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I look forward to reading the David v Goliath article later. Can I just say that I was given Outliers as a Christmas gift and found it to be wonderfully written and fascinating. I have since purchased Blink and the Tipping Point, all three books have been elevated to among favorites. The way you combine telling a story with the presentation of a factual argument is better than I have ever seen before. Keep up the good work. I am glad to see that your New Yorker articles are linked here to keep me busy until the next book comes along.


I found your piece to be interesting but unfocused. The lack of focus derives, I think, from the continued use of the terms "David" and "Goliath" and "underdog" while at the same time exploring strategies that, as you point out, negate those terms.

Or, put another way, when an 'underdog' refuses to play by Goliaths' terms, then Goliath ceases to be Goliath and the rest of your argument relates very little, if at all, to the premise of 'underdog' and 'favorite'.

It's interesting to see the idea of deliberate shifts of paradigm affecting the outcome of a contest. That's a good story. It's kinda silly, IMHO, to continue, however, to refer BACK to that paradigm when talking about these deliberate shifts

Eric Olsen

If this isn't the start of a new book idea for you, I think at the very least, the article would make a great introduction to a new printing of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." Terrific Stuff!


It is worth noting that Pitino's pressing style did not lead to a tremendous amount of success at the NBA/professional level. In his stint as coach of the Boston Celtics from 1997 to 2001, his teams amassed a disappointing 102-146 record.


I found the article to be very insightful across a broad spectrum not just basketball or even sports of which I'm not even remotely a fan not because sports are in any way bad but I'm not much of a watcher, more of a doer. Anyway, for me the most salient point is how much of life is focused on the protocol rather than the outcome.

I'm a Data Architect by trade but occupy a different spot than most as my efforts are focused on understanding the business intentions and developing data structures that will sustain those intentions. I don't care what technologies are used for deployment. I'm less interested in what the latest trends in information management are and more interested in making certain that the reality of the world is accurately represented in the data that results from the transactions that execute that reality.

Our current Goliath-inclined approach to information management is to get the latest technology tools, develop them in the latest environment and distribute them on the most whiz-bang iPlatform possible. With all the focus on scaling the latest technological wall with the most sophisticated climbing devices, the majority of information systems deployment efforts fail as a result of attempting to scale the wrong wall.

While it may sound like I'm disparaging the technologies involved, that's not my intent. I am in fact fascinated with technology but I am pointing out that understanding the core business intentions involves legs and technology implementations involves arms to carry the analogy forward. Building technology artifacts is fun, sexy and highly visible but walking around trying to find out what the business intentions are and what data is required is slow, laborious and nearly invisible with respect to deliverables. You can't hold 'understanding' in your hands or count the lines of code in 'agreement' but when when you have these secured it's a virtual guarantee the result will achieve the business intention that launched the effort regardless of the technology used to deploy the solution.


Rick Pitino coached the Celtics from 1997 - 2001, not "briefly, in 1998."

About Pitino, Bill Simmons writes, "Rick Pitino was the worst NBA coach I've ever seen." (http://proxy.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/030220)


Mr. Gladwell, as always, really enjoyable essay!

I actually wanted to comment on the military tactics side of the article. Lawrence and the Arabs managed to sack Aqaba's undefended desert side, indeed, and attacking your enemy's weak spot is a classic military tactic. But so is the tactic of pretending to have a weak spot, letting your enemy charge in, retreating, then surrounding your enemy on your own turf. Google "feigned retreat." Underdogs can win if they have an unexpected trick, but if the trick is anticipated, it usually ends up even worse for the underdog than the straightforward option.


Digging a bigger hole here, Gladwell. . .

"And at Louisville he took his team to their first final four in 19 years in 2005. The star of that squad? Francisco Garcia. Ever heard of him? Exactly."

Yes, I've heard of him. He was a first-round draft pick of the Sacramento Kings and re-signed with the team last year. That Louisville team certainly overachieved but picking Garcia to illustrate the team's lack of talent makes little sense. Also, that Louisville team didn't press much at all because it lacked the depth to do so in Pitino's usual style.

