Monday, December 01, 2008

Lord deliver us from Sportsthink, No. 158.


So here's AP sportswriter Joseph White's take, this morning, on the New York Giants, who, of course, won last year's Super Bowl in thrilling fashion* and are kicking major NFL ass again this season:

"The New York Giants have shoved every distraction aside, including a shooting incident involving their star receiver, to become as dominant as, say, a Chicago Bulls team with Michael Jordan. //Perhaps that's no coincidence. //At one of the first team meetings of training camp, coach Tom Coughlin discussed the 1991-92 Bulls as a team for the Giants to emulate in the bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions...."
Notice what's going on here? Inasmuch as the Giants appear determined to defy all the usual sportswriters' scripts (i.e. the ones that argue that a team's fate is decided by much-ballyhooed intangibles like "chemistry" and "a winning attitude" and "distractions"), White had to come up with a fallback Sportsthink-based explanation for the team's enviable performance in 2008. (Hey, he couldn't just write "They're winning because they're good," could he? How silly would that be? He'd lose his membership in the cliche-writer's union.) Ergo, there ya have it: The Giants are winning because Coach Coughlin planted in their minds a vision of MJ's indomitable Chicago Bulls. He mentally prepared them for the 2008 season. PMA triumphs after all!

I've said it before, but I really don't think I can say it enough, given the constant reinforcement this stuff gets in media (and in schools, and in politics, and on American Idol and The Academy Awards and SportsCenter, and almost everywhere else in our pseudo-culture): Reall
y good teams tend to win despite any and all so-called intangibles. Really bad teams tend to lose despite any and all so-called intangibles. Then again, sometimes, for no reason that anyone can pinpoint, really good teams lose to really bad teams...again despite intangibles. (Just as, in baseball, an incredibly dominant pitcher like Mariano Rivera sometimes gives up a heartbreaking home run to a second-rate hitter. It happens, and not because Rivera was distracted or intimidated. Most pitchers aren't anywhere near as talented as "Mo," so it happens to them more often. See? Baseball explained in three sentences....) The bottom line is, if intangibles play any role in winning or losing, we have no way of knowing what that role might be. So there's not much point in talking about it. Yet that's precisely what many columnists, and almost all of the TV sports mavens, spend the bulk of their time nattering about.

The success of the 2008 New York Football Giants does not prove the value of holding preseason meetings where you invoke the Chicago Bulls. Don't you think a lot of NFL teams, if not all of them, hold such pep rallies going into a new season? Why don't they all dominate the way the Giants have?** (Oh wait, I know, I know: because they let themselves get too distracted.) What the Giants show us is that if you've got lots of talent, you probably will win, even despite problematic star players who somehow shoot themselves while out clubbing.

* For sports fans seeking an excuse to buy/read Playboy: My article on The Play dissects the Manning-to-Tyree pass (the YouTube video, above) from the unusual vantage point of all seven on-field officials; it appears in the magazine's February issue, on-sale date early January. You'll also learn a lot of stuff you didn't know about what a zebra's life is really like.
** Which again raises another point that I tried to emphasize in SHAM: In sports or any other zero-sum enterprise, how can "mental attitude" work for everyone who subscribes to it? It is flat-out impossible for all teams to rely on PMA as the sure-fire prescription for success that its disciples claim it to be.

24 comments:

Matt W. said...

Steve, I'm a successful college (ITA) tennis player, hoping to launch a successful pro career. I first read your thoughts on what you call "sportsthink" a while back when you criticized Patrick Cohn. I have used Patrick's approach and find it very personally helpful.

What I don't understand is this. I can see where Patrick's training or any mental conditioning might not be for everyone, even though I don't see the harm and you might b e surprised how it helps. Nobody is asking you to use this for yourself. So why do you always seem so sarcastic and even angry about it? I don't understand why this isn't a case of live and let live. Really, what's it to you if I or anyone else find this helpful. And how do you know the Giants aren't responding to Coach Coughlin's way of thinking anyway?

