The Killer Instinct

After 26 straight victories in Olympic beach volleyball, Kerri Walsh Jennings finally lost one yesterday. She was a model of class and sportsmanship, complimenting her opponents and taking responsibility for the loss, which is more than I can say for a lot of other American athletes at this year's Summer Olympics.

Apparently, the other teams had figured out that Walsh Jennings wasn't passing the ball well so they targeted her very aggressively when serving, leading to an inordinate number of aces against her. In other words, they victimized her.

"As well they should," she said, "I wasn't passing the ball. You see weakness, you go after it."

When I was young I played little league basketball. I remember playing one team and noticing that they always took the ball down the court the same way. Their front court would run ahead and get in position around the basket. Then their two guards would come down the court, one on each side. At the top of the key, the guard with the ball would always pass it to the guard on the other side. Like clockwork, every time. Being little league ball, that pass was a slow, arcing lob. I was playing center and was supposed to stay near the basket, but I realized that a steal would be so easy. Wait for that lofted pass, run up, intercept it, and dribble across court for an easy layup. So I tried it. And it worked. So I tried it again. 2 more points. I eventually scored 10 off this move.

Then I did something dumb.

I started feeling guilty for taking advantage of this weakness and I stopped doing it.

My coach should have pulled me and said, "Hey Campbell, that thing you were doing? More please."

Whether you're talking beach volleyball, basketball, ping pong, chess, tic-tac-toe, business, or politics, if the object is to win, then you must exploit any legal advantage you have until your opponent finally gets tired of it and takes the advantage away from you. That's why football offensive coordinators isolate and target weak defensive backs. That's why chess players seek control of the center squares. That's why a sales person targets customers that require something the competitive products don't have or don't do well. So long as the advantage is legal according to the rules and (perhaps) the spirit of the game, it's not only fair, it's the core concept behind any winning strategy.