"Not to mention this year's Louisville squad which reached the Elite Eight with really only one NBA caliber player."

We will find out soon, but nearly every expert projects Terrence Williams and Earl Clark to be drafted in the first round. (http://www.draftexpress.com/) Also, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings, both freshmen big men this past season, could end up being first-rounders.

"And by the way the nine players who got drafted into the NBA off that anomalous 1996 Kentucky squad consisted of eight journeymen and one, marginal star--Antoine Walker. Pitino has had a fraction of the talent that his contemporaries at Kansas, Carolina, Duke or Connecticut have had."

Two problems with this. One is you set the bar awfully high when you minimize the talent of any NBA player who is not an All-Star. It is a hard, hard, league and any player who manages to last in it for a while is good, because if they are not they will be exposed and replaced. Many of these "marginal" NBA players, as you call them, were dominant college players. But, even using your ridiculously narrow and self-serving criteria, it's foolhardy to dismiss Walker, Anderson (16 years), McCarty (11 years, Mercer (nine years), and Mohammed (10 seasons) as "journeymen."

Any college coach in America would kill to have just one team in their entire career with as much talent as that '96 Kentucky team. And the 2009 Louisville team had much more talent than you acknowledge (realize?). Face it, you blew this one.

Doctor Jay

John Wooden's teams always pressed. And they won 7 NCAA titles in a row. It was my privilege to see a few of his teams play at my school the University of Washington in the 70's. My impression was that most teams could stay with them for a while, but any lapse in concentration would result in a 10 point lead for UCLA.

However, one night at Hec Edmundsen Pavillion did not turn out that way. The UW guards did such a good job of exploiting the UCLA press that they stopped playing it. UW won that game, I think it was UCLA's only regular season loss that year. I believe Lorenzo Romar, now head coach at UW was on that team.


I think the reason underdogs do not use a full court press is much simpler than not being able to get their athletes to work hard enough. As you have demonstrated in your article, the following is true:

a) being an inferior team is embarrassing
b) unconventional strategies are subject to derision

If you're going to adopt an unconventional strategy failure is not an option. Not very many coaches are players are equipped to compound their inferiority by losing in an emasculating way. The only way to shut up your critics is to win.

Most teams do not adopt unconventional strategies like a full game full court press out of fear and embarrassment.

Your example of the peninsula girl's team is a bit of a red herring. They are tween girls, not exactly under the sway of sports machismo, coached by a self-made billionaire, unlikely to have self confidence issues, and elite athletes.

They might be the only ones who can do it and remain ego intact.


Mr. Gladwell,

I enjoyed your piece and this blog post. I think many people are missing the point. I think the point you make is that if you are not the best by traditional standards, then you might want to employ a different or unconventional strategy to attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Of course, in college basketball, there are many good players. But you can still gain a competitive advantage by using an unconvential strategy. And of course no strategy is foolproof. It is an "attempt" at gaining a competitive advantage, the success of which will diminish over time. Then a new strategy comes along...

David Negrin

Mr. Gladwell,
I was wondering if you'd seen the 2007 documentary "Resolved" about National High School Debate competitions?

Many critics of high school debate argue that it's rules and traditions have corrupted it. Forcing the debates away from the legitimate discussion of political issues towards inane protocol loopholes and absurd hypotheticals whose strategy is to literally trump each other in 'body count'.

One of the story lines in Resolved is about a pair of African American students from Long Beach challenging a predominantly white, privileged league of debaters using a brilliant insurgent strategy to shake up the world of High School Debate and provoke a lot of ire in the process.

They actually figured out a logical argument that trumps world-wide nuclear holocaust.



Mr. Gladwell,

I just plowed through your "David v. Goliath" article and e-mail exchange with Bill Simmons.

I have to completely agree with you and your full court press/insurgent strategy comparison.

In fact, I can relate from personal experience how accurate it is.

