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A plea for no excuses: Why the ref didn't cost Canada soccer glory

Heartbreak for Canada as they lose to the Americans 4-3 in overtime.

UPDATED: I wrote a column-length version of the argument for the Ottawa Citizen.

Success in sports is a function of five components: preparation, strategy, tactics, execution, and chance. The relative importance of any one of these components varies considerably from one sport or event to another (for instance, strategy plays a bigger role in the 10 000 metres race than the 100 metres), but every competitor's outcomes are determined by the interplay of all five components. 

Preparation involves everything the athlete does to make sure that he or she is able to perform properly. Most obviously, this involves training, practice, rehearsal, and so on. But increasingly preparation also involves mental preparation -- techniques of visualization, of focus, of dealing with anxiety, and all the other ways athletes can undermine good training and proper execution through mental errors. It also involves other forms of preparation as well, such as nutrition. 

Strategy is your plan for achieving your desired objective or outcome. But it is more than just a plan in the sense of a fixed set of decisions. Rather, strategy is about controlling the terrain or circumstances of the competition that best suits your training and abilities, so that any emerging possibilities or options can be exploited to maximum advantage. In a swimming race, strategy might involve prior decisions about pace - go out hard and try to lead, or hang back and come from behind. In volleyball, a strategy might be to consistently serve and set blocks in such a manner as to force setters to favour one side of the court over another. In soccer, strategy is largely (but not exclusively) about shape -- 4-3-2-1, or 4-4-2, and so on. 

Tactics are the techniques you use to gain advantage in a competition, in light of the options that arise within a given strategic context. To use a military analogy, if strategy involves choosing and shaping the field of battle, tactics are the weapons and manoeuvres you use in battle itself. How a cyclist responds to a breakaway by a handful of riders -- join the breakaway, or stay with the peloton -- is a tactical decision. A hitter's decision in a volleyball game over whether to try to hit over the block or to tip short is tactics, as is a midfielder's decision to try to hold possession, or push the ball upfield aggressively. Most people, when they talk about sports, talk about tactics. (Hockey analysts, in particular, are notorious for completely ignoring the strategic dimension of the game). 

Execution is the performance of a tactical decision. In the simplest events or sports, execution of a task or movement is what puts the competition in motion and, iteratively, drives it towards its conclusion. As H.A. Dorfman puts it in his book The Mental ABCs of Pitching, "the execution of pitches, one at a time, is the singular task that moves a baseball game from its beginning to its close." The pitcher's role consists entirely of selecting a pitch (fastball, slider, changeup) and a location (inside, outside), focusing on the target (the catcher's mitt), and delivering the pitch to the target. Sports like diving and gymnastics have a lot in common with pitching, in that they are almost zen-like in their simplicity: manoeuvre selection (the kind of dive, or vault), its mental visualization, then physical execution. But every sport ultimately comes down to execution, from stroke or stride quality and consistency in swimming or sprinting to serve delivery in volleyball to proper pace and accuracy of passing in soccer. 

Chance is the most difficult and morally fraught aspect of sports to come to grip with. Every game, sport, or event involves elements of chance: lane assignments in rowing or swimming; weather that can affect performance in cycling road races; lucky bounces in tennis or volleyball; bad refereeing in soccer; the politics of judging in gymnastics, diving, and other events. 

For many athletes (and many fans and observers), success in sports boils down to the intersection of execution and chance. Athletes perform, and the result is determined by how their proper execution is compromised or amplified by chance. A lucky bounce can make up for poor execution and put you on the podium; a bad decision by a referee can undo the effects of proper execution, lead to a loss, and undermine years of hard work and preparation. 

For many -- indeed, for almost all -- athletes, chance is a security blanket. It is what provides the excuses for when things don't go the way the athlete hoped. The track was wet. I drew an outside lane. The referee jobbed us. Almost every athlete reaches for the excuses at one time or another, and for good reason: it deflects criticism away from poor execution, or from questions of whether the athlete trained properly, or if the coach chose the proper strategy. 

The best athletes - and by this I mean the athletes who are so elite they make mere Olympians look mortal -- have a different perspective. For these competitors, execution is all there is. As Dorfman puts it, what every pitcher has to realize is that "as he is competing, the execution is all that matters -- because it is what he can control". 

Here are two examples I have come across over the course of the London Olympics. The first, purest expression of execution as the entirety of the sport, comes from Usain Bolt after his victory in the 100 metres, in which he ran the second-fastest time in history:

"It wasn't a perfect start, so I had to execute from 50m and I knew I was going to do well after that," said Bolt. "I just ran. I'm not going to say it was a perfect race because I know my coach is going to say no."

At first glance, it sounds a bit like he might be making a bit of an excuse for why, despite his victory, he didn't set a world record. But what Bolt is doing is simply explaining how the race went. Slow start, but instead of getting rattled or worried, he trusted his training and his ability, and stuck to the game plan: execute over the last half of the race and no one can beat him. Here's what he says was going through his mind as he began to execute:

"I never remembered I was running against the clock until it was 30 metres to go, then ‘world record’ popped into my head. I looked across at the clock but it was too late to do anything about it then."

