16 July 2015

MANOEUVRE WARFARE: PREYING ON WEAKNESS

Daniel Gallan

Elite sport is a cut-throat business. Hard work and effort is commended and admired, but the age of the gentleman amateur is over. Winning at all costs and ensuring success is all that athletes, fans, owners, and sponsors care about. Focussing on one's strengths is one way to do it, but there is another, more ruthless avenue to glory. Preying on your opposition's weaknesses might seem low, but it is a tactic that has proved successful for centuries. Tim Mahon, the High Performance Manager for Shooting Australia, speaks to CONQA Sport about Manoeuvre Warfare, and how this military concept can be related to elite sport.  

At his peak, Mike Tyson was one of the most ruthless and terrifying athletes on the planet. His bravado and aggression brought fear into the hearts of many tough men. His star may have fallen towards the end of his career, but the "Baddest Man on the Planet" will forever be synonymous with intimidation and domination. Image supplied by Action Images/ Jeff J Mitchell.

At his peak, Mike Tyson was one of the most ruthless and terrifying athletes on the planet. His bravado and aggression brought fear into the hearts of many tough men. His star may have fallen towards the end of his career, but the "Baddest Man on the Planet" will forever be synonymous with intimidation and domination. Image supplied by Action Images/ Jeff J Mitchell.

“Iron” Mike Tyson may have retired from professional boxing in 2006 after consecutive losses against Danny Williams and Kevin McBride, but his status as one of the hardest punchers in the sport’s history ensures his name is synonymous with intimidation and raw power. The self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” was ferocious in the ring. At his peak, no man alive could stand up to him. As he reveals in this video, his reputation and the fear it brought often meant he had won the fight before a punch was thrown.

“Most guys were pretty much intimidated. They lost the fight before they even got hit,” says the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. “I knew how to beat these guys psychologically. I walk around the ring but I never take my eyes off my opponent. Once I see a chink in his armour, then boom! One of his eyes made a move then I know I have him. He’ll fight hard for the first two or three rounds, but I already know I broke his spirit.”

Intimidation was a tool that Tyson used as a means of beating his opponent, but intimidation is not limited to physical dominance. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, was notorious for his smack talk and theatrics. Chris Webber, another NBA legend, tells of a time Jordan, while playing in Washington with the Chicago Bulls, walked into the opposition’s locker room to boldly ask, “Who’s going to check me tonight?” This challenge and bravado added to the already held perception that there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.

There is another method to psychologically damage your opponent, one that does not rely on brute strength or verbal manipulation. It’s called manoeuvre warfare, and is a military term that has been used for centuries in combat.

“Manoeuvre warfare is a state of mind bent on shattering the enemy morally and physically by paralysing and confounding him, by avoiding his strengths, by quickly and aggressively exploiting his vulnerabilities, and by striking him in a way that will hurt him the most,” says Tim Mahon, the High Performance Manager at Shooting Australia. In Mahon’s sport, physical contact is not a factor and verbal interaction between shooters is prohibited. That doesn’t mean that “psychological warfare” doesn’t exist.

In layman’s terms, manoeuvre warfare focusses on the opposition’s weakness rather than your own strengths and uses the element of surprise in order to catch the opposition off their guard. It is a high risk, high reward strategy, and because of its decisive and shocking nature, is extremely demoralising should it work.

“The point of manoeuvre warfare is to be the aggressor with mind games as well as a bold strategy,” says Mahon. “It’s not merely about beating them; it’s about crushing them psychologically so that they remember the beating you gave them.” By asserting yourself as the aggressor, the balance of play will almost always mean that your opponent needs to become the defender. The psychological position of being on the back foot can be destabilising and inhibit creative and fluid play.

There are a few ways to do this. Mahon uses former Polish shot putter Władysław Komar’s interesting tactic in the 1972 Olympics as an example. In sports like shot put, most athletes start off with smaller targets and work their way up to their best. Komar bucked the trend and planned to surprise his opposition with an outstanding performance in his first try. The plan worked and Komar took gold with a personal best of 21.18m. Silver medallist George Woods couldn't match the Pole, even though during training he had passed 22m. Because Komar’s strategy was unexpected, it had a direct impact on the performance of his opposition.

Australian trap shooter Michael Diamond blows down his rifle while competing in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Diamond won the gold medal and compatriot Adam Vella won the silver medal.  Image supplied by Action Images/ Kieran Doherty.

Australian trap shooter Michael Diamond blows down his rifle while competing in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Diamond won the gold medal and compatriot Adam Vella won the silver medal.  Image supplied by Action Images/ Kieran Doherty.

Former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch said, “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.” Sport is a cut-throat business where hard work and effort are commended, but winning at the elite level is what matters. Finding the competitive advantage often requires bold strategies. Many athletes and teams might not have realised it, but manoeuvre warfare, and the element of surprise that it brings, has been implemented in sports throughout history. Staying ahead of the field requires a constant shifting of strategy and implementation as the teams that remain stagnant are left behind.

“In manoeuvre warfare, there is only a small window of opportunity where you can be successful,” says Mahon. “Once the opposition have caught on, that element of surprise is no longer applicable.” In cricket, reverse swing bowling is a phenomenon when an older cricket ball swings towards the shinier of the two sides rather than towards the rougher side. When this occurs, the ball either swings away from its initial movement creating an ‘S’ trajectory, or a later, more pronounced swing movement in the same direction. When the Pakistan fast bowlers of the 1990s brought this technique to the international stage, batsmen around the world feared it. This fear crept into the minds of the opposition, and even if the ball didn’t start to reverse, the threat of it doing so was enough for it to be effective. Today, reverse swing bowling is a staple of cricket and the element of surprise is no longer a factor.

The perception of a dominant technique or opponent can have a direct effect on one’s own ability. “One of our shooters is a guy called Michael Diamond,” says Mahon. “He’s a duel gold medallist and one of the best shooters of all time. When Michael rolls up to competition, other shooters have told me that they had already resigned themselves to the fact that he was going to win. They were merely competing for second place. It doesn’t make sense because in our sport it’s just you versus the target, but Michael’s presence meant that others didn’t back themselves to perform at their best.” History is littered with athletes that exuded an aura of dominance such as Michael Schumacher, Serena Williams, and Michael Phelps.

The same happened when Tiger Woods was at his prime. The brash American seemingly won every tournament he competed in during his 683 cumulative weeks as the number one golfer in the world. How many majors and trophies did he win with his presence alone? It’s impossible to say for sure, but the roar of Tiger coming from behind must have had a psychological impact on many golfers. Now that his hold on the sport has dwindled, there has been a more even spread of champions.

There is a risk when attempting something as bold as manoeuvre warfare in sport. “It’s a no guts, no glory approach,” says Mahon. “But if I’m competing I want to be winning. It’s about working backwards from the end goal which is winning. Sport is a very shallow business in that sense.” 

Like a boxer targeting a cut eye, or an opposing manager or owner putting down his opposite number to the press, focussing on an opponent’s psychological or physical weakness might lend itself to the more sinister side of sport. However, in a world that celebrates champions, gaining that extra competitive edge is all that matters.

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