Thursday, February 23, 2006

Skating on thin logic?

Tuesday night, when Sasha Cohen nailed her short program with an almost awe-inspiring degree of panache--putting herself in the driver's seat for a gold--NBC's Olympic figure-skating announcers nearly tripped over their superlatives in an effort to laud her "supreme confidence" and the way she "attacked" her routine.

Thursday night--as you may have heard by now--Cohen fell not once, but twice, during her long free skate, blowing any chance at gold. Ultimately she settled for a silver medal that the judges, and their much-touted new scoring system, were rather generous in awarding, one thinks.

Question, though: Where did Cohen's "supreme confidence" go between Tuesday and Thursday?

Surely if she had such confidence going into the short program on Tuesday, it would've only blossomed after she ended that portion of the competition in first place. Right? So how and why would she have lost her edge after putting on such a virtuoso performance? Yeah, I know the ready-made story line here: Cohen has a reputation as a "choker," so maybe that "got inside her head." But come on. You can rationalize anything if you're doing it after the fact.

Of course, rationalizing-things-after-the-fact is announcer Scott Hamilton's middle name. Summarizing Cohen's meltdown, Hamilton decided that you "could see the doubt in her eyes" as she took to the ice on Thursday. Sure you could, Scott. And I bet you were one of those sages who could see 9-11 coming, too. Next time, tell us before it happens, OK?

In fact, Hamilton was blessed with a rare degree of 20/20 hindsight last night, even for him. He had this to say of Carolina Kostner, another skater who reeled off an underwhelming routine: "She probably just wanted it too bad and couldn't make it happen." First of all, I wonder if Hamilton even knows what he meant by that. But leaving such questions aside, look at the spin: Kostner wanted it too much. So I guess, to be successful at applying Sportsthink,* you have to want it more than the next guy (or gal), but not want it too much, because that'll undo you as well.

You see, whatever value motivational training may indeed have--in theory--ends up falling through the brittle ice of (pseudo)reasoning such as Scott Rationalizing Things After The Fact Hamilton's. Because there is just no way to know, going in, precisely how much "wanting it" is enough...yet not too much.

It's a lot of gold medal-winning sound and fury signifying nothing.

* Btw, this is material from a piece I did for Psychology Today that MSN evidently "picked up" and repackaged as online content. Remind me to ask for some of that money...

AND, A QUICK DR. PHIL/LOVE SMART UPDATE. "Dr. Marilyn R. Barry" is back with a new date of Feb. 24. How many is that now? Anyone still counting...?


Anonymous said...

Sasha Cohen was by far the best skater out there (though you could see the little Georgian coming), and was battling a groin injury that had thrown her off her practice schedule. Historically, she has been better than her competition but lacked the self-confidence of a champion, and last night was unfortunately no exception, though it certainly took the grit of a champion to turn in a lovely performance after those two disastrous falls. One case where MORE confidence in her breathtaking abilities was needed, not less!

Cal said...


Again, I have to ask this question; what is wrong with entering a competion with the attitude that you are going to be succesful and you are going to win, especially if, after the competition and after coming up short you get back up, accept some of the mistakes that were made during the competition and go back out there and start over? And again these athletes are on such a higher level than the Joe Shmoe playing recereational basketball and thinking that at the end of his grueling season he can try out for the NBA and make it. In that case it is ignorance, in the case of these Olympic athletes it is there life and their job. Pertaining to announcer Scott Hamiltons' comments, yes, they are a perfect example of 20/20 hindsight, but I agree that there are times when you can look at somebody and tell that they are nervous and doubtful. Think of times when you went on interviews for a job and you needed to exude confidence and have to brush away all the nervousness that can so often be seen on the outside. The body language can be seen a mile away. But again Hamilton can't presume to know what was going on inside Cohen's noggin'.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, you and your anonymous predecessor make some solid points. Look, I'm an athlete myself; I've played baseball for some 40-something years now, as well as three years of college football, competitive handball, tennis, etc. So I've "been there." And I certainly didn't mean to leave anyone with the impression that I think you're *supposed* to doubt yourself, or that self-confidence is useless. What I'm trying to emphasize in SHAMblog, primarily, is twofold: 1. That the "push-button" relationship that is often promoted by the foremost champions of sportsthink is a myth: "wanting it" alone is never enough. And the dangers of that mindset--especially away from the athletic field (where we try to fashion all kinds of convenient analogies between sports and life)--are considerable. 2. There is no practical utility to a so-called motivational program that has so many conditions, caveats, and gray areas attached to it that you can never be sure of an outcome, or what role the program played in it. In other words, if the Austrian skier can go into the competition feeling "pumped"--and lose--while the U.S. skier can go into the same competition with modest expectations--and win--then how do we have any realistic way of weighing what role, if any, state of mind plays in the results? Let me use an analogy (and I know I'm going on too long here--I should probably make this a post in its own right--but it bears saying here and now): If you come to me feeling sickly, and I say, "Here, Cal, take this medicine--now, realize that sometimes it works only when you take two pills at 8:09 p.m., but sometimes it works only when you take 1 pill at 7:43 a.m., but sometimes it works best when you eat first, but sometimes it works best when you've fasted for a week, but sometimes you should take it with spinach, but sometimes spinach will neutralize its effect, so at those times you should take it with a banana--but sometimes you shouldn't really take it at all (but I don't know specifically when those times are)--then what is the point of my even giving you the pill?? That's how it is with confidence. Though we throw the word around as if it makes a surefire difference, there is no scientific (or even, really, empirical) evidence that it does; meanwhile, even its own advocates carve themselves so many exceptions and "outs" (as, for example, both you and "anonymous" seem to be doing here), that in the end, the term has no meaning and/or practical value. At least that's how I see it. As always, I'm willing to entertain opposing viewpoints.

Cal said...


I think that having confidence still makes a difference even if it works once. It's like a bet you make over the flip of a coin and you lose because you picked heads, but you keep on picking heads because statistically you know it has got to land on heads at some point. That one time may be the time you need it or may not, but that one time may be all you needed. Just like that one time you needed to hit the ball, or have the perfect free skate in the Olympics, or whatever. Because if you never had the confidence there never would have been that moment. Again, all it takes is one time for it to work.

Rodger Johnson said...

I think what Steve's getting at is that confidence isn't the be-all and end-all of winning.

I've been an athlete. In high school I wrestled. Confidence never once helped me win a match. Strength, endurance, cunningness and knowing what to do and when to do it -- that made the difference.

Although, I don't discredit confidence, doping on over-confidence or just relying on that alone is a sure perscription for losing. In fact, during high school some over-confident wrestlers would talk smack (a byproduct of doping on over-confidence) because my apparent disability they thought I was an easy opponent. Not so!

Confidence is a nebulous metaphysical thing. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows, but with or without it, competing for anything and winning can be reduced to ability--mental or physical. I say ability in the broadest sense.

So, getting hired for a job is based on (in a perfect world) -- can you do the job. Winning the olympics -- do you have the strength and skill to perform better than the next guy/gal.

Sasha slipped. She goofed. She made a mistake. So she remains the queen of silver. I don't think that's so bad.

Anonymous said...

Well, it seems to me that competing successfully for anything--be it a sport, job, love interest, you name it--requires a combination of five things: ability, knowledge, confidence, perspective (aka wisdom/experience), and luck. Blessed with all five, one's chances are damned good. Missing one (or more) of the five puts one's odds at risk.

Anonymous said...

I'm with steve on this . . . announcers overrate confidence and underrate sheer luck or skill.

Its silly.

Sounds like this blog has a great future. . . there are a lot of disbelievers out there.