Malcolm Gladwell Talks Sports (And His New Book) With Us

Malcolm Gladwell has plenty to say about sports. Getty Images

Malcolm Gladwell is a serious observer of sports. The author of iconic books Blink and The Tipping Point has no problems applying his theories to our realm. And though only one chapter in his new book, Outliers (Little Brown, $27.99), is committed entirely to the sporting discussion, he had a lot more to tell us. Such as how Bill Walsh could make us re-think Joe Montana, or how Tiger Woods is more practice than inspiration. He even touched on, yes, the brilliance of Charles Barkley.

Here, we chatted with the New Yorker writer about some of his interests, and ours.


THE MAG: Based on this book, if I'm an owner, I should be the most patient one in sports, right? After all, the Beatles, as you write, played a ridiculous 1,200 gigs—a lifetime—before they became any good.
GLADWELL: It's interesting. Andy Reid has said that with the offense he runs in Philadelphia, it takes a receiver three years to be comfortable in it. A receiver! I don't think we take this into account. We create offenses of such stunning complexity in the NFL, that it's impossible to truly judge anyone in their rookie season. It's ludicrous. How can you, if you're Detroit, draft all these wide receivers and then give up on anything after a couple years, or call 'em busts, when it's far more about executing a system that takes years to master? You have to give them their work.

Or if the Lions offensive players were calc majors…
Yeah, you can't go into a math class and pronounce who the great students are after two weeks. No one can master calculus in two weeks. So we need to be consistent. If you hire a coach that has offensive schemes as complicated as calculus, then you better have the patience you'd have with those students. Let's stop and acknowledge that football is not a sport for dumb jocks. It's a highly complex cognitive activity.

Some say greatness and creativity in sports is more inspiration than the 10,000 hours of practice you prescribe in the book, but some of our most creative athletes—a Tiger Woods with the shots he can hit, or a Pete Maravich doing things we hadn't seen—are the most incessant practice players in history.
Well, you have to start with something, but the question we always have is how much of the sports genius is innate and how much is acquired. All sports fans have a rough breakdown in their heads of how each of those two things plays a role. When I started this book I would have thought it was maybe 50/50, but now I think it's a lot more effort and a lot less natural talent. Now I'm thinking maybe it's 70/30.

So Tiger is but 30% born a made-to-golf genius?
It's not just that Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan tend to work more than their peers—which is true—it's that when they work hard they work in a different way. In the 10,000 hours rule, psychologists call it deliberate practice. It's more than just practice, it's doing it in a very specific, focused way. It's when you're very consciously zeroing in on what you're weak at and trying to correct it, rather than repeating what you've mastered.

And that leads to a Maravich saying, "You can't call that a travel, you've never seen it done before!"
When you've put in that amount of time and effort, you're able to see a whole new range of possibilities.

That said, you were a distance runner. That's about pure endurance. Your book says success is often about circumstances. Do these ideas fly in the face of one another?
I was a middle and long-distance runner, and Alberto Salazar said something to me recently—he said, "Why is it that the Kenyans dominate long-distance running the way they do?" There's all kinds of theories on genetics, and endurance, and he says, "Look, they have a million teenage boys running 10-12 miles a day. How many boys here run 12 miles a day?" Maybe 5,000, if that. They have a million, and if you have all those kids doing that kind of mileage, you're not only going to develop all the talent that's there, you're not gonna' miss any great runners. You're exploiting 100% of the running potential.

And we see that elsewhere, like Canadian hockey players…
And you can say the same thing for Dominican infielders. There are certain cultures where we like to think they have some innate advantage, but growing up there, baseball is a really, really big deal, and everyone puts an enormous amount of effort into it, and as a result, they produce a hugely disproportionate number of athletes in that model. There's no mystery here: it's about numbers and it's about work.

You write about how Canadian hockey players are all coming from a few-month age gap because the more physically mature are considered talented, and we mistake talent for biology. Other countries like China always try to find innate talent very young and nurture it. Do you think we should do more, or let kids find their own way. MJ could have played baseball all along, right?
This discussion I have in birthday bias with hockey, baseball and soccer, where you see all the stars coming from certain months, those biases come about because we try to select All Stars at a very young age, and we confuse physical maturity with talent. As a result we're plucking all these kids for All-Star teams that are just big for their age, period. So there's dangers in intervening too early and trying to pick winners too early. So I'm not on board with the Chinese model. I think you have to provide a broad base of opportunities and let kids learn fundamentals and wait as long as possible to pick your winners.