This is an athlete who was completely in the zone. You can see it in the replays of the race. Unlike most Bolt races, where he seems overly conscious of the crowd before the race starts, and of the other sprinters during the race (he tends to look around more than any other sprinter during the race), in the 100 metres at London he was executing from the very start. The other sprinters, the crowd, even the timing clock, might as well have not existed. 

Consider then Clara Hughes, who competed for Canada in cycling. Hughes is a six-time Olympian who has won six Olympic medals: two bronze in cycling (road race and individual time trial) from the 1996 Games in Atlanta and a gold, silver and two bronze in long-track speed skating from the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Games. Hughes finished what for many was a disappointing 32nd in the women's road race, in pretty harsh conditions. Here's what she said after the race:

“It was terrifying,” said Hughes. “It was like really technical, and the roads were pretty slippery. Crashes. I mean racing in the rain is not fun. This is like three out of three Olympic road races for me in the rain.”

Excuses? Not remotely. What Hughes was doing was giving a largely dispassionate analysis of the circumstances of the race. In fact, what many people had trouble understanding was why Hughes didn't seem even slightly upset with her position. Again, after the race: “It was epic. It was awesome, though,” she said, smiling. 

For Hughes, the only thing that mattered was her execution. Yes, she said she had got stuck behind another rider just as she was getting ready to go with a breakaway group. But as far as Hughes was concerned, the race went as well as she might have hoped. Here's how Jonathan Gatehouse of Maclean's reported it (and note the title of his piece):

“When I look at my placing, you can say that I’m disappointed,” she said. “But when you look at my effort and everything I put into this, I’m not. I felt good—in the sense that it felt like hell. But in terms of what my effort was I suffered, and that means it was good. I gave everything I had, but it just wasn’t good enough.” 

The refusal to make excuses is what distinguishes mere Olympic athletes from true legends. Again from Dorfman: Excuses engender weakness, rather than courage. Worse, they prevent the excuse-maker from making the adjustments or corrections they need to make. 

This is why I'm a bit concerned by the reaction coming from the Canadian women's soccer team after their epic loss to the USA in their semi-final match today. It was as close as can be, with the Americans scoring in the last minute of overtime to snatch a 4-3 victory. It was the only time in the game the Americans had led: despite being heavily favoured, they had fought back from 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 leads. The Canadians played very hard, and despite being outmatched at almost every position by the Americans, it was a game they should have won. 

Why didn't they? Well, to hear the Canadians say it after the game, they were robbed by the referee. Ahead 3-2 with twelve minutes to go, the Canadian keeper was penalized for delay of game for holding on to the ball for longer than the six seconds the rules allow. It's a penalty that is never called, as everyone, including the Americans, conceded. But the Americans were given an indirect kick inside the box; the rocketed shot hit a Canadian player in the shoulder, and the ref awarded a penalty shot. Abby Wambach buried the kick for the Americans, tying the game. 

Afterwards, the Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod said "“We feel like we got robbed in this game.” Team captain Christine Sinclair -- one of the greatest players in the world, who scored all three goals for Canada in the game,  was more blunt. “We feel like it was taken from us,” she said.  “We feel cheated.”

Of course it was a bad call, but it did not hand the Americans the victory. Keep in mind a few things.

First, the Canadians had the lead twice before that in the game, and lost it both times. That is, they were not able to maintain the aggression needed to keep the more talented Americans off-balance. As any competitive athlete knows, sealing the deal is the most difficult thing to do. Why? Because it is about continuing to execute when the pressure is on, when there is more at stake. As my old volleyball coach used to berate us: "When you've got them by the nuts, you have to squeeze."  

Second, anyone watching the Canada-US game with a strategist's eye would have noticed something fairly obvious, which is that the Canadians were having a hard time all game with American attacks down the (American) right side. In particular, the American midfielder Megan Rapinoe caused endless chaos for the Canadian left backs, creating chance after chance. The Canadian defenders had a difficult time getting goalside of the Americans and closing down the attacks to the left of their goal. 

Mostly it was because Rapinoe is a beast of a player. But could the decision by the Canadians to play a 4-3-2-1 shape have had anything to do with it? Did the coaches fail to adjust their formation or players accordingly? Did the players fail to adapt their tactics to the chaos Rapinoe was causing? 

It's hard to say. But a few things are clear. First, that it was not remotely surprising that the winning goal for the Americans came from a beautiful cross from -- you guessed it -- their right wing, after a Canadian defender made a poor tactical decision, and left her post to chase down a ball wide to her left. She was way too late, the cross came back in and found Alex Morgan's head, and that was it. 

This is not to take anything away from the Canadians. They played a magnificent game -- it was one of the greatest moments of this Olympics, and one of the greatest nights for Christine Sinclair. The refereeing was bad, but the Canadians didn't play perfectly either.(The first American goal in particular was brutal -- a short-side defensive breakdown that let Rapinoe score directly off a corner kick.)

If they are going to have a hope of winning the bronze medal on Thursday against France, they need to stop blaming the ref for their loss against the USA, and think about adjusting their strategy on defense.

In short, they need to focus on execution going forward, not excuses for what is past. That is the path to glory and greatness.