I am 28 years old now, but three years ago, my boss asked me to help him coach his 11 year old's CYO basketball team. I assume he asked because I was a big sports fan and he didn't know much about coaching (the previous year, he coached them to one of the worst records in the league). I have never played the game in any organized way, but I have tried to be a student of the game. In many ways, I am more of a chess player than basketball player.

I looked at our team which was made up of two serious players, two fast kids who ran track and played soccer and a big kid. I decided that the best chance of winning was to run a press and try to use our speed to cause the opponent problems. Since 11 year old don't really know how to play agressive man to man defense, and since we only usually had 5 or six kids show up at any given game, we had to play a 2-3 zone, which is one of the easier zones to beat so i knew if the other team ran their offense, they were going to score at a decent clip.

When I arrived, I instituted roughly the same principles as the coach in your article: 1) full court press 2)a warmer, more player-friendly approach from a coach they could better relate to (me as opposed to the father of one of their teammates).

Because they could better relate to me, they were willing to work harder for me which meant they would work the press. And because we ran the press, we won the league championship that year.

I was repeatedly laughing reading about descriptions of the ejected coaches because, again, I experienced it myself.

Now I think some of the comments above miss the point of your article. Insurgent strategies do not guarantee success, just an increased shot at success in what would otherwise we a forgone conclusion.

For example, the following year, we ran the press again, this time in a more difficult league with referees who hadn't seen us before. Despite the fact that we had a year of cohesion together, we finished at around .500 in the tougher division. The point isn't that the press didn't work, the point is that it didn't work as well and we would have been beaten soundly if we didn't run it at all.

Yes, the press can be beat. So can many insurgent strategies. But that doesnt mean they shouldnt be tried.

In addition, i think our Department of Defense should read this article because it has more to do with national security than basketball. In my opinion and they would do well to focus on parts pertaining to naval insurgent strategies because i think in this case, the United States, if it continues to operate under traditional principles in unfortunately in this case, Goliath.

Greg F

I wonder if you considered the "Wildcat" offense in your David v Goliath article. It fits perfectly, an underdog (Miami) employs an unconventional strategy against a powerful favorite (New England) to great success. If I recall, Miami ran it 6 times and scored 5 touchdowns and only had moderate success with it when teams were prepared for it.


Re: your exchange with Bill Simmons, I take issue with one point you make:

"I wonder if there isn't something particularly American in the preference for "best" over "better" strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively "best" strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren't nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front."

I think this observation is spot-on with regard to the US healthcare system. However, I think it is completely off-base with regard to the US education system. Programs like "No Child Left Behind" are great for politicians, but only foster mediocrity. In many if not most US public schools the elite students at the top end are left to coast free of challenge, while the struggling students at the bottom are left to founder. The emphasis is placed on turning C-/D students into C+ students for the benefit of their schools' ratings and funding. And way too many US students go to second-rate liberal arts colleges to study (or not study) topics that will have no bearing on their ultimate life's work. Way too few go to trade schools to learn valuable skills that could result in early career placement or advancement. If anything, the US education system should do much more to foster the rapid development of its elite students at high-level public schools (like Bronx Science, High Technology HS in NJ or Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics), while guiding less academically-inclined students to more trade-oriented schooling. Of course this approach is not politically correct so is unlikely to be widely adopted...


For teams without the right combination of skill and athleticism, running the press would be like Lawrence of Arabia's team of bandits making a grueling three-day speed march to attack the shit out of an empty stretch of sand.

Let’s look in more detail at Pitino. The reason people are harping on this point is it's your only example of pressing success that doesn't feature a team of 12-year-old girls or a college basketball game won in 1971 by a program that has not had any sort of subsequent upset success in the intervening 38 years. And it's nuts to suggest on "have you heard of this guy or this guy" evidence that Pitino’s stock of talent is weaker than that of other major college coaches, especially when you are saying no one has heard of legit NBA players like Francisco Garcia, a double-digit scorer who shoots 40% from three-point range. I don’t think that’s a valid method. It relies entirely on your subjective judgment and selective choice of examples. You might instead look at the average star ratings his players received from the recruiting services, or the total number of minutes his players went on to play in the NBA. I don't have that information on hand, but I'll bet you $50 that if you did make such calculations, Pitino would have had teams in the top quartile of talent level among Division I programs. (The fact that he turned around teams before Kentucky doesn’t distinguish him as a resource-poor coach, because that’s how almost all top-level coaches become top-level coaches in the first place—by turning around struggling programs.)

