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Practice practice practice

2008 November 21
by Skip Sauer

Chris Sprow interviews Malcom Gladwell, the author of Outliers: The Story of Success, at ESPN The Magazine. The context of the interview, of course, is sports. Here are some interesting pieces of it:

THE MAG: Based on this book, if I’m an owner, I should be the most patient one in sports, right? After all, the Beatles, as you write, played a ridiculous 1,200 gigs—a lifetime—before they became any good.
GLADWELL: It’s interesting. Andy Reid has said that with the offense he runs in Philadelphia, it takes a receiver three years to be comfortable in it. A receiver! I don’t think we take this into account. We create offenses of such stunning complexity in the NFL, that it’s impossible to truly judge anyone in their rookie season. It’s ludicrous. How can you, if you’re Detroit, draft all these wide receivers and then give up on anything after a couple years, or call ‘em busts, when it’s far more about executing a system that takes years to master? You have to give them their work.

Or if the Lions offensive players were calc majors…
Yeah, you can’t go into a math class and pronounce who the great students are after two weeks. No one can master calculus in two weeks. So we need to be consistent. If you hire a coach that has offensive schemes as complicated as calculus, then you better have the patience you’d have with those students. Let’s stop and acknowledge that football is not a sport for dumb jocks. It’s a highly complex cognitive activity.

That said, you were a distance runner. That’s about pure endurance. Your book says success is often about circumstances. Do these ideas fly in the face of one another?
I was a middle and long-distance runner, and Alberto Salazar said something to me recently—he said, “Why is it that the Kenyans dominate long-distance running the way they do?” There’s all kinds of theories on genetics, and endurance, and he says, “Look, they have a million teenage boys running 10-12 miles a day. How many boys here run 12 miles a day?” Maybe 5,000, if that. They have a million, and if you have all those kids doing that kind of mileage, you’re not only going to develop all the talent that’s there, you’re not gonna’ miss any great runners. You’re exploiting 100% of the running potential.

And we see that elsewhere, like Canadian hockey players…
And you can say the same thing for Dominican infielders. There are certain cultures where we like to think they have some innate advantage, but growing up there, baseball is a really, really big deal, and everyone puts an enormous amount of effort into it, and as a result, they produce a hugely disproportionate number of athletes in that model. There’s no mystery here: it’s about numbers and it’s about work.

Most people think genetic variation across countries accounts for disproportionate success rates in different sports. I’ve had a hard time convincing students, for example, that if Canadians quit playing hockey we’d see a bunch more players like Steve Nash in the NBA. Pistol Pete – an outlier to be sure – fits Gladwell’s story in a number of dimensions. The sense in which Pete Maravich was an outlier had little to do with his physical makeup and loads to do with incessant practicing, combined with the favorable circumstances of his youth. Thinking along Gladwell’s lines might be useful in addressing positional discrimination both within and across sports.

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