What about steroids? They sort of break the 10,000 hours rule.
Steroids is a weird subject, because the irony of it is steroids are a means to work harder. (Laughs) Really, people take them so they can put in even better workouts. There's a wonderful phrase in the swimming world where you know if a guy is on steroids if he can do swim workouts that just defy the mind. So it feels odd for us to be upset about a drug that allows people to practice more, or work harder. You could say it's not a shortcut, it's the opposite of a shortcut. Now, I'm not a fan, I'm just saying it can get complicated.

So there are double standards, at least?
We have total double standards! We are appalled by steroids in baseball, and in football we kind of shrug it off. Shawne Merriman could end up in the Hall of Fame, and we know he used steroids, and his counterparts in baseball are shamed and shunned. I sort of think we need to decide on what our position is and fairly apply it.

Maybe it's because in football we think by taking steroids they're just extending a career which could ultimately shorten their lives. As if they're sacrificing something for us to keep playing.
Football is such an odd sport. It's by far, I think, in some ways the most un-examined American sport considering where it stands in popularity.

It's like we don't want to know what we'll find. Speaking of that, if outliers are just good circumstances mixed with hard work, is "clutch" totally overrated? Can you de-value Derek Jeter?
Well, many smarter baseball analysts than me have looked at this clutch issue and have said they don't think it exists. I guess I sort of always wonder why scoring a run in the 9th inning is so much more important than a run in the first. I've always been puzzled by this notion that a touchdown late is better than early. If I was a baseball GM and you told me I could have a guy who'd have Albert Pujols numbers but he could never, ever get a hit in the 9th, I'd say I'll take him in a nano-second. If he hits in innings one through eight, that's fine for me. I'm much more interested in someone who can achieve longterm, rather than these special moments.

You cite specific years, or circumstances for success. The 1830's, due to the timing of the industrial revolution, created the wealthiest people in history; 1955 created the best computing minds by a crazy percentage. Have we already reached our prime year for American sports?
I think that our population is still expanding really rapidly and we bring in athletes and people from all over the world with different experiences and interests, and it says to me our sporting life will only get richer. Or this: you know how people always say one of the reasons Steve Nash is a great passer and as good as he is because he played soccer, and we hear that about the passing of European big men. What it says is, you can get really unexpected dividends in the sporting world just by bringing a diverse array of backgrounds. You take a soccer kid with basketball skills, and then you see those dividends on the court. Maybe as soccer grows in this country, we get more Steve Nashes.

Or just bring in more Canadians? [Ed.'s note: Gladwell was born in Canada.]
Yeah. Either way, we're a long way from exploiting the potential of American sports.

Did writing this make you think if it wasn't Gates, it would have been someone else. If it wasn't MJ, another similar star emerges? Is unique talent true?
Football is a good example. The change in football is that as it grows more complex, the influence an individual player can have is diminished. In the 50's, you had a player like Johnny Unitas who was so brilliant and it seemed anywhere he played the team would be great. Now, I'm more fascinated by the power of the system. I look at Mike Leach and I think at a certain point, can Leach take anyone with a reasonable set of football skills and make them into a productive college quarterback? I mean, is Graham Harrell really Johnny Unitas, or is Graham Harrell just a guy in that system who's been smart enough and given the training to look like Johnny Unitas. That may have been the great lesson of Bill Walsh, a guy who had a system that made you wonder, "Can you just plug in anybody?"

So at least in football, uniqueness is sort of an afterthought?
I just think you're getting to a point where what really makes a difference in football excellence is to work hard and quickly grasp the complexity of the system. I mean, Ryan Leaf seemed to have every inherent physical ability you could ever want in a quarterback, but he didn't like the practice. What can you do?

So the system is most important but the coach is thus so important that he has to be accountable if it doesn't work right away.
(Laughs) Yeah, it's funny. My next New Yorker article is all about college quarterbacks; the problem that you can never tell how good a quarterback is by seeing how they played in college, and what can you do about that fact.

Then who do you like to watch, based on all you say in the book about the implications of limitations. Who is the best?
I think it makes you appreciate the genius of Charles Barkley. People said that coming out of college he was too small; and there's this kind of thinking taken to an absurd level. The truth was he was big enough. And once you're big enough, what matters are other things—your court sense, your intelligence, your doggedness, all of which he had, as well as sort of an extraordinary physical grace.

So outliers don't always mean optimal?
Well, we fixate on this idea that if you're 6-foot-6, then it must be better to be 6-foot-7, just as we fixate on the notion that if you have an IQ of 120, it must be better to be 125. But it's not better to have an IQ above 120. Everything above that is superfluous, you're smart enough. You can do everything you need to do as a human being.

And Charles is just another Bill Gates?
I'll say this: if you could put together a team of guys who were thought to be too small for their role in the NBA, you'd have a pretty amazing team.