Monday, May 11, 2009

More on Gladwell, the Press, Etc.

In a discussion with Galley Friend A.W. I was pressed to explain more fully why I think Gladwell's full-court press/David/Goliath piece is such bosh. Here's a more unpacked expansion of that first post:

1) Gladwell's central premise, that overmatched parties in any sort of conflict need to alter the rules of engagement to maximize their chances of victory, seems so broad and obvious as to be not worth writing about at all. It's like doing 5,000 words on "Hey! In any sort of physical confrontation, the high ground provides an advantage!"

2) Gladwell's specific point about changing the rules of engagement in basketball is, as I've said, ridiculous. There's a reason he had to find a middle-school girls basketball team to bear out his example of the press working as an equalizer: Because the press almost never works as an equalizer; to the contrary, it almost always acts as a multiplier on the talent/skill differential between teams. The press actually stands for exactly the opposite of Gladwell's central premise: It's used by better coached, better skilled, more athletic teams to multiply their advantage over less athletic, skilled, etc. teams.

The reason most "Davids" don't try the press against the "Goliaths" is that the press is *very easy to break* if you're more athletic and skilled than the people pressing you. When weaker teams press stronger teams the result is usually fast-break points for the stronger team as they throw over the top of the press and wind up with a 2-on-1 advantage near the bucket.

The reason Gladwell had to go all the way down to middle school girls basketball is because at that level *none* of the teams--even the really good ones--are particularly skilled or athletic. Using that team to hang his entire piece on is like finding something that worked once in pee-wee soccer and saying the premier league teams should try it. Middle school girls don't play the same game as even junior high school boys, let alone elite Division I men. I wouldn't expect Gladwell to know this, but nearly every strategic aspect of the game changes once you reach the level where people on the court are playing above the rim.

3) Because of this, I suspect, Gladwell doesn't mention the most noted example of a pressing team--Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" Arkansas Razorbacks who won a title and went to a couple other Final Fours. The reason Gladwell doesn't mention them is that those teams were so much more athletic than everyone else that they pressed *and* fast-broke--on almost every made shot offensively and missed shot defensively. The reason Richardson had his team do this was precisely to magnify the advantage his guys already had.

4) Why is it that presses maximize a strong team's advantage? Because it creates more possessions. If Team A shoots 45% and Team B shoots 30%, Team B's best strategy is to cut the number of possessions in the game to the point where they have some chance of winning. The more possessions there are, the better the chance that the law of averages helps Team B pull an upset.

5) As it happens, there are two basketball strategies which underdogs have used throughout the ages to to alter the rules of the game. Gladwell mentions neither of them.

The first is the Four Corners. The four corner offense--spreading the ball in the half court and taking as much time off the clock as possible--was used all through the '60s and '70s and parts of the '80s by underdog teams to give themselves a chance at upsetting better teams. Because if you're an underdog, you could win a game 20-18; but if the score got into the 60s, your chances diminished. The NCAA eventually fought this strategy--because it was so effective--by instituting the shot clock.

The second is the zone defense. The zone presupposes this: The further you get from the basket, the smaller the difference in shooting percentages between good and bad teams. That's generally (though not always) true. So overmatched teams often pack into a zone determined to cut off any shots closer than 10 feet on the assumption that they have a better chance dueling with outside shots where the differential between good and bad is most often no more than 10 percentage points.

6) The other time-worn way to score upsets is by using a gimmick. Paul Westhead, of Loyola-Marymount fame, devised an offense in which his team never held the ball for more than 10 seconds. They fast-broke on every possession, even made baskets, often pulling up and shooting 3s. His teams would average something like 80% more points than the NCAA average; playing them was a nightmare if you saw them for the first time in the tourney; they scored a number of NCAA tourney upsets. Yet Westhead's teams were not, as you might imagine, totally dominant in their own leagues. Why? Because if you see a gimmick a couple times a year, its weaknesses become obvious. Other gimmicks include Syracuse's match-up 2-3 zone and Temple's 1-3-1 trapping zone. These defenses aren't pure gimmicks, but are played infrequently enough that teams seeing the Orange or the Owls for the first time are often given fits by them.

7) Gladwell doesn't mention this, but reason they don't press in the pros is that zone presses (or even true zone defenses) aren't allowed. The NBA--even with it's modified "help-zone" rule--is designed for man-to-man.

