I guess I’m looking for a great passing team that executes under pressure. Sounds like the undefeated New England Patriots. Sorry Matt.

14 Comments

  1. Bob wrote:

    I find American Football occasionally interesting for the same reason that Stanely Kubrick found it absolutely engrossing– it’s a game of war, and good old fashioned “Barry Lyndon”-sytle war, to boot. Because of that, I tend to discount the individual players themselves when I think of the game, dwelling instead on the position of the coach, who stands as a Napoleonic general in the face of so many Waterloos (or Ike in the face of so many Normandies, if they’re luckier). But of course, wars can only be planned by generals, and must be fought, won and lost by the soldiers on the battlefield. So too is it with any team-based sport, especially one with such primally combatative roots as Gridiron.

    It makes me wonder how many experienced Super Bowl veterans have developed their own thousand yard stare– no matter how long the field may be– and whether we aren’t going to start listing Churchill in our weekly readings…

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  2. That’s absolutely the appeal of football for most. In fact it’s really the only team sport where every play is one that is called by the coach. In basketball, often plays are called but not always and at its root basketball is meant to not have coaches.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Football is the one with the pointy ball, right?

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    Don’t be silly. You’re thinking of lawn-darts.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Matt Parker wrote:

    A few counter points:

    For the record, I don’t believe Norwood choked or panicked. He missed barely missed a 47 yard field goal. 47 yards is no chip shot and quite miss able. It’s not like he tripped over his own feet trying to kick the ball.

    Steve Nash is not short, he’s 6’3. He might not be tall for a basketball player, but he’s not short for a point guard. That’s about average. He does have 2 MVP awards, neither of which are deserved. I honestly believe being white and likable has as much to do with winning those awards as his play (I’m not saying he’s not a great player. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve consideration. I’m just saying both of those years there were better candidates. You know, like guys who play defense in addition to offense). The key point is, though, that Steve Nash is tremendously skilled and his team became one of the elite teams in the NBA as soon as he joined them…not after he played with them for years. Doesn’t his success more support my argument more than yours? His tremendous skills as an individual made his team great, not his knowledge of his teammates.

    The NBA “Dream Teams” did not lose playing NBA basketball. They lost playing basketball by international rules, which has a much greater emphasis on outside shooting and is a substantially less physical game. I think the teams put together for these competitions were ill suited for international rules where players like Ray Allen and Michael Redd would thrive (Redd and Mike Miller have been added to the current Dream Team).

    Even putting that aside, these teams did not contain the best US players. The past three dream teams included players like Stephon Marbury, Ben Wallace, Antonio Davis(!), Jay Williams(!), Raef LaFrentz(!), Michael Finley, Andre Miller, Richard Jefferson, Lamar Odom, Emeka Okafor, Shane Battier, and Kirk Hinrich. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would’ve thought of these players amongst the top 12 in the NBA at any point in their careers. Players who weren’t on these teams include: Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, and Chauncey Billups.

    Lastly, an increasing number of the top players in the NBA (and in college basketball) are not American. Thus, the best US players no longer matches a list of the best players in the world. Most countries have at least one NBA player on their team, some have several. Argentina, which one the gold metal in the last Olympics, had 5 players who are currently in the NBA. Off the top of my head, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are all international and amongst the best players in the NBA.

    Most teams player better at home than on the road, regardless of sport. In many sports, there is an advantage to being at home vs. on the road (baseball you bat 2nd, football the crowd makes noise when the other team is on offense, making it hard for them to hear, etc.). However, I don’t think that fully explains the phenomena. I won’t completely discount the psychological factor, but doesn’t it seem that having to deal with traveling, and unfamiliar surrounds has at least as much an affect? Have you ever traveled for a week, spending 1-2 days in a city before having to travel to another? Dealing with jet lag and different time zones? It takes a toll.

    Your Super Bowl argument…i mean, where to begin? Terrible. First of all, 2 kicks? Nice sample size. “But when the game is on the line, the statistics are out the door.” Why? Have you looked at the percentages? Are they substantially different when it’s at the end of the game then it is at other points? I’d love to see a break down between game winning kicks vs. the average kick. I’m guessing distance has a lot more to do with kickers missing at the end of game. Game ending kicks tend to be longer because there isn’t time for the team to advance the ball into more reasonable field goal distance and there is no fear of giving the other team good field position because time is about to expire.

    More to the point, silly speculation on these factors pretty much always pails in the light of cold, hard, statistical analysis. For example, I found this article very interesting:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/12/sports/football/12score.html?

    As for this Sunday, I think the Super Bowl has 4 main factors, in order of importance: Coaching, Talent, Health, and Luck. The Giants are gonna need a whole lot of number 4 if they want to over come 1 and 2.

