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Ask any underdog: Effort trumps ability

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Vivek Ranadivé considered basketball mindless.

Raised on soccer and cricket in Mumbai, he couldn’t understand why, if a basketball court is 94 feet long, each team would run to one end and defend only 24 feet of the court. It seemed ridiculous.

When he began coaching his daughter’s team of 12-year-olds, Ranadivé decided they would play a full-court press full time.

They were not very skilled, these “little blonde girls,” as he calls them. But playing a nonstop press, they ended up at the national championships.

How did this David-and-Goliath story come about? That’s what Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, wanted to know.

Here’s what he discovered:

When underdogs choose to break the standard rules, they win.

In the original story from the Bible, David started getting ready for a conventional fight with swords and armor, but he stopped when he realized he couldn’t walk and wasn’t used to that gear.

Instead, David picked up five stones and started running toward Goliath, breaking the standard rhythm of combat. He applied a full-court press and then hit the big Philistine with rocks.

That’s what Lawrence of Arabia did in 1917. Instead of directly attacking the well-fortified city of Medina, he took his ragtag group of Bedouins and blew up the unguarded railway line from Damascus. Tough and mobile, they disrupted Medina’s supply line, spreading the battlefield over as wide a range as possible. “Our cards were speed and time, not hitting power,” he wrote.

Here recently, a political scientist studied every war over the past 200 years between strong and weak armies. The Goliaths—at least 10 times as powerful—won about three-quarters of the time, but the Davids won more than a quarter.

In the case of the 12-year-old basketball players from Redwood City, they disrupted their opponents on inbound passes, defending the entire length of the court. “It’s an exhausting strategy,” says one of their advisors.

Indeed it is. It’s hard to make your men ride 600 miles across the desert on camels. It’s hard to swarm your opponent after every score. But it works. David can beat Goliath, Gladwell reports, because relentless effort can beat ability. And any underdog can do it.

— Adapted from “How David Beats Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker.

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