So why is Gladwell so enamored with the press? I suspect it's not because he was actually concerned with finding a way for underdogs to lessen their disadvantage in basketball because, as previously stated, there are strategies for that which Gladwell ignores.

It seems obvious that Gladwell fixed on the full-court press because he thought he could use it as a stalking horse for his Outliers contention that great people (or in this case, teams) aren't really great--they just had the luxury of getting 10,000 hours of practice, or having rules tailored for their traditional success, or whatever. Gladwell's middle-school girls let him tell his readers that the ability to work hard is what's rare, not physical talent. Using statistcs-based strategies (like the four-corners or the zone or even Princeton's back-door weave) wouldn't allow him to make that claim.

I think that's what I find so offensive about this piece. As someone who was a mid-level high school player who spent literally thousands of hours practicing basketball, I can assure you that, at least on the court, physical talent trumps perseverance nine times out of ten. Here's the nub of what Gladwell wants to tell his readers:

We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.

Merely confining himself to strategies which minimize the differential between stronger and weaker teams--like the Four Corners, or zone defenses--wouldn't allow Gladwell to make this grand claim. So Gladwell needed the press, because the press lets him pretend that effort is what makes the difference.

Again, Gladwell's argument might be true at the level of pee-wee soccer, or middle-school girls basketball, but it strikes me as being self-evidently untrue when applied to more advanced arenas. America's playgrounds are teeming with kids throwing themselves into serious, rigorous practice for all kinds of sports. But if you can't throw a baseball 90 mph, you're never going to be a big-league pitcher, no matter how relentless your effort. Which is more rare, a kid who practices basketball relentlessly, like me, or someone who is 6'10", with soft hands who can hit from 15'?


PG said...


Perfectly put! Allow me to touch on this Gladwell quote:

"because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination."

This is one of the most laughable statements I've ever read. Ever. "Relentless effort" is limited only by conditioning. If you condition your body to run a marathon, you can give "relentless effort". If you run several miles a week, you probably have the conditioning to give "relentless effort" in a basketball game. Pretty much any normally healthy non-smoker under the age of 30-35 can condition themselves to give "relentless effort". Now think of how many millions of Americans run several miles a week? 1 million? 5 million? Not very rare.

Now think of how many Americans are, as JVL puts it, 6'10" and can hit a jumper from 15'. How many Americans have the hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball moving at 90mph? 80mph? 70mph? These are people Gladwell claims have "the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination."

Now tell me, which is rarer? "Relentless effort" is common, not really that rare. It's only when paired with ACTUAL TALENT that it really means anything. Talent is the variable here, not effort. Talent will often succeed in spite of effort. Effort rarely succeeds alone.

But as JVL noted, this isn't about bball. It's about Gladwell's preoccupation with IQ.

AW said...

I still think you're wrong.

I don't dispute your Point #1 -- Gladwell's point is obvious. Then again, that's nothing new. Gladwell's written lots of words on completely obvious subjects (e.g., by disclosing lots of information, Enron actually made its disclosures more -- not less -- opaque).

But your Points #2-4 are red herrings. Gladwell never disputes that a Superior Team can beat up on an Inferior Team by using the press.

Points #5-7 are red herrings, too. Gladwell doesn't argue that all unorthodox strategies are likely to succeed for an Inferior Team. (In fact, Gladwell doesn't even assert that the press is sure to succeed for an Inferior Team. He concedes that it does not:
"Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath.")

Again, in the end you're simply reading into Gladwell's article a bunch of arguments he doesn't make.

The narrow argument that he *does* make -- namely, that unorthodox strategies may maximize an Inferior Team's chance of success -- is (as you note) obvious, but it's also true. Then again, plenty of experts ignore the possibility of unorthodox strategies by Inferior Teams (e.g., it would have been nice if Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld would have given the issue some thought back in 2003-04). And Michael Lewis certainly did well pointing out the obvious in Moneyball and Blind Side.

I agree that Gladwell's article is a small part of a larger argument, but I don't think that Outliers is the correct pick. After all, Gladwell never argues that the Inferior Team is practicing any more or less than the Superior Team, or that the Inferior Team is more dedicated to "relentless effort" than the Superior Team is.

Instead, Gladwell is staking out a new argument against conventional wisdom and conservatism. He's arguing that our thought processes (at both the personal and society level) is so mucked up by prejudices, habits, and conventional wisdom that we fail to recognize that available-yet-unorthodox strategies/policies could bring about better outcomes.