Steve Salerno said...

Matt: First of all I wish you well in your career. Hope to see you at Wimbledon in a few years. (I'm sure you wouldn't mind that, either.)

The question you raise has a very complex answer, or set of answers. I'd direct you to Chapter 5 in my book, "Ya Gotta Want It"--but then I'm sure you'd accuse me of just trying to drum up sales, and I doubt you'd invest that much time in reading something that attempted to talk you out of your "winning mindset," anyway. So I'll try to give you the skinny here.

In the last few decades, as various forms of PMA-mindedness have taken hold of American culture, we have seen a steady erosion of the things that used to matter: things like hard work, patience, applied intellect, skill, and, yes, a realistic sense of one's strengths and weaknesses. (Eastwood may have said it best in Magnum Force, which I believe was the second of the Dirty Harry films: "A man's got to know his limitations.") The danger in this unrelenting emphasis on mental attitude is that it implies--incorrectly--that if you've got the mental attitude, then the rest of it is secondary. Or at least, that's the way it's been translated into "policy" by most of those who emphasize PMA, including, to some degree, Cohn. This notion that PMA is some sort of easy button for success is one reason why, today, we have a society that's awash in bravado and "confidence"--and yet the people with all that bravado and all that confidence frequently aren't very skilled at what they do. Focusing on PMA as a shortcut to victory diverts one from focusing on the true foundations of success, which are a lot less glamorous but at least can be verified in terms of their efficacy in achieving the result you hope to achieve. Also, this notion that "if you believe strongly enough in something you'll eventually achieve it" is what keeps you from giving up when it's become painfully clear (to everyone else) that your belief is misplaced. That is not, in my view, a good thing. The vast majority of the people who end up tearfully telling Ryan Seacrest that they'll "never give up" their dream of being a pop singer would be far better served by forgetting about music and going out and getting their plumber's license or whatever. And that's just a very small, frothy example of the phenomenon I'm talking about.

Come to think of it, rather than just prattle on, I'll direct you, for starters, here:

http://tiny.cc/KxAdW

I also have a very long piece on PMA coming out in the Jan-Feb issue of Skeptic. You should read it.

Incidentally, I didn't really intend to say that we know for sure that PMA played no role in the Giants' success; a more accurate statement would be that we have no way of knowing whether it played a role or what role it played, because all of the empirical evidence to date yields no clear picture of any role PMA might play in winning or losing, or exactly how it figures in the endeavor. So--again--if something is that nebulous and impossible to quantify or just pin down in a definitional sense, what's the point of even talking about it? It's as silly, in the end, as my telling you that offering a sacrifice to the Tooth Fairy will cause you to win your next tennis match.

Matt. W. said...

Actually, you're wrong Steve, I'm interested to hear what you have to say. I read the piece from CBS and I just ordered SHAM, too! I'll get back to you.

renee said...

Steve -

If you haven't picked it up yet, you may want to get a copy of Outliers, the new Malcolm Gladwell. I haven't yet finished it but one of the more interesting passages describes success in terms of the out-and-out work that goes into it. He concludes - with the research of many behind him - that putting in 10,000 hours of work / practice / study on something - anything - makes you as close to expert as one can be. And from that point alone, you can launch into something of a a "success" at whatever your chosen "it" is.

As I said, I haven't finished the book but at the more than halfway point, I don't think I've read the phrase "positive mental attitude" once when it comes to successful people.

Steve Salerno said...

Renee: Hmmm. As close to an expert? Or an expert practitioner? There's a big difference. For example (to reach back into my wearying trove of baseball wisdoms and such), there are many people in MLB who are masterful at teaching hitting: They know every detail and nuance; they are experts in the theoretical side of hitting. But they can't hit. On the other hand, you have people like Manny Ramirez, whom some have jokingly described as a "masher savant" (a "masher" being a great, torrid hitter). Hitting a baseball is the one thing in life that Manny can do, and apparently he could always do it (though insiders also agree that he continues to work tirelessly at his craft). So I'd be eager to see how Gladwell deals with that distinction.

