Goodman Shaffer: Nature and nurture of dynasties

Women’s college basketball was atop the national news last week as the University of Connecticut surpassed the 100 consecutive win mark, an incredible feat by a modern sports dynasty.

But after that century-mark victory, UConn had to overcome a tough road test to reach 101. With one leader sidelined by injury and another in foul trouble, the highly-touted Huskies squeaked out a three-point win at Tulane, a victory head coach Geno Auriemma himself admitted they probably didn’t deserve.

But that’s the thing about successful teams. They find a way to win, over all obstacles, against all-comers, knowing they’re getting every opponent’s best effort, night in and night out.

We’ve celebrated tremendous sports success in our region as well. Steelers football, Penn State wrestling and women’s volleyball, and a myriad of local high school teams have enjoyed dynastic success, even if their win streaks did not reach triple digits.

But what makes a champion, and especially the kind of champion that enjoys long-term success?

In college basketball, it takes an exceptional recruiting season, mixed with excellent coaching, good health and team chemistry, and in many cases, a little luck. That successful team, with the right combination of talent and intangibles, can parlay a program toward years of success, becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. A great team draws more great recruits, and so on…

In the NFL it’s tougher, with a league that strives for parity through the salary cap and draft structure, making the multi-championship teams all the more impressive.

But scientists also speculate that chemistry impacts success. Neuroscientist John Coates explored “the biology of risk-taking” among traders on Wall Street, concluding that the adage “success breeds success” is accurate. Coates referred to the “winner effect,” observing that from athletes to animals, those who win battles or achieve success trigger body chemicals as well as confidence, which make them more likely to win the next battle or achieve the next milestone as well.

Another study, led by Professor Dave Collins of the Institute of Coaching and Performance at the University of Central Lancashire, revealed that champions share an array of attitude traits, ranging from internal drive to reaction to challenges.

Ultimately, it may be a combination of nature and nurture that makes some people and some teams more successful than others. Certainly good genes and natural talent are important, but what good is skill without a leader who can motivate a group of exceptional talents to work together, through good times and challenging times?

If success were a scientific formula, chemists and mathematicians would be NFL coaches. If it were all about personal motivation, Tony Robbins or Joel Osteen would be leading Olympic teams.

Dynasties, by definition, enjoy a degree of longevity, but may also be a series of incredible circumstances, nature and nurture, like catching lightning in a bottle.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.