Inconsistent. One of the most loaded words in a sports fan’s lexicon. A word with the power to transform the loss of a star player into “addition by subtraction.” An adjective whose best definition is sometimes merely “you’re consistent if you’re consistent.”
This season so far, the Columbia teams I’ve followed most closely are football and men’s soccer. Both, in different ways, have been inconsistent. For football, in the first two games the defense performed like an Ivy champ while the offense was far from that. But in Saturday’s game, the defense wasn’t so strong. For soccer, one game set pieces are a strength, the next a weakness. One weekend, mistakes pile up, while the next, they take a leave of absence. Even within the confines of a single game, nerves and effort level have varied.
Inconsistent performances are frustrating—not only for fans, coaches, and players, but also, in my experience with this newspaper, for sports writers. Attribute a subpar performance in one facet of a loss to inconsistency and, well, what more is there for me to ask? How is inconsistency fixed? By being consistent. How do you work towards being consistent? You just have to do it. It’s a mental thing. No interesting matchup problem, no tactics to adjust in practice. Put on a pair of Nikes and “just do it.”
As a fan, though, inconsistency is one of my guilty pleasures. (And definitely not a way to rationalize my support of the NHL’s poster boy for inconsistency, Alexander Semin.)
For one, it’s very difficult to play exactly the same way every game. Think about it statistically: It’s rare to have a really, really small standard deviation. Flip a coin over and over again, and sometimes you’ll have long streaks of heads or tails. (I realize team performance in sports is not the same as a simple coin flip, but sometimes the two are scarily similar.)
Even if a player’s effort is the same every night, sometimes his or her timing may be a tenth of a second too fast or too slow, or his or her laces may be a bit too loose, cutting speed slightly. And what we perceive as effort won’t be the same every night. Sometimes you have to play through sniffles. Sometimes it’s cold and you find it harder to move. Sometimes you indulge in some cupcakes. I’m not about to hold players to the unreasonable standard of perfect consistency.
Second, inconsistency can actually be a good thing. Take the Cleveland Browns, one of the NFL’s two winless teams after four weeks, for example. Put them against the defending Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants. A consistent Cleveland team would be, well, consistently inferior compared to New York. Its scores would fall into a narrow range, as would points allowed, with little overlap. An inconsistent Cleveland team, though, while sometimes being absolutely dreadful, would also occasionally put up a very good fight and win every now and then.
Inconsistency is what allows upsets like Montreal over Washington in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs (which have inconsistency built in the form of goalies running hot or cold over seven games.) Inconsistency is how “Who is the best quarterback in the NFL?” and “Who is the best playoff quarterback in the NFL?” rarely have the same answer. Inconsistency is why Columbia men’s basketball could only squeak by conference cellar-dweller Dartmouth, but gave a serious scare to nationally ranked Harvard.
Chances are, in any given year, your favorite team is not the best in its league. It is not the favorite to win the title. Assuming it has to face the actual top team on its route to a championship, it needs some inconsistency to rise above its inferior “true talent” level and, for a few games, play better than the best team. In men’s soccer, Cornell and Brown are both ranked nationally. In men’s basketball, Harvard, Penn, and Princeton should be tough teams to beat. In squash, Ivy teams are so good they can take seven of the top nine national spots.
If Columbia teams were extremely consistent, we’d probably expect them to finish exactly where they “should,” which is probably not in first. It would be unfair to expect both consistency and league-wide dominance. But add a little inconsistency and all that separates the best Lions squads from conference crowns is a couple of good performances at opportune times. And I can realistically hope that happens.
Muneeb Alam is a Columbia College sophomore. He is an associate sports editor for Spectator.