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The Seattle Storm's "Winning Mentality": What makes the Storm potentially special

It's taken me a while to process the Storm's huge victory over the Phoenix Mercury the other night, because I was initially stuck on exploring what Mercury coach Corey Gaines told me outside the visitor's locker room after the loss.

"We'll probably be back here," Gaines said he told the team after the loss. "This is the team we gotta beat to get to the championship again. They're playing great - they're the best team in the league right now."

Obviously, there is some truth to that: at 8-1, they have the best record in the league, are a full four games ahead of the surprising Tulsa Shock in the West, and have pretty much steamrolled all comers in the last four games (with the exception of an excellent 4th quarter by the Los Angeles Sparks in the Sunset Showdown).

On the other hand, as the players tell us repeatedly, I also know it's too early to make any such grand proclamations. In fact, as you've probably seen repeatedly from media reports, all you have to do to temper your excitement is step into the Storm locker room after the game.

"While we're excited about it, I don't even think we're that happy behind closed doors," said guard Sue Bird, who had her first double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 assists. "But at the same time, it's only 9 games - hopefully we're talking about the same stuff after 20 games."

The problem is that as much as they say things like that, after demolishing the Mercury it's hard not to start wondering and wishing to project just how good this team might be.

I haven't been around long enough to make the assertion strongly, but at the very least we can say Sunday's game was not only by far the best of the Storm's 2010 season, but also among the franchise's best games ever - they hit 97 points and they've only hit 100 twice in history. Points scored is certainly not the only measure of a good game - or even a good one - but it's the way they did it. Perhaps not entirely effortless, but certainly like they are a step ahead - if not above - the competition.

"Anytime the starters don't have to play the entire fourth quarter, it's probably a pretty good game," said Bird. "We were just clicking - everything seemed, everything seemed to go well for us. Whether it was defense: getting steals, forcing turnovers, getting rebounds. On offense, everybody was hitting shots. We were finding the open player, we were making things easy on ourselves. It wasn't effortless by any means, but it was one of these games where everything went right. Sometimes the stars align for you and tonight was one of those nights."

See what I mean? Even when trying to downplay this whole thing, someone drops in something about stars aligning and then your mind wanders to thinking about destiny...championship...confetti at Key Arena...and you're right back to Gaines' statement about the path to the mountaintop going through the Emerald City. But again, that's not the point.

What I've been wondering is whether there's anything at all we can take from this start - that the players haven't already broken down and dismissed - that works well as an indicator of future success. Statistically right now they're off the charts, but the sample size is far too small. Yeah they're blowing teams out, but that seems to happen almost once a night and even the Storm fell victim to the blowout bug. So the question I'm left with is if there is something special about this team, what might it be?

First, I agree with what Camille Little said in an article by Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans.

Storm | Storm slams Phoenix Mercury, 97-74 | Seattle Times Newspaper
"It's early," said Storm forward Camille Little, whose team is 2-0 against Phoenix this season. "We haven't even been to the East Coast yet. This team, we've played a couple of times, and there are teams we haven't played at all. It's one of those things where we can't get ahead of ourselves."

Shortly before the Storm tipped off against the Mercury, the Indiana Fever were putting the final touches on a 89-51 blowout of the Minnesota Lynx, the Sky already blew out the Storm once, and the team has yet to see Atlanta at home or Connecticut, New York, or Tulsa at all. With different matchups and teams apparently able to win on any given night anything could happen.

So given that, we can't even say that they have developed a well tested killer instinct.

"I hope that it is, I can't say that it is though because I don't know if we have tradition of doing that," said coach Brian Agler after the game. "But I do think we've got a very competitive group and I think they're to the point that they're not so much concerned about the score but they're just taking each possession and trying to do the best they can, whether that's offensively or defensively."

Perhaps now we're getting somewhere - maybe it sounds like those UConn players have them striving for perfection? Again, too strong an assertion. But there is a theme there that came up among players - Agler has spoken repeatedly about how focused this team is this year and it's been palpable in the locker room this year even compared to last year.

It might even seem like over the last 4 games they've been in some sort of extended zone.

"Well I think they do a good job of keeping things in perspective," said Agler. "We don't really talk bout the big picture very often - we try to keep things narrowminded and just take things day-by-day or game-by-game."

And of course, when playing in the fortress of Key Arena, it compounds problems for opponents.

"I thought the fans were great, gave us a lot of energy," said Agler. "It gets contagious in here - once we make a couple of plays it just starts rolling and the crowd is a big part of that."

The combination of a narrow focus, letting go of concern with the score, and things just rolling starts to sound like Flow  by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. From Wikipedia (though I'd recommend the book as well):

Flow (psychology) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

That seems to be almost exactly what Cash described after the game.

"I was just so focused that I actually wasn't paying attention to the score," said forward Swin Cash. "I happened to just look up and was like, ‘Wow we're up by a lot.' Like it's kinda shocking because I was in the game and - just like everyone else - we just kept pushing and pushing. So that's a lot of credit to everyone on the team in general."

I bring up Flow partially in jest -- it's predicated on continuous activity in a constrained time frame, not necessarily over the course of multiple games -- but partially to highlight that there is a mindset that has been clearly evident in the locker room and practices this season that is markedly different from last season. But just to not go too far off the psychological deep end - or find our way back to the shallow side of the pool - maybe I can say that the team has is one of the most focused teams I've ever had the pleasure of being around.

"I just think it's a mentality you have to have," said forward Camille Little when asked about playing after coming off a back-to-back. "Before the game I just kept saying, ‘I'm not tired, I'm not tired.' And I didn't want it to be an excuse."

And perhaps that's what we learned most about this team after the Mercury game: no team wants to make excuses, every team claims to be taking it "game-by-game", but the Storm are able to conjure up the something that adds some substance to the clichéd statements that every athlete across sports utters. When Tanisha Wright commented previously that they never want to get too up or too down, perhaps this game stands as an example of what she meant.

"I think having good veterans in our locker room - we have good veterans in our core group, our starting five, and then on our bench," said Cash. "Everyone has that winner's mentality that we can't make excuses, we just have to go out there and play really hard and we'll see where that gets us."

And when a team seems to experience a, let's say, collective flow, with such pre-existing focus they develop the capacity to perform even beyond their own lofty expectations, sometimes even to the surprise of those involved.

"It surprises me," said Agler. "Phoenix was off, they just had a bad shooting night... I guess I'm more surprised at how fresh we looked compared to what I envisioned to playing in the humid environment outside back here."

However, there is also a much, much simpler explanation that Agler didn't let out until the final quote of the night, which - my apologies - I forgot about until I finished getting through all the quotes.

"We're off for the next two days," said Agler. "That was part of the deal on the bus after the game - I said if we win today we'll get an extra day off. They were sort of excited."

You may now forget about debates about destiny and fate, the statistics, the pop psychology, and all that other mumbo jumbo about a winning mentality.

Obviously, Agler has some very basic trade secrets that elude most more sophisticated analysis.