Also, though I haven't read the book, it strikes me right off the bat (there's that baseball idiom again) that there may be a serious logical flaw here: After all, would somebody go to the extent of devoting 10,000 hours to something if he weren't already massively interested in--and also somewhat talented in--that realm? So perhaps the people without talent weed themselves out of the process long before the 10,000-hour mark...such that the only ones left at the end are those who always had the aptitude/drive in the first place?

Again, please update me/us when you get there. And thanks.

roger o'keefe said...

I think there's a middle ground, Steve. It surely helps to have a positive attitude, once you also have the skills. Traits that you would lump under positivity are what put the best people over the top in any environment where all comers are talented, like the upper echelons of sports.

Elizabeth said...

PMA is not bad when associated with talent and work. Of the three, however, it seems the least important to making a lasting contribution to human progress (and, btw, I cannot speak of sports, I know nothing about the area).

One can have tons of PMA and get nowhere. Talent and work count more. Among eminent artists (especially) and scientists, in fact, PMA is notably scarce. These folks have remarkably low opinion about themselves. Check the bios of Nobel Prize winners in literature, for one.

Steve Salerno said...

What's fascinating to me, Eliz, is that you say that so simply and casually, with the obvious clarity of knowing that you have logic, common sense and a considerable grasp of the human animal on your side... And yet we live in a culture today that is dedicated to precisely the opposite ethic: that one can guarantee one's good fortune in life by sheer force of will, merely by committing to a no-holds-barred belief in belief itself. "Believe it, achieve it."

Anonymous said...

Outliers has a lot of logical problems and is not one of Malcolm Gladwell's best. Gladwell actually uses Wikipedia for research! That is just too sad and funny. Steve's argument is actually one of the biggest criticisms of the book. Only a person who is interested in a subject would put 10,000 hours into it.

10,000 hours still does not mean someone will be any good at whatever he or she is doing though. As a fiction writer, I know of many bad writers who have been writing for years and are just "alright." They want to be the next Faulkner of Hemingway, but they just don't have the innate talent. Also, they are not Faulkner or Hemingway.

A better book on this subject is Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives .

Stever Robbins said...

I'll be curious to see how the PMA culture changes if our little fiscal crisis develops into a full-blown depression. Perhaps if we all end up in circumstances where hard work really matters, and it's really, really obvious that it matters, people will re-introduce the skill, dedication, and competence back into our collective concept of success.

Just to help it along, daily I'm visualizing a nation of highly skilled, critical thinkers, diligently honing their crafts in pursuit of world-class competitive results. If you think it will help, I'll do the visualization twice a day...

Steve Salerno said...

Stever, providentially enough, I just finished a phoner with Lilly Rockwell, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, who's doing background for the "Get Motivated!" seminar that's set to kick off in Austin tomorrow. I haven't kept in as close touch with the financial end of the movement as I probably should have, but Lilly tells me there's evidence that SHAM has definitely lost some of its luster (or at least its revenue) as the economy sours and people fall back on the more brass-tacks activities from which they figure they have higher odds of a decent ROI.

There's a message there. See, I'm convinced that in our heart of hearts, we know this a bunch of b.s., but we prefer to live in a perpetual state of self-delusion...until we can't afford to anymore.

Anonymous said...

"I haven't kept in as close touch with the financial end of the movement as I probably should have, but Lilly tells me there's evidence that SHAM has definitely lost some of its luster (or at least its revenue) as the economy sours and people fall back on the more brass-tacks activities from which they figure they have higher odds of a decent ROI."

One of the brightest spots in this depression (it is a depression)is the focus on reality. I was watching Suze Oreman on PBS last night and laughed my behind off when she started talking about "harmony" and money. I think most people know "harmony" and "positive thoughts" will not save their behinds. Even the Big O is not giving away the big presents this year for Christmas and she can afford to! Living in la la land is very expensive.

Elizabeth said...

If you think it will help, I'll do the visualization twice a day...