In fact, this new theme is evident not merely in his new column, but also in his other recent columns. Take another look at "The Uses of Adversity" (on how 20th Century Wall Street offered opportunities to minorities who were no encumbered by certain cultural/societal constraints); or "Most Likely To Succeed" (on how we pick bad quarterbacks and teachers because we continue to rely on metrics that don't really measure optimal performance); or "In The Air" (on how brainstorming sessions among persons with a variety of backgrounds can lead to great increases in the frequency of technological breakthroughs).

In other words, Gladwell appears to be writing Anti-Blink, a full-out critique of prejudice, custom, and habit.

Jim said...

Don't forget that Westhead's techniques were put into practice at the Denver Nuggets with less than stellar results (but a lot of wins for my Blazers at the time!)

Mark said...

I know squat about basketball, but Gladwell did spend a fair amount of time describing how coach Rick Pitino used the press to improve results of lackluster NCAA teams. The middleschool girls team just highlights his point more dramatically. Gladwell's point, while perhaps obvious, makes sense to me. As usual, he's just over-reliant on anecdotes.

First Tuesday Insurgency said...


"After all, Gladwell never argues that the Inferior Team is practicing any more or less than the Superior Team, or that the Inferior Team is more dedicated to 'relentless effort' than the Superior Team is."


"This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court."

TubbyLover69 said...


"The narrow argument that he *does* make -- namely, that unorthodox strategies may maximize an Inferior Team's chance of success -- is (as you note) obvious, but it's also true."


"When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win."

All caps key is busted said...


The quotes here aren't meant to be particularly dispositive. They are, however, meant to show that Gladwell jumps back and forth between the narrow argument you see and the maximal argument everyone else is seeing.

On the one hand, he has a technical point, which you are framing better than he does, about increasing an underdog's odds through unconventional strategies.

On the other hand, he's embellishing that point with anecdotes and punchy one-liners that suggest something much larger.

Gladwell is a superb writer, and I suspect he is aware at some level of the sleight-of-hand.

PG said...


Rick Pitino's teams were hardly lackluster, only someone with absolutely no knowledge of bball would use that Kentucky team as an example of a "David". Pitino's championship team featured players who went on to success in the NBA, as Sailer noted in his original takedown of Gladwell.

Anonymous said...

the idea that perserverance will beat out talent is hogwash. Yes, if the talent differential is miminal, then perserverance will win.

but, if you take an average person, and have them train relentlessly for a marathon for a year, they will still be unable to run the marathon at a sub 6 minute pace.

Now take someone born with the physical attributes to do well in marathons, and allow them to train easily (not relentlessly) for 3 or 4 months prior to the marathon, and they will likely be able to run a sub 6 minute pace.

Same holds true for boxing. I could train with the best coaches for 2 years straight, do nothing else, and I would not be able to beat a top ranked boxer who had not trained in a year. I simply do not have the hand speed, the hand-eye coordination, or the agility to do so.

And, the idea that there are "unorthodox" strategies out there that nobody is thinking of - yeah, so? Of course there are things people have not thought of. Coaches and players are always trying to come up with new ways to win. Everyone wants to experience a "flash of genius". that is hardly some kind of great thinking.

the idea that we can all have a "flash of genius" if we just reject all known thought is foolish, however.

The underlying philosophy leading to such inanity is that if we as a society simply reject all of our traditions, ways of thinking, etc., we will somehow come up with solutions to everything is just pie-in-the-sky hogwash. It's just someone trying to come up with a reason to reject all of our traditions, morals, values, etc. and promising great things if we do.

AW said...

First Tuesday:

Let's not take the Lawrence quote out of context. Gladwell makes clear, throughout the article, that the important point isn't merely "effort" per se, but effort directed in service of an unconventional strategy:

-- "Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—the railroad—and not where they were strong, Medina. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. Lawrence extended the battlefield over as large an area as possible. So did the girls of Redwood City. They defended all ninety-four feet. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those 'quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence . . . courage.'"

-- "T. E. Lawrence, by contrast, was the farthest thing from a proper British Army officer. He did not graduate with honors from Sandhurst. He was an archeologist by trade, a dreamy poet. He wore sandals and full Bedouin dress when he went to see his military superiors. He spoke Arabic like a native, and handled a camel as if he had been riding one all his life. And David, let’s not forget, was a shepherd. He came at Goliath with a slingshot and staff because those were the tools of his trade. He didn’t know that duels with Philistines were supposed to proceed formally, with the crossing of swords. -When the lion or the bear would come and carry off a sheep from the herd, I would go out after him and strike him down and rescue it from his clutches,' David explained to Saul. He brought a shepherd’s rules to the battlefield."

