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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell - Blink & Sports

(Via Anil Dash) Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker, a sports fan, and, most famously, the author of the red-hot 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point. Blink, his latest book, is subtitled, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,is No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Gladwell is a master at linking sociological and psychological studies with the everyday and mundane, and has an uncanny ability to make connections between new ideas and old, seemingly insolvable problems.
Gladwell in an e-mail chat with Jeff Merron talking about how some of the ideas in "Blink" relate to sports. Excerpts with edits and comments:

- The Warren Harding Error is what happens when our first impressions are so powerful that they cloud our better judgment. I always think about this when I hear basketball people talking about how high a player can jump. Key is how you shoot and not how you jump.

- Tennis coach Vic Braden, says, "We haven't found a single (tennis) player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does." -Braden would ask, say, a world-class tennis player to describe precisely how they would hit a topspin forehand, and they would invariably say that they rolled their wrist at the moment of impact with the ball. And then he'd do a digital analysis of videotape of them actually hitting a topspin forehand and find out that at the moment of impact with the ball their wrist was rock solid. They didn't roll it at all. The expertise of a world-class tennis player, in other words, is instinctive, which means that the knowledge behind their actions is buried in the corners of their brain. They hit a ball unconsciously.

- Top athletes so often make bad coaches or general managers. They often don't really know why they were as good as they were. They can't describe it, which means that they can't teach it and they quickly become frustrated at their inability to lift others up to their own level. Mediocre players - or non-athletes - tend to make better coaches because their knowledge isn't unconscious. It's the same thing with writing. I know very little about science. But I think I write about science more clearly than many scientists, because I have to go over every step, carefully and deliberately.

- What I'd love to do is to put eye-tracking goggles on key players. Cognitive psychologists use these a lot: they are special glasses that track exactly what your eyes are focusing on at any given moment - to an incredible level of detail. When you read the word "mediocre" in my previous sentence, for instance, did you start at the 'e' and work backwards, or zero in on the middle "m" or just look at the first 'm' and then skip to the last 'e'? The answer would tell me how you "read" a sentence.

- I'd love to know, on this same level of detail, how Manning "reads" a defense. Does he spend a extra fraction of a second on the linebacker, or the safety? When he's playing the Ravens, does he look to Ray Lewis first, or last, or does he do something completely unexpected like not looking at Lewis at all? Are there certain schemes that he takes longer to understand? If so, what are they? And so on. Manning, for instance, probably picks up blitzes better than anyone else in football. Wouldn't you love to know what he's doing, in the face of a blitz, that - say – a competitor isn't?

- It is only through repeated exposures to genuine stress that our body learns how to function effectively under that kind of pressure. I think its time we realized that a quarterback needs the same kind of exhaustive preparation for combat that we give bodyguards and soldiers.

- The worst thing about the Super Bowl is the two-week layoff. I think teams get over-coached in the second week. In "Blink," I talk about how we can turn ER doctors from terrible decision-makers when it comes to diagnosing chest pain into great decision makers simply by limiting the amount of information they are given about a patient. Load them down with every conceivable piece of data, and they have real difficulty distinguishing patients with heartburn from patients who are experiencing a real heart attack. Limit them to three or four crucial pieces of data, though, and they do a great job.

-The point of thin-slicing -- the art of making accurate predictions from very "thin-slices" of experience, is that it's something that only experts can do. I talk about a guy, in "Blink," who can listen to a couple have a random conversation with each other for 15 minutes and - on the basis of that "thin-slice" - predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will be together or divorce seven years down the road.
Almost all the ideas and anecdotes in "Blink" can connect cleanly with problems and challenges facing sports organizations, teams, and athletes .

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