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Aug 10, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Cyrus Gray (42) rushes for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won the game 27-17. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

The Winner Effect

A recent study has been published by neuroscientist John Coates on, among other things, the effect that victory can have on body chemistry, of all things:

The euphoria, overconfidence and heightened appetite for risk that grip traders during a bull market may result from a phenomenon known in biology as the ‘winner effect.’

[…]

Biologists studying animals in the field had noticed that an animal winning a fight or a competition for turf was more likely to win its next fight. This phenomenon had been observed in a large number of species. Such a finding raised the possibility that the mere act of winning contributes to further wins.

 

Go on…

[M]aybe an animal keeps winning simply because it is physically larger than its rivals. To rule out possibilities such as this, biologists constructed controlled experiments in which they pitted animals that were equally matched in size, or rather that were equally matched in what is called ‘resource holding potential,’ in other words the total physical resources — muscular, metabolic, cardiovascular — an animal can draw on in an all-out fight. They also controlled for motivations, because a small, hungry animal eating a carcass can successfully chase off a larger, well-fed animal. Yet even when animals were evenly matched for size (or resources) and motivation, a pure winner effect nonetheless emerged.

Life for the winner is more glorious. It enters the next round of competition with already elevated testosterone levels, and this androgenic priming gives it an edge that increases its chances of winning yet again. Though this process an animal can be drawn into a positive-feedback lop, in which victory leads to raised testosterone levels which in turn leads to further victory.

The precompetitive surge in testosterone has been documented in a number of sports, such as tennis, wrestling and hockey, as well as in less physical competitions, such as chess, even medical exams.

[...]

Athletes on a winning streak may thus have a very different body chemistry than those on a losing streak. IN all these experiments, with both animals and humans, the winners experienced a self-reinforcing upward spiral of testosterone.

Life for winners, or teams who can consistently win, is inherently different from teams that don’t. It is different in the level of talent and in the acquisitions both teams make, sure. But it’s also different in a way that boils down to the very essence of your humanity, your body chemistry.

It’s not enough for a losing team to just acquire enough talent to win, which we are finding the Chiefs are starting to do. To be the kind of team that can contend on an annual basis, year in and year out, your team needs to have in it a primordial desire, largely fed by a culture of winning.

Even though the NFL is probably the most equitable league in terms of parity, with a harder salary cap than the NBA or the MLB, and a greater ability for talent mobility than the NHL, allowing for underutilized players to be snagged by other teams who would use them, the NFL still resembles all those other leagues with its historic track record of most of its championships being won by a mere handful of teams.

Decade in, decade out, there are flashes in the pan, but the same five or six franchises are usually the front runners for a championship in any given year.  Something separates the Patriots, the Cowboys, the Steelers, the Packers, the Colts, the Giants, from the other teams in the league.  It’s the same thing that separates the Celtics, the Lakers, the Yankees, the Cardinals, and whomever hockey claims to have.

Obviously I’m waxing philosophical here, but I think if you pull the lens back far enough, you start to see what Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli has been up to all this time.

With personnel hires like head coaches and general managers, too many teams try to rearrange the deck chairs on their own franchises’ Titanics. What Hunt facilitated upon his ownership of the team in 2008, however, was something much more radical.

Hunt was not interested in just continuing the carousel of personnel and hoping that eventually everything would fall into place, like seemingly every non-elite franchise in the NFL, Chiefs included, get sucked into. He landed Pioli in the spring of 2009, by making the most radical pitch to Pioli he could muster: we will not only give you full power to remake our roster, but we will give you full power to remake our culture.

I wrote back in 2009, in a piece I can no longer locate, not long after Pioli was brought on board, that Pioli was clearly doing more than rebuilding this team. He was reconstructing the entire way this franchise did business. Because business as usual was how you end up being The Other 25 Teams in this league.

This reformation, which took place mostly behind closed doors, had some damaging blowback, much of it detailed in Kent Babb’s brutal report at the start of this year.

But as the wrinkles are starting to smooth out three years later, we are beholden to a front office that is as efficient and in sync as any front office in the NFL. The scouting department, now completely stocked with Pioli’s people, is one of the top five scouting departments in the NFL. Its roster is among the deepest in the league.

This 2012 squad exemplifies that transformation. There was a briskness to the team’s operations in its first preseason game that has no precedent in Chiefs history. This team was so well prepared and in sync from the opening kickoff to the victory formation as the clock expired. It was beautiful, and if Coates is to be believed, should only add to the team’s momentum as we go forward.

Now, the Chiefs face the problems the best teams in the league faced. They are struggling to retain all their great talent at reasonable prices (the Carr and Bowe struggles of this past offseason to the future Bowe, Albert, Jackson, and Dorsey struggles of the upcoming one). The roster is so deep they are going to have to make legitimately painful cuts. The players they cut, unlike previous years, will not survive waivers to end back up on the Chiefs’ practice squad. And we’re all wondering how our quarterback is going to be able to make sure all our talent (Bowe, Baldwin, Charles, Hillis, McCluster, Moeaki, Boss, Breaston) get adequate numbers of touches.

These are the problems the NFL’s First World have to deal with, as opposed to the Third World this team has occupied for far too long.

The important thing to remember is that it didn’t all happen by accident. And it didn’t happen because we incrementally made strides, one bit at a time. It happened because this franchise was bold enough to make the extreme decisions necessary to create a culture of championships.

That culture is arriving quickly, it seems, if it’s not already here.

Let’s hope it pays dividends.

As Coates concludes from his study:

We hold the keys to victory within us.

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