Ultimately, this thread's focus on the basketball anecdotes obscures Gladwell's point. Think of Gladwell's other examples: The computer wargame anecdote (which, again, Sailer brags that he didn't bother to read) isn't about "effort"; it's about unorthodox strategy. The David-and-Goliath anecdote isn't about "effort"; it's about unorthodox strategy.

AW said...

All Caps: It's not that I'm missing or ignoring Gladwell's "effort" anecdotes (i.e., basketball; Lawrence). I see them, but I also see that Gladwell merely uses the "effort" anecdotes as examples of his greater point -- namely, the unorthodox-strategy argument.

In other words, Gladwell argues that in basketball, the Inferior Team can deploy the press's heightened intensity as an "insurgent strategy." And Inferior Lawrence of Arabia's attack on the supply line deployed effort in service of his insurgent strategy.

AW said...

TL69: You're taking that quote completely out of context. Here's the full point:

"What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, 'even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.'"

Gladwell didn't say that the Inferior Teams always win when they use unorthodox strategies. Instead, that quote merely points out that unorthodox strategies increased the Inferior Teams' winning percentage from 29% to 64% in the sample set.

64% is a far cry from "guaranteed victory."

The Seaward said...


I'm aware of the surrounding context, but I think your examples serve to underscore my point.

Gladwell makes bold, programmatic statements--he really did write the words "When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win"--and then retreats from them elsewhere. He gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

(It's rhetorical sleight of hand, not terribly different from one of the many deficiencies of Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism.")

You can call that adding context, but I think it's much closer to deliberate obfuscation. When you write an essay, you have to be willing to defend your maximal claims. If you instate a rule whereby maximal claims are dismissed, and only minimal claims are considered, then you undermine the coherence of an essay.

When Gladwell wrote this, he knew which lines were money. He's a skilled writer, who's quite likely aware what people would take away; and what they would take away was the maximal claims--"When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win"--not the minimalist hedges. That's why they're in there. And it's perfectly valid to call him to account for them.anstra

AW said...


Trust me, I'm one of the last people who will ever defend Gladwell. In general, he's a charlatan. But in this case, I think you're overreacting.

Yes, some of his statements, taken by themselves, are maximal. And many New Yorker readers will seize upon the maximal statements and miss all of the hedges. (Even Sailer boasted that he didn't bother to read the very essay he was purporting to critique.)

But the full content of his essay, taken together, specifically disavows the exaggerated version of his thesis. If people focus exclusively on a few over-the-top lines, and ignore everything else that Gladwell said, then that's their problem, not Gladwell's.

Anonymous said...

It's a terrible article for serveral reasons, many of which have been covered.

If Gladwell's point is simply that underdogs should use unorthodox approaches then why the basketball focus on solely the full court press?

College basketball is full of historic upsets that happen for a plethora of reasons, very few of which involved the full-court press. You could write about Dick Bennett's stifling 1/2 court man-to-man team defense that led an inferior team to the final 4. You could talk about Princeton's back-cut offense that nearly pulled off the biggest upset ever over Georgetown. Or how about the guy he even references in his own article -- Digger Phelps. Gladwell makes a point of stating Phelps never ran a full court press again, which is interesting considering his team is responsible for one of the biggest upset in NCAA history (Notre Dame over a UCLA team that had won 80+ games in a row).

One of the frustrating things about Gladwell is he structures his arguments in a way that enables him to use fundamental concepts as crutches for poorly conceived details. Kentucky had 9 NBA players? So what, I'm arguing about unconventional tactics in general. Sure, I focused exclusively on one basketball tactic, but that's besides the point.

Steve Sailer said...

Gladwell makes much of his money giving speeches at sales conferences, so he naturally gravitates toward motivational speaker tropes about how effort triumphs over talent, even in laughably absurd contexts such as invoking David vs. Goliath in basketball, the one sport where Goliaths (i.e., taller men) win the most often.

I wonder whether Gladwell has been undermined by working for The New Yorker, one of the few magazines that can afford to have fact-checkers. He appears to have developed the assumption that if his material makes it by the fact-checkers, then it must be right (as opposed to just not crushingly wrong). Certainly, no other journalist in America makes a fool of himself as regularly as Gladwell.