Malcolm Gladwell Wants To Know Why Your Team Doesn't Press More

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There's a very lengthy article in The New Yorker this week, from uber-contrarian Malcolm Gladwell arguing that basketball teams should press more often, because it helps weak teams upset strong ones. (Except when it doesn't.)

As usual with a Malcolm Gladwell story, there's a nugget of truth hidden under mountains of dubious anecdotal evidence. The premise makes sense—unconventional warfare (or sports-fare) allows weak opponents (Davids) to expose the flaws of a larger, more powerful adversary (Goliaths). When David does something unexpected, Goliath becomes confused and panicky, usually leading to his downfall. The proof? A eighth-grade girls basketball team.

Well, there are other examples, like George Washington, T.E. Lawrence, and of course Rick Pitino—the three pillars of leadership—but much of the article is on basketball and the lost art of the full-court press. Pressing always works, you see, because it gets teams out of their comfort zones and all it takes to be good at the press is hustle and anyone can do that. Yet, hardly any teams press full-time. Why so stupid, America?


Because hustle is not all it takes. It's actually very difficult to run a well-executed press and teams that specialize in it are usually lousy at everything else. (Because all their precious practice time is devoted to pressing.) All it takes is one calm point guard to mess everything up. Plus, when you press all the time, that's what you become known for and teams on your schedule can prepare for it. The idea of "changing the rules" is as much about the element of surprise as it is about the unusual tactic. Those eighth-grade girls who were so flummoxed by the heroines of the story had probably never seen a press before in their lives and would probably fare much better the next time around. Just because it works in specific isolated situations, that doesn't mean it's a guaranteed path to success. Sooner or later you run into a Goliath who can dribble through a trap.

Gladwell's other examples of this winning strategy include a military simulation from a computer that places no value on human life and the actual story of David and Goliath, which did not really happen. And it's also disingenuous to say that Rick Pitino worked his Kentucky magic with a bunch of no-talent chumps.

College coaches of Pitino's calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker.


Umm, ever hear of a little fellow by the name of Nazr Mohammed? I rest my case. (Seriously, though nine players from his national title team played in the NBA, so it's not like he was recruiting wheelchair players.)

Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath [The New Yorker]