Friday, February 27, 2009

X's and O's

When you think of sports and coaching strategy, the first games that come to mind are football and basketball. Somewhere along the line, the idea that the right football and basketball coaches make all the difference became accepted, and the result was huge contracts for professional and high-Division I coaches in those sports.

The reality, though, is that nothing could be further from the truth. Teams for the most part run the same basic philosophies, and actual, genuine innovations are few and far between. The best coaches, by the way, are the ones who have the best players. If there are ones who distinguish themselves above the others, it's the ones who have the ability to impact the mental side of the game. It's about motivating highly paid, highly pampered athletes and getting them to buy into team concepts way more than it's about coming up with a new, previously undreamed of way to play.

What does any of this have to do with Princeton? Well, if you want true X's and O's, check out the three Ivy League championships up for grabs this weekend.

The Ivy League women's swimming championships are already underway after a strange first day that made an unpredictable event even more so. The men's and women's indoor track and field championships will begin tomorrow at Harvard.

TigerBlog covered a bunch of high school swimming way back in the day, and it was amazing to get a feel for how coaches prepared for championship events. The idea is not to figure out how much your best swimmer can win his/her best event; it's to figure out where to put all of the athletes you have to maximize points. In some cases, it's way better to sacrifice winning one event in order to get as many point scorers in other events.

The other interesting part of championship events is that the score doesn't necessarily build in a natural progression to the end. It depends on where your team's strengths are. I've seen coaches who were way ahead or way behind after the first day of competition who already knew that the opposite final result was ahead.

Swimming and track championship events are very similar. They're a collage of color, with each team's staking out its spot in the stands and toughing it out through a long process until a champion emerge.

Before the competition ever starts, coaches can point to one or two spots that have to go their way in order to win or to finish high. Coaches will second-guess themselves up and down if the plan doesn't work out.

TigerBlog often defers to former Princeton and current Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson on many issues. Thompson is often asked about his own coaching philosophies and to whom he has looked in shaping the way he runs his own program.

His first two responses are always "Pops," his Hall-of-Fame father who coached Georgetown for years, and "Coach," who is Pete Carril. His third response is almost always Susan Teeter, who has won 13 Ivy League championships as Princeton swimming coach and who has this X's and O's thing down pat.

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