Mean Streak

by Neil Smith

For pro sports teams, losing streaks often follow winning streaks, just as they do for the economy. What it’ll take to turn things around.
It may be surprising, but in the N.H.L., a long winning streak is often followed by a long losing streak. Take, for example, the 2008 Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings. In late January, the Wings went on a tear, rolling over their opponents with eight consecutive wins. But the Red Wings followed that winning streak with 10 losses in their next 11 games.

When we think about the slump that our country is currently experiencing we have to remember what a roll we were on not so long ago. Confidence was high, and people were taking risks, sometimes foolishly. And this is the main point here, which is that when things are going good in life, you think it’s never going to end. You might start to take your eye off the ball, or the puck, as it were.

This is especially true in team sports where teammates together start to let up on some of the basics that got them all those wins in the first place. They might start to develop bad habits or poor work habits near the end of their winning streak. Sometimes they keep right on winning for a few more games, depending on the strength of their opponents.

But sooner or later, it hits—they lose for the first time in a long time. The players don’t understand how they could lose when everything was going so good. In any case, they shake it off as only being one game. The coaches know they’re going to have to analyze what went wrong by breaking down the game. Eventually they’re going to have to get the players to go back to the basics and pay more attention to the details. (Roger Neilson was a legendary coach that I worked with from 1989 to 1993 who would say he could feel a slump coming by his sense of the team getting sloppy.)

Our economy’s current losing streak began in the last few years, when consumers went on a borrowing binge and got away from good habits of spending within their means. Ratings agencies such as S&P and Moody’s and financial institutions threw prudent risk management out the window in pursuit of huge returns. But everyone was making money and probably thought the good times would never end. Then when real estate investments started to sour and securities began tanking, no one could believe it. People thought it might just be one limited situation or one bank with problems, and now we of course know that was not the case—the economy as a whole was shaken to its foundation.

In the N.H.L., the sooner a coach can get his team to refocus and pay attention to the details of the game plan that got them on the winning streak, the sooner the slump will end. But it usually takes a while, since the bad habits that developed during their winning streak often aren’t easily diagnosed and broken.

When our economy comes out of its slump, it will be because business and government leaders got back to basics and identified and addressed the bad habits and weak vision that got us here in the first place. Only then will we as a nation start winning again. It won’t happen overnight, but it will probably put us back on another long winning streak. After all, last year’s Red Wings wound up following their losing streak in February by winning nine of their next 11 games en route to eventually scoring the Stanley Cup.

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