I'm positive it'll help, Stever -- the more, the better. In fact, I think you should visualize at least 3 times a day, and before each meal and at bedtime.

Or, better yet, buy the 7-Step-Program of Visualization for Recessionistas for only $29.99, plus S&H.* But wait! If you call within the next ten minutes, we'll include a FREE guidebook, How to Stay Positive in Times of Global Depression. Call NOW!

*The program does not exist. Yet. I'm sure Tony Robbins and Phil McGraw are already working on it.

Steve Salerno said...

Well, there is this:

http://tiny.cc/b4gwv

renee said...

"...there are many people in MLB who are masterful at teaching hitting: They know every detail and nuance; they are experts in the theoretical side of hitting. But they can't hit. On the other hand, you have people like Manny Ramirez, whom some have jokingly described as a "masher savant" (a "masher" being a great, torrid hitter). Hitting a baseball is the one thing in life that Manny can do, and apparently he could always do it (though insiders also agree that he continues to work tirelessly at his craft). So I'd be eager to see how Gladwell deals with that distinction."

Belatedly, I offer this:
I would venture a guess that the best hitting coaches have spent thousands of hours - perhaps even ten thousand - becoming an amazing hitting coach. They've stood at the plate and tried different stances, swings, timing, etc. with the batters they coach. They've watched the pitches sail across the plate. They've stood on the mound to watch the hitter from that perspective. They've spent hours and hours watching, listening, measuring, intuiting to some degree - anything they can do from their vantage point to figure out what makes a batter excel at baseball.

As far as Gladwell's distinction between always being able to do something, I offer this excerpt, which appears after some discussion of extraordinarily gifted hockey players in Canada and the age they started playing the sport:

"The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every
hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do - the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play."

He goes on to use examples citing musicians and chess players and computer programmers. Even if they all started out by putting in the same number of hours to learn their skill, they start to sort themselves out as they grow older. And yes, the people who would eventually become best in class at whatever their chosen field did put in more time, inordinately more time.

This was one of the conclusions that fascinated me: no one who could be called a "natural" reached the pinnacle without effort. And no one who worked really, really hard but wasn't quite a natural could do it either.

One more excerpt: "...research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder."

That concludes my Gladwell 101. I leave you to the book to draw the rest of your conclusions.

Steve Salerno said...

Renee, your point is taken, but I don't think I made my point sufficiently clear. Yes, I agree that they've probably spent thousands of hours mastering every detail of the theoretical side of hitting, so that they can teach it, pontificate on it, even model it, to some degree...but they still can't do it. All of that expertise, carefully honed and perfected over thousands of hours of study and practice, does not equip them to actually step to the plate and put a ball out of the park (or even in the gap). That's the distinction I'm making: Can someone really be said to be an expert on hitting if he can't actually hit? So by that (carefully drawn) standard, the 10,000 hours of preparation failed.

Steve Salerno said...

And btw, this is hardly an apocryphal example. The two batting coaches generally conceded to have had the most significant impact on hitting as it is currently practiced in professional ball--Charlie Lau and Walt Hriniak--were so-so hitters, at best, during their own MLB careers.

renee said...

"Can someone really be said to be an expert on hitting if he can't actually hit? So by that (carefully drawn) standard, the 10,000 hours of preparation failed."

That depends on what you mean by failed. If the hitting coach really wants to be player, not a coach, and set HR records every season, he's a failure. But, he can be called an expert on hitting, even if he can't actually hit, if said expertise is specifically about teaching someone to hit extraordinarily well.

Someone like Manny brings a different set of skills to the plate. (And I wonder if he could even teach anyone how to hit.)

Steve Salerno said...

