Reading David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book has gotten me thinking seriously about how underdogs succeed. Our students enter the global economy with weaker primary and secondary educations, less educated parents, limited financial cushions, and coming from countries that don’t have strong economies compared to Europe, Asia, or North America. So how do they win? Let me tell you about the full court press.
After one team scores in basketball, usually they retreat to the back of their side while the other team brings the ball down the court. In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book though (summary here) he talks about a different defensive strategy – one that has propelled most teams who’ve used it to do far better than expected. The full court press. Instead of retreating, the full court press has players ferociously defending all 94 feet of the basketball court instead of passively retreating. And it works.
So why don’t more people try it? Because it’s so freaking hard:
“I have so many coaches come in every year to learn the press,” Pitino [a coach famous for his full court press] said. Louisville was the Mecca for all those Davids trying to learn how to beat Goliaths. “Then they e-mail me. They tell me they can’t do it. They don’t know if they have the bench. They don’t know if the players can last.”
Pitino shook his head. “We practice every day for two hours straight,” he went on. “The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our corrections”—that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction—“they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working.” Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired.
The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.
One, Two, Three, Attitude
I think a full day of intense, active learning, with no sitting back and listening is our full court press. Regular basketball defense has you heading back to your side of the court and sitting around without moving (passively!) while the other team comes down the court. It’s harder – ask our amazing teachers and students – but it works. And the beautiful thing our ability to execute with this intensity doesn’t depend on background, wealth, or anything predetermined – just our students’ and teachers’ passion and drive.
“We followed soccer strategy in practice,” Ranadivé said. “I would make them run and run and run. I couldn’t teach them skills in that short period of time, and so all we did was make sure they were fit and had some basic understanding of the game. That’s why attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.” He turned to Craig. “What was our cheer again?”
The two men thought for a moment, then shouted out happily, in unison, “One, two, three, attitude!” That was it! The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else.
But what about burnout? Isn’t running this hard more likely to exhaust your team – is this strategy more of a sprint instead of a marathon? Maybe, but that line of reasoning ignores how fun it is to win. To push yourself to do your best.
I loved this video about the “full court press” of football – a coach who never punts, and who always onside kicks – two risky strategies that require a bit more work, but pay off with points and wins. The coach here says it loudly and clearly: “Kids love it. They absolutely love this style of football.” It’s FUN to perform at the top of your game and shock the competition with your performance:
And that’s been our experience at Kepler so far – it’s hard work, but at our recent business pitch session, the feedback from the successful entrepreneur judges was that our students in one month of learning had outpaced many 4-year university graduates. And for our teachers and students, that feels damn good.