WINNING IN SPORTS: The Intangibles

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Someone once said “winning is an attitude” and I believe that whole heartedly.

There is no question that natural ability and sheer talent can go a long way in winning a sporting contest or a championship. But when you reach the pinnacle of a sport, the pro level, there is usually more than enough talent to win on most teams. In football for example the saying “on any given Sunday” should never overlooked. Or for example I recently read that the difference between Tiger Woods and the 25th ranked golfer in the world is really not a large margin. The week ending on May 31, 2009, the leading season scoring average on   the PGA golf tour ranges from the #1 scorer averaging 69.46 per round and the #100 ranked scoring average is 71.03 a round. 

Granted Tiger is unusually consistant and thus stays at the top World ranking but the gap between his greatness and the talent of others at the top of the PGA tour is not as wide as the media would have you believe. Actually, Tiger proves the point of what inspired me to write this piece about the intangibles of sports.

Before I carry the Tiger analogy all the way through let me get to the meat and potatoes of my discussion. Baseball, more than any other sport is stat driven, stat analyzed, and  those stats reward players financially. However the success of a team is beyond the stats in my opinion. That is because the sum of the stats do not tell the  whole story. Does that make stat keeping pointless? 

Absolutely not. Batting average, hits, extra base hits, HR’s, RBI, stolen bases, situation hitting, fielding percentage, errors,  holds, saves, and so on are very important. Winning and losing is indeed influenced by these numbers. Nevertheless the lesser stats and the intangibles make bad better, and mediocre good, and good great.

Yes Tiger Woods is head and shoulders above everyone figuratively and literally because on top of his gifted talent he outworks everyone. He doesn’t take anything for granted and he never loses his head. He is mentally strong and maintains an iron clad focus on the objective at hand. Thus he can adjust to the elements or of his poor play at the drop of a hat. He never concedes defeat and he relishes a challenge. And he thrives in the moment.

Thus in a sport like baseball many of the same intangibles apply. Take Ryan Howard. Look at the work he put into his defense helped by his physical conditioning in the off season. And don’t think for one second that doesn’t help a team.

To begin with in baseball defense is far under rated. And yet pitching can be improved leaps and bounds by an improved defense. Of course this is amplified in importance up the middle of the field. You need a quality catcher, shortstop, 2nd baseman, and center fielder to have a strong defensive presence. In fact part of the Phillies success thus far is there only committing 17 errors thus far. (as of May 31) In contrast the woeful Nationals have been charged with 48 in the same time period!

In fact take the Washington Nationals as an example of our discussion. They are 3rd in the NL in run scoring. They are a good offensive team. They stink because they make way to many mistakes in the field and their pitching is suspect. Lack of talent? No, many baseball analysts have reported that it is obvious that many players on that club have not made the commitment to defense and the intangibles. I have seen Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes hot dog it in the field and often clueless on technique for example. And not to single them out. In fact just in the game Sun May 31, Austin Kearns made 2 horrible technique decisions causing bad angles and  a horrendous carom judgement. In the same game Anderson Hernandez was mentally taken away from a routine double play by a Jayson Werth’s predictable break up slide into second base. And Josh Bard dropped a bang bang throw that should have nailed Shane Victorino at the plate. None were charged errors, but they were plays that a MLB player should make. And this has been happening to them consistantly for a long time. This is a lack of preparation, dedication to every detail, lack of focus, presumptiousness, no team or individual discipline, and a lack of  the other forms of the intangibles.

The Phillies on the other hand have been struggling in many ways and yet winning. The pitching has been average to solid at best. Offense has sputtered at times. Rollins is not having a good season at the top of the order. Victorino has been slow to get going in the #2 hitting spot. And probably the offense will be okay in time though. The bullpen has had some strong stretches but also has had some speed bumps. Brad Lidge is still working his way through a knee surgery recovery for example.

However they are playing great defense, stealing bases, and much more. Yes the intangibles. Raul Ibanez said when he arrived he learned quickly how disciplined this team is. He specifically noted how hard they work on everything. He said he was pleasantly surprised at how Utley and Howard were just as concerned about their fielding as they were their hitting. They work on throws, situations, physical conditioning, communication, and so on.

With their hitting they work on going to the opposite field, moving runners, and being patient. In a nutshell they want to play the game right from top to bottom and from side and side.

Are there any guarantees? Never about winning. But one thing is for sure they will scratch and claw to the end on and off the field. In and out of the dugout.

This is a team that also enjoys the game for it’s majesty and beauty. The know how to have fun and go about their all business effort. They have the intangibles. They want to play the game right.

Winning is an attitude. It is also a commitment. Often times these things blossom when the organization demands professionals to be professional. For example you may earn a fat check playing for the Yankees but winning is not an option. It is expected. You will bust it and you will prepare. Honestly all teams should hold the bar that high.

Regardless of the money, the numbers, and the tradition a winning sports franchise wil foster the intangibles from the top to the bottom of their organization. And sometimes the front office can learn from the players.



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