Without that kind of analysis, your case is largely theoretical. Which is fine, we don’t all have time to spend putting old NCAA statistics into Excel. But your reasoning is that the press “represents the underdog's best chance of victory,” because it substitutes effort, which they can add more of, to ability, which they can’t. I would argue that substituting effort for ability is literally impossible to do at high levels. There isn’t an unlimited supply of it. I challenge you to come up with an example of an NBA upset that occurred because one team was better-conditioned than the other. You can't get the same marginal value out of effort from an NBA team as you can from a 12 year old girls' basketball team. You can't create a disparity in fitness or effort between yourself and Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. (“I was with the developmental team before the 1992 Olympics. The first day, I was matched up against Michael, and I was trying to deny him the ball. He said, ‘Look, man, this ain’t Duke. I can get the ball whenever I want, and I can do whatever I want with it.’ When I thought about it, I realized he was right.” -Grant Hill, New York Times, Feb. 8, 1998.) You have to challenge convention in a way that utilizes your advantages; you can’t just charge ahead with a one-size-fits-all strategy that demands crazy, out-of-proportion gambles that you’re ill-suited to make. On ESPN you suggest the Warriors should have pressed the Lakers when you went to a game this year. Do you really think that Kobe Bryant, who trains five hundred hours a day year-round, is going to have a problem from either a technique or endurance standpoint dribbling around the 12th man on the Warriors’ bench?

Why don’t underdog teams try more new strategies? Honestly, I think it’s because it just isn’t easy to come up with new strategies. And I think that your advocacy of such a hoary, known-to-every-basketball-fan, easy-to-beat-unless-you-have-the-right-exact-kind-of-players strategy like the full-court press inadvertently proves that point.


I agree with the idea that David's need insurgent strategies. The problem is the corollary to your point that Goliath strategies are often not good for David's: David strategies are often also not good for Goliaths.

The idea is that David strategies are -- aside from the qualitative stuff you mention about effort, etc -- also just high variance attacks: David can beat Goliath because it is risky and he might get lucky, or he might get creamed (which likely would have happened anyway). The press is often like that: you either get a trap, steal, layup, or sometimes give up your own layup or open jumper if your press breaks down, which might only take one good pass. Hence it might not be an optimal strategy for Goliaths, who often want to minimize variance (i.e. play boring basketball) to make sure they win.

Anyway, the article was very good and a very good read.


Oh, also: I am the writer of the NYM piece linked.


Another possible example of the "insurgent" strategy in the sports arena is the 1966 North Korean football (or soccer) team. They upset world power Italy, and then were leading another powerhouse, Portugal 3-0 in the quarter-final, before eventually losing 3-5. They relied on an incredible work rate, and never stopped running.

Robert Saunders

I, too, enjoyed the article. I had not thought of the press as a way for the underdogs to overcome a talent deficit, mostly b/c I had never seen it really happen.

From watching the Pitinos and Caliparis, the press maximizes talent differential (as when Louisville/Memphis play the Florida Atlantics of the world).

And, the effectiveness of the press for these teams breaks down as the opponent's coaching ability increases and, acknowledging your exceptions, as the opponent's talent level goes up.

For Pitino, besides the Duke game, we can point to losses to Michigan ('93) and Arizona ('97). When Kentucky faced a team with talented players who could throw over the press (Michigan) or talented, well-coached players (Arizona), the press confers no special advantage. Of course, those losses were deep in the tourney, so on balance it's worth pursuing b/c not many teams are well-coached or have NBA-caliber players.

