One of the reasons I am a big believer in playing sports is because it’s one of the few things in life that forces a player to accept defeat with humility. Every sport is a microcosm of how life actually plays out – the best plans don’t work out, huge highs are quickly followed by huge lows, the Davids often end up beating the Goliaths, and given all this, the best players focus on process over outcomes (read my post: Conquering Uncertainty, Dhoni & Vinod Khosla Style).
The recent soul-crushing defeat of India at the hands of Australia in the final of the 50 overs Cricket World Cup was a perfect example. A rampaging team full of superstars, playing in home conditions and backed by the richest and biggest cricketing engine the world has ever seen, was comprehensively outstrategized and outplayed by a team that had most of its stars way past their prime, whose innate strengths were unsuited to the local playing conditions, and which had scrapped its way to the final.
Having grown up seeing many of the previous World Cups, 2003 in particular, there were a few things that were making me nervous about India’s chances even before the final game. Classical cricket analysts have always talked about the Law of Averages being particularly strong in cricket. Being a student of investing, I also believe in Mean Reversion and therefore, this Law resonates with me. India was coming into the finals with a 10-win streak, the longest winning streak ever at a World Cup. This stacked the Law of Averages against it, and ideally, I would have liked to see them have a bad game before the final.
There is another reason why India not getting challenged at all during this unbeaten run bothered me. Regular readers of my blog would know that I am a believer in overcoming failure via grit as being the #1 leading signal of success in life (read my post: Storyteller vs Scrapper Founders). As Mike Tyson’s famous quote goes:
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.Mike Tyson
Success in life boils down to having the muscle memory to throw counter-punches once your Plan A has failed. This is where most people give up. Unfortunately, in my experience, the only way to build this strong muscle memory is to go through repeated failures, to operate in scarcity, to be the underdog in the shadows, essentially – “to get repeatedly punched in the face by life”.
As opposed to India, which won 10 games on the trot with a specific Plan A largely working each time, Australia got punched in the face many times at the beginning stages of the World Cup. This forced the team to develop ways to counterpunch, even while dealing with unfamiliar playing conditions and a set of aging players. Having the agility to come up with Plan Bs and Cs on the spot during game time perhaps became a necessity rather than a luxury.
The beauty of adversity is also that it brings people together, creating deep bonds and trust under conditions of high pressure. Look at how Pearl Harbor united the US like never before, ultimately creating the likes of the Manhattan Project in record time. This is likely what happened within the Australian team too, unlike India, whose team dynamics never really got pressure-tested before the final.
Of course, teams can only overcome adversity when they have a basic foundation of grit in place. This is where the national sporting culture of Australia built over generations comes in. A healthy sporting culture gives importance to systems and processes, has a high tolerance for failure, and puts teamwork over individual brilliance. More importantly, the fans and general audience also imbibe this spirit, having the maturity to spot these aspects and applaud them over one-off wins and losses. This leads to the entire engine, from players and coaches to sporting boards and fans, being aligned on a particular philosophy of playing sports, what a company would call ‘Values’.
Admittedly, a lot of this analysis has hindsight bias and emotions baked into it. I don’t want to be too harsh on Team India, as they actually played superb cricket over several weeks, displaying strong leadership, courage, and individual brilliance. However, this unexpected defeat does highlight that more work still needs to be done in crafting the right sporting philosophy within the country’s national fabric. A set of values that frees players from the pressures of winning and losing, and rather than dealing with public expectations and the dreaded “what will happen if we lose?” fear, helps them unlock their individual skills while also bringing them together as a team to deal with unexpected punches in the face.
Closing out with another story. We attended the Thanksgiving Warriors vs Spurs game yesterday. As part of a youth program, my older son got the opportunity to do one post-game free throw on the Warriors court. He ended up missing the shot and spent the next few hours whining about it. As I comforted him while talking through how missing and making these key shots is the beauty of sports, it took me back to the World Cup final heartbreak that happened 8,000 miles away a week back. Hence, this post! And why I will continue to actively encourage my kids, as well as our entire household, to devote significant time and resources to the pursuit of sports.
PS: enjoy this awesome reaction from Giannis Antetokounmpo, star player of the Milwaukee Bucks, when a reporter asked him on his “failure” at winning the championship.
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