*[The concept of “Strong-link” and “Weak-link” sports originated in The Numbers Game, by Chris Anderson and David Sally. In his entertaining and thought-provoking Revisionist History podcast and also in his CoVid-19 era appearance on the Munk Dialogue podcast, Malcolm Gladwell extends the concept to other activities, notably to post-secondary education. Alex Novet provides a good description of how hockey combines “Strong-link” and “Weak-link” elements, and Rich Jakotowicz applies this analysis to financial planning and business strategy.
In a similar vein, Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs provides valuable insights into why commercial and public service (“guardian”) activities rely on different systems of moral thinking.
Structurally, a robust democracy has much in common with low-scoring “weak-link” games like soccer that depend on tightly coordinated teamwork. The cost of a misstep is high and recovering from the damage done by a misstep is very difficult. Both involve slow and methodical processes, with a great many people involved in every initiative.
A successful democracy requires citizens who are able to communicate effectively with each other. Without a shared set of core concepts, communication becomes slow, awkward, and unhelpfully contentious.
In contrast, authoritarian governments are similar to “strong-link” sports such as basketball, where one or two superstars can carry an otherwise average team to championships. Decisive actions can be taken quickly, and an informed cohesive populace is not needed.
In recent years sports teams of all kinds have started to use sophisticated “analytics” of all kinds to select players and develop strategies.
Probably most well-known example was the ground-breaking use, by the Oakland A’s, of data to identify unsuspected factors that helped teams to win baseball games (dramatized in the book and movie “Moneyball“). More recently Chris Anderson and David Sally in The Numbers Game introduced the concept of “Weak-link” vs “Strong-Link” sports. Malcom Gladwell and others have extended this concept to education, and business. It also applies to government.
Anderson and Sally identified two key structural differences between various team sports, best exemplified by soccer and basketball: the ability of a team to recover from a mistake, and the ability of a single player to dominate the flow of a game.
In a typical soccer game, each team will take 5 or 6 shots on goal, one every 15 or 20 minutes or so. In a typical basketball game, each team will take about 90 shots, almost 2 each minute. In other words, a basketball team has 30 to 40 times more opportunities to recover from a mistake than does a soccer team. Success basketball teams maximize opportunities. Successful soccer teams minimize mistakes.
Soccer is a deliberate methodical game played on a massive field by 11 players; a single offensive play can involve a dozen or more passes. It is rare for a goal to result from the effort of a single player, no matter how skilled. In contrast, basketball is frenetic, with 5 players per team constantly jostling on a small court; it is common for a single player to take the ball from one end to the other and score. In such close quarters and with so few players, one extra-ordinary player can carry a whole team (during the 2019-2020 NBA season, half of the top dozen scorers were also in the top 12 for assists, and 9 in the top 12 for turnovers).
Soccer is a “Weak-Link” sport; winning teams tend to be those which have the fewest weak players. Winning basketball teams tend to follow the rule for “Strong-Link” sports, and spend whatever is needed to sign a LeBron James, a Michael Jordan, or a Kawhi Leonard. (For those who are interested, Alex Novet provides a description of how hockey combines “Strong-link” and “Weak-link” elements.)
Consider this analogy to “weak-link” vs. “strong-link” sports. “Strong-link” sports (like basketball) favour teams with a superstar or two, teams that maximize their strengths. “Weak-link” sports (like soccer) favour teams with balanced rosters of good, but not necessarily spectacular, players; their goal should be to minimize their weaknesses.
Basketball is a high-scoring frenetically fast offensive game in which a small number of players occupy most of the court time and dominate the game. A charismatic super-star like Michael Jordan or LeBron James can control the flow of the game and carry the rest of the team. Business creation is like this, relying on one or two visionaries with skills and a willingness to take risks and endure multiple failures. The vast majority of new businesses fail without being noticed, but those that succeed can re-define society (Ford and US Steel, IBM and Xerox, Apple and Amazon).
In contrast, soccer is a low-scoring strategic, and sometimes painfully slow, defensive game with 11 players on a very large field (most teams manage fewer than 6 shots on goal in a 90 minute game). Scoreless ties are common. Success depends on every player not screwing up. Not even a super-star can overcome the damage done by a couple of weak teammates.
“Weak-link” sports focus on stability, control, and minimizing weakness; “strong-link” ones on identifying and exploiting opportunities, and on maximizing strengths.