I think the wishbone offense in football is a better insurgent example because it really does minimize the talent differential. This is why the service academies (and now Georgia Tech) run it; and, while talented defensive players help, coaching and disciplined reads are the answer. If you're Navy, you just hope that ND or Maryland will not be disciplined, either through poor coaching or insufficient time to prepare.


EML Wrote "I challenge you to come up with an example of an NBA upset that occurred because one team was better-conditioned than the other."

The Celtics first game under Pitino when they beat the Bulls.

As the Bulls coach said after the game, "But we lost our energy out there," said Phil Jackson. "I think we'll get into game shape soon. But tonight, in a high-energy game that was played at a high level against a team in good condition, we were not ready for it."

Pete Besold

I just finished coaching a season of 4th grade boys basketball, and I must say the article really bothered me. I think Vivek Ranadive epitomizes so much that is wrong with youth sports . A full court press against 12 year old girls or the 9 and 10 year old I coached is extermely effective. The kids lack the upper body strength to make long passes required to make the defense pay for pressing, and ballhandlers don't have confidence in their skills and decision making yet which leads them to panic. However, as the kids mature, gaining physical strength as well as confidence, players will be able to expose the weaknesses of a press much more easily. As the competition improves, the press becomes less effective, which is why it is not in wider use, not because of some bizarre conspiracy by the basketball powers that be. However, it is a fantastic system to exploit the (temporary) weaknesses of young girls learning the game.
Despite the team being described as lacking basketball skills (unable to shoot more than a layup) all the practice is spent learning and getting in condition for a gimmicky system that won't work for long. If these girls continue to be subjected to coach Ranadive, in a few years they will still be unable to show any basic basketball skills, and the press they spent all their time on will no longer work. Our goal as coaches and teachers of kids this young has to be on the long-term, not on winning games this week. If these kids hope to play for their high school or even at the NCAA level, we have an obligation to get them prepared for this, even if it costs us some games in the short term. This means teaching all-around basketball skills, including pressure defense...just not exclusively.

I also must point out the pressure defense at young ages is an extremely popular strategy, rspecially among the strong teams, and does not fit the description of "insurgent" strategy as claimed in the article.


Couple of points:
1) Pitino doesn't press nearly to the degree he used to. Not nearly as many gambling sidecourt traps.
2) Remember the LSU game well. Randy Livingston (a McDonald's AA) was the point guard for LSU that night. He had an injury plagued season and Pitino really concentrated on turning him over - which they did. It was an amazing display.
3) Saying that Pitino hasn't had great talent is a bit of a stretch. How many NBA All-Stars through the years won NCAA titles or even made a Final Four? (Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Jason Kidd, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley ... even Jordan wasn't the best player on the UNC team that won it all in '82). The '96 team was by far the most talented team in the tourney that year and it wasn't really close. Pitino has always had his share of NBA level talent. He has more than Michigan St. this season. So having an NBA All-Star(s) doesn't guarantee NCAA success.
4) I'm surprised more don't press in college, where it has a much better chance of success with less skilled ball-handlers and passers. But it's a losing defense in the NBA. Too many skilled and fast point guards. Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo (and the list goes on) could beat presses pretty easy by themselves.


I thought the article was so clear and concise - not sure how anyone was confused by it.

The theme was pure throughout - use the unconventional and never attack a leader's strength - beautiful work.

This is an article I actually printed to read on paper - it's that good!

John Manganaro

How about those Fighting Illini blowing Louisville out of the water in Pitino's first Final Four appearance with them? Bruce Weber had the fastest guard in the NCAA (Dee Brown) a top 5 pick point guard (Deron Williams) and 3 terrific role players who hustled incessantly down the court. Countering both your and Mr Simmons argument about creating a powerhouse press squad, the Illini countered with a powerhouse press-break squad. So I guess there is always a counter to a new strategy.

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

    My great claim to fame is that I'm from the town where they invented the BlackBerry. My family also believes (with some justification) that we are distantly related to Colin Powell. I invite you to look closely at the photograph above and draw your own conclusions.

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