    Charley, I think I’ve got you figured out now. You’re one of those guys who’s like to think of sports as some mystical thing, where heart, toughness, determination, and believing in each other has more to do with winning than talent, skill, preparation, and strategy. I would guess that “Hoosiers”, “Field of Dreams”, and “Rudy” are amongst your favorite movies. It’s cute that you entertain such romantic notions. I always find it amusing when people attempt to insert magic into sports.

    As for me, I won’t say that the intangibles have nothing to do with winning…just a whole lot less than being better at playing the game.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  6. Wow! Did you just equate psychology with magic? Heart, toughness, determination and believing in yourself/teammates are absolutely key ingredients to winning. No quality is more important to an athlete as sheer confidence. Yes Micheal Jordan was a good shooter, good defender, good passer, etc. but all those amazing stats (and championships) came from confidence in himself and his teammates. I’ve never seen anyone with his determination and that’s why Jordan is Jordan. Yes talent makes a good player, but greatest — as Muhammad Ali once said — is all about heart. And the metaphor of “heart” really means mind over matter, confidence, and determination. No champion would deny this.

    The rest of your points are smart and I’d figured you’d find the holes in my argument. But I’ll leave with one last thought: maybe I love the movie “Hoosiers,” but at least I’m not the guy who still thinks Peyton Manning is a better QB than Tom Brady.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 8:46 pm | Permalink
  7. Matt Parker wrote:

    First of all:

    Peyton Manning career QB rating: 94.7
    Tom Brady career QB rating: 92.9

    Peyton Manning career completion % rating: 64.2
    Tom Brady career completion % rating: 63.0

    Peyton Manning career avg yds per pass rating: 7.7
    Tom Brady career avg yds per pass rating: 7.2

    And that’s with a rookie year where Manning was thrown to the wolves on a team the the previous season had been the worst in the NFL (Brady, on the other hand, barely played his first year, and was on Super Bowl team his first year starting, which admitted, he had a large part of). Now, you don’t have to agree with me, but it’s clearly not a ridiculous position to take. You could argue that Brady has more rings, thus is a better individual player, but it seems like an odd position for someone who just spent a ton of time saying that the team is more important than an individual. Throw in the fact that Manning audibles more than any QB in the league, and I think I make a pretty convincing case.

    Um…Michael Jordan was a GREAT shooter, defender, etc…not good. All those guys have determination. All those guys have the will to win. I’m not going to argue that Jordan didn’t want it more…his talent is what made him great. And just cause Muhammad Ali said something, doesn’t make it true. He also said “I’m so pretty,” but have you seen him recently? I prefer Mike Tyson’s immortal “Everyone’s got a plan until they get hit.”

    In closing, I reiterate: Believing in yourself, your teammates, etc. is important. Just not nearly as important as being better than the other guy.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 10:25 pm | Permalink
  8. Charles Joseph wrote:

    But what happens when you’re not better than the other guy, or more interestingly, when you and the other guy are just about the same (as is the case most of the time when you reach a professional level)? What tips the balance?

    I don’t know much about sports, but it seems to me that when you reach a certain tier everyone is pretty much on a level playing field individually, statistically. At that point doesn’t it become about the intangibles, the psychology of the players or the weather conditions. When you’re talking about a difference of .5 of anything at human scale is it really realistic to make an evaluation or prediction?

    Michael Jordan was a great shooter, and defender, etc., but he didn’t win those championships alone. He was also a great captain of a great team, and that probably had more to do with his incredible record than anything else.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  9. Bob wrote:

    “But what happens when you’re not better than the other guy, or more interestingly, when you and the other guy are just about the same (as is the case most of the time when you reach a professional level)? What tips the balance?”

    Referees and umpires.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 11:18 pm | Permalink
  10. Matt Parker wrote:

    “I don’t know much about sports, but it seems to me that when you reach a certain tier everyone is pretty much on a level playing field individually, statistically.”

    Nope, you don’t know much about sports :) At any level, there are HUGE differences in ability. From simple easily measured things like strength, speed, and size to more difficult to quantify things like vision, intelligence, and perception.

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  11. Charles Joseph wrote:

    That’s not strictly what I meant, but I see your point. What I was responding to was your comparison of two quarterbacks that seemed, at least to me, to be statistically on a pretty level playing field. All things being equal, what breaks that tie?

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  12. Desire.

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  13. Matt Parker wrote:

    Performing at the same level despite inferior teammates.

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  14. Frank wrote:

    >> All things being equal, what breaks that tie?

    > Desire.

    Or noise.

    A lot of the fine-grained numerical texture of sports is noise. This is not necessarily a knock against it. Making noise beautiful is one of the sweetest things a game can do.

    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 5:03 am | Permalink

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