Sunday, November 4, 2007

Knowledge is Power

Hall of Fame Basketball coach Pete Carril's motto is the title of his 1997 book: The Smart Take from the Strong. That is true not only in sports but in life in general. It is easy to become captivated by the amazing physical skills displayed by great collegiate and professional athletes but at the highest level everyone has tremendous physical gifts, so the difference between winning and losing often comes down to preparation before the game and sustained concentration during it.

A USA Today article by Bob Nightengale explains that Boston won the World Series before a pitch was thrown thanks to excellent advance scouting. They enjoyed a similar advantage prior to their 2004 championship--so much so, in fact, that Red Sox owner John Henry recalls that GM Theo Epstein and Manager Terry Francona were "not worried at all. (They) were almost giddy" before Boston swept the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Colorado Rockies had won 21 of their previous 22 games prior to the World Series but Boston's scouts identified several chinks in Colorado's armor. For instance, they suggested that Boston's pitching staff take advantage of the aggressiveness of young hitters Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins by feeding them a steady diet of pitches outside of the strike zone, figuring that they would not have the patience to work the count. Boston pitching coach John Farrell explains, "What we tried to do was identify those hitters in the lineup that wanted to be 'the guy,' thinking they might get a little overamped." Even something that might seem like a bang-bang, improvised action is often the product of scouting: a key game two play--picking off Matt Holliday from first base in the eighth inning when Boston led by just one run--was the direct result of a scouting report that noted that Holliday tends to try to steal on the first pitch.

Good scouting also helped Boston to reach the World Series in the first place, providing the right game plans for Red Sox hitters to employ against Cleveland aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. The end result of the compiling and application of all of this baseball knowledge is that the Red Sox not only claimed their second championship in four years but they outscored the Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies 99-46, an MLB record for postseason run differential.

Bum Phillips once said, "Don Shula can take his'n and beat your'n. Or he can take your'n and beat his'n." That kind of coaching mastery is only possible with meticulous preparation. Teams that pay the price on the practice court/field reap the rewards on game day. That is why Bill Belichick's New England Patriots can seemingly come up with new offensive and defensive wrinkles every week. The "mad scientist," as I like to call him, goes into his laboratory, puts his next opponent under a microscope and identifies how to use his team's strengths against that team's weaknesses. Jim Tressel's Ohio State Buckeyes show the same kind of tenacity. They trailed Wisconsin 17-10 in the second half on Saturday but they did not get rattled and did not start trying to do things out of character; they executed their game plan and ran off 28 straight points, winning a game that the John Cooper Buckeyes almost certainly would have lost.

Much is sometimes made of halftime adjustments but it is important to understand that a team cannot make an adjustment unless it practiced it prior to the game. If plan "A" prove to be a dud, then the team can go to plan "B" but it cannot just make up something on the fly in the few minutes between halves. The better prepared team not only has a knowledge edge plus the flexibility to change plans during the game but it also plays with added confidence; a confident person will always perform better than one who has doubts. That is why Epstein and Francona were "almost giddy" prior to the 2004 World Series; they looked at the St. Louis Cardinals and knew, like Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer, "You've lost. You just don't know it."

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