The Cup Running Over

July 15, 2011 1:06 PM

Brawn Over Brains and the Myth of 'Never Say Die'

by Harrison Stark

Again and again, armchair pundits and professionals alike have praised the US women's team's character for rallying against Brazil and France. "That's a perfect example of what this country is about. What the history of this team has always meant," Abby Wambach said after Brazil match, "Never give up." ESPN's Paul Carr echoed the sentiment that their comeback represented uniquely American attributes: "How fascinating that the American spirit can be expressed so clearly in what is often decried as the most un-American of sports," he tweeted after the game. Wambach, after the France match, went on television to again praise the US team's desire: "France are a good side," she said, "but it came down to who wanted it more." Identical language is all over SportsCenter:  "You're gonna hear the phrase 'will to win' a lot in the next few days," predicted one analyst. 

I believe him.

Character, spirit, desire --the discussion about the US women's team has continually revered the team's mental ability as its greatest strength -- an expression of the American spirit though determination, hard work, and a "never say die attitude." But the truth is that the women's team has been successful not primarily because of its mental characteristics but because of the opposite -- its physical supremacy.

The women's team - like the men's - is superbly conditioned. That's in part because of the physical intensity of the WPS league in which the majority of the team plays, in part because of the excellent physical preparation employed by the national team, as well as because Title IX has our women playing sports regularly a lot more and a lot longer than most of their counterparts in the rest of the world. Sports medicine is a field that was pioneered in the US and as a result, our national athletes have frequently been in better shape than their opponents. The women's team is no exception.

It is no coincidence the US women's team frequently plays its best football at the end of matches, especially in the last 15 minutes. As opponents tire towards the end of games, it often appears that the US digs deep to push their play to the next level. The truth is at this level both teams want to win a lot; the Americans are simply in better shape, outlasting the opposition. Against France, we were firmly on the back foot for the majority of the second half, only to see the French collapse for the final portion of the game.

USA Brazil AP.jpg
The US'  frequent late comebacks are primarily a result of physical conditioning, not mental fortitude (Courtesy AP)

Similarly, the US' last-gasp equalizer against Brazil was not simply a result of undying determination, but superb conditioning - - that the US was able to continue to press while being a player down, and that Rapinoe was able to hit such a perfect cross-field pass in the 120th

minute was astounding. But it was primarily a physical achievement, not a mental one.

This is not to belittle the achievements of the women's team, or to out their play as somehow "less American". In fact, supreme physical conditioning is an American attribute, just as much if not more than the mythic 'never-say-die-attitude.' It is interesting but typical how the pundits have declared this team's success as a victory of brain over brawn.  In fact, it's just the opposite.

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