Greatness is Conditional
The common thread between Matthews and Nadal
There are few humans I like to converse with more than Darryl Belfry.
Listen to his recent appearance on The Hockey PDOCast, if you haven’t already.
The podcast episode above is 61 minutes long, but the snippet that left the biggest impact on me was when host Dimitri Filipovic asked Darryl “what’s the toughest thing to do in today’s NHL?”
Darryl’s answer: To score a goal after having the puck for two seconds or more.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that scoring goals would be the toughest things to do at the highest level of hockey. After all, that’s why guys who can do it with consistency (i.e. score on 10% or more of their shots on net) tend to get paid seven or even eight figures per season.
But it’s the second part (“two seconds or more”) that really grabbed my attention.
Having worked with Darryl in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, I know that most everything he does is based on data. Public work by Thibaud Chatel, Brendan Kumagai, Mik Nahabedian, and Tyrel Stokes arrive at a similar conclusion:
Whenever a player takes control of the puck, opposing players close very quickly to take away offensive options.
Tick, tock, turnover.
This is why Darryl cares about offensive movement, whether on or off the puck. The focus is not on aesthetics, but rather on the cold, hard fact that offensive advantages are either created quickly, or not at all.
In sum, it’s all about improving the condition of the puck.
Newsletter readers know this already, but there’s more.
I’m a longtime tennis player.
Of course, I’m watching the Australian Open.
Midway through Rafael Nadal’s routine first-round win over Marcos Giron, a stat flashes on the screen:
After hitting a serve, Nadal’s next shot is a forehand 92% of the time.
While a flabby club-level lefty only hits forehands when the ball comes to D or C in the image above, Nadal takes every opportunity to backpedal and to use his forehand in B and even A.
No player in the history of the game works as hard as the Spaniard to set up his better ground stroke. Unlike an elegant high OZ cycle in hockey, however, Nadal’s signature offensive move is workmanlike, even brutal.
As tennis analyst and coach Craig O’Shannessy concludes, most of Nadal’s greatness lies simply in his ability to fire his biggest weapon more often.
When Nadal is forced to start a rally with a backhand, he can be exploited by the likes of Novak Djokovic. But when he’s able to step around early and club a forehand, his winning percentage is over 60% on any surface - an absurdly dominant rate.
No player in the history of tennis does so much to improve the condition of his court.
As Darryl and Rafa show, greatness is conditional.
Sometimes the conditions are out of your control.
Where you’re born.
Who your parents are.
What neighbourhood you grow up in.
What resources you have access to as a kid.
But the beautiful part of sports is, if you can get into the game, you suddenly have a much better ability to control the conditions.
Your mom might be too poor to drive you to practice, but once you’re there nothing’s stopping you from joining the rush or attacking the middle. Your coach may object, but he’s not the law or the bank.
If you’re good enough, long enough, then you’ll break through.
Therein lies the life-changing power of sports.
Going back to Darryl’s two-second rule, consider Auston Matthews, a player who’s worked with DB since he was a junior.
Rewatch all of his goals from the 2020-21 season.
How many times does he score after holding the puck for more than two seconds?
Remember, greatness is conditional.
Bend the conditions in your favour, improve them for others, and you won’t go wrong.