Renee, I think we both know where "the other is coming from" (to use a very Boomer expression), and I also confess to feeling handicapped by not having read the book. But assuming your depiction of Gladwell is accurate, it would seem that he's arguing that "anybody can do anything if you're willing to invest the time." Clearly the ultimate goal of all those who enter baseball is to excel as players; becoming a coach is either (a) a Plan B, for those who can't make the cut, or (b) something the great player does after his playing days are over. I am quite sure that both Lau and Hriniak would've LOVED to trade places with Ted Williams, and go down in history as among the greatest players in the game, rather than the greatest coaches. So I think it's safe to say that even though they did become coaching legends, they failed at their primary mission (which also happens to be the primary mission of millions of young American boys, who will also fail, no matter how much time and effort they devote). So--having said all that--I stand by my basic point, while also conceding yours. Does that make any sense?

I'm not trying to be combative. Just clear.

Anonymous said...

'assuming your depiction of Gladwell'

This entire post is a string of personal assumptions that are then generalised and projected to apply to all aspiring humans.

Can you see the arrogance in that?

Can you concede that the teeming millions of the earth might each have their own, different agendas along with their own different assumptions, each of no more or less validity than yours?

Just askin'

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 4:43: What does your comment have to do with my pointing out the logical (and other) flaws in Gladwell's (or anyone's) theories of how "aspiration" becomes achievement?

Just askin'.

I am not the one who propounds theories of achievement that supposedly apply to the rest of mankind. That is the province of the SHAM huckster (and the haughty futurists and social gurus like Gladwell, Toffler, etc.) I'm the one arguing on the other side. I'll say this for the 4000th (and, I hope, final) time: It's not my job to disprove the theories put forward by others. It's their job to prove them. That's how the scientific method works. I'm also very clear, throughout this thread, in stating that I'm basing my perspectives on Gladwell on the information put forward about his book. I am not pretending to have mastered material that I haven't even read! I'm simply saying, if this is his argument, then here's what's wrong with it. From my POV. How is that "arrogant"?

renee said...

Good god. Last time I checked, I thought we read books and articles to educate ourselves, get a different perspective, generate some thinking that may not be our typical path, excite us, relax us, energize us - or dozens of other reasons you can name.

But to address your question Steve - No. As I read him, Gladwell isn't handing out guarantees. He's saying that based on research from different sources, it's very unlikely (but not impossible) that anyone will achieve expertise without putting in 10,000 hours of practice. Those hours are the price of admission if you will to possible greatness, not a ticket to immortality.

Readers can choose to believe that or not. It's just one of many components he uses to illustrate his theory of how / why some people become successful (the premise of the book.)

And the reason we're talking about this - remember - is the idea that PMA is all you need. It's not. When Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin, we learn that "the emerging picture...is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you, this number comes up again and again."

Much more here - with several layers - so posting thoughts and responses here won't clarify everything. A provocative read to say the least.

Cosmic Connie said...

I have been following this discussion with interest, for even though I am about as far from being a sports fan as a person can be, I still think that your chapter on sportsthink is one of the best in SHAM. (In my case, I think it is precisely *because* I'm no sports fan that I find the omnipresence of sportsthink so annoying.)

I find it interesting (and encouraging) that the New-Wage/selfish-help mindset is falling a little bit out of favor now that we seem to be facing some true economic hard times. Of course, some of the PMA gurus are trying to exploit that by saying, "Don't listen to those naysayers in the media; act as if nothing is wrong and it won't be; and most of all, invest in your future by attending my next get-rich-quack...er...quick... seminar."

"Work" really does seem to be the forgotten part of the success equation. As we've discussed before, most of the really successful gurus became that way after years or even decades of trying one thing after another till they found a shtick that worked. They were hardly overnight sensations. I imagine most of them spent way more than Gladwell's 10,000 hours to get where they are now. Yet because the prospect of putting in all that work and all that time is just not very appealing to most people, the gurus market themselves as being privy to various shortcuts to success.

As he has so many times before, Blair Warren expressed this phenomenon concisely in a recent "Tweet" on Twitter:

"When seeking wisdom, never forget you must ultimately put it to work. When selling wisdom, never mention the word work."

I couldn't have said it better!

RevRon's Rants said...

"I think there's a middle ground, Steve."

I just love it when you talk dirty, Roger! You should do it more frequently. :-)