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Could Kobe Bryant Win the Tour de France?

Maybe if he mellowed out.
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Bryant in Shanghai, China, on July 21, 2011. (PHOTO: MICHAEL WA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Bryant in Shanghai, China, on July 21, 2011. (PHOTO: MICHAEL WA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Kobe Bryant points and clicks and the sports world goes apoplectic. The Laker for Life (so far), known as much for insulting his own teammates as for making shots, got some off-season press for himself this week by loudly unfollowing ex-teammate Dwight Howard on Twitter, after Howard quit Bryant's team for rival Houston. This apparently passes for drama in basketball now. Remember when NBA divas used to be more funny with their theatrics, and less dire?

Is Kobe smart to keep betting on his famous arrogance over a more Tim Duncan (or Lionel Messi)-esque humility?

Workplace psychology studies say no. About this time last year, organizational psychologist Stanley Silverman of the University of Akron presented a paper on what he called the Workplace Arrogance Scale. Silverman claimed to have concocted a way to calculate how much of an ass a person was being to office colleagues, particularly subordinates. Then Silverman and his co-authors looked at the effects of arrogance on performance.

Performance dropped the more arrogant the boss was. In a release on the paper's publication, he called arrogance "less a personality trait than a series of behaviors, which can be addressed through coaching if the arrogant boss is willing to change."

But what about sports? Curiously, sports psychology is fairly thin on research analyzing the influence of a player's self-regard on his or her odds of reaching a championship. Self confidence, the flip side of arrogance, is a common trait taught in sports psychology, however. And the line between the two, which has been widely studied, still isn't clear. Certainly lots of people with swelled heads have won gold medals. Start with Kobe: jerk that he seems intent to be, he's won his share of rings.

This week, however, a counter example popped up: a little-known endurance athlete, Nairo Quintana.

Quintana, a Colombian bicycle racer, is currently in seventh place in this year's Tour de France, which is underway for the next two weeks. The child of a disabled fruit vendor in the small town of Combita—this story turns Dickensian very fast—Quintana's cycling career began when his family bought him a bicycle to go to school. School was 10 miles away. Over an Andean mountain pass.

One day, the diminutive rider (he's 5'5" and 126 pounds, according to his Tour de France bio) decided to see if he could keep up with some local racers on his daily ride. He told Cycling News:

They started accelerating and accelerating and they couldn’t drop me,” he recalls with just a hint of pride in his quietly spoken voice. “So I got home, I told my dad, and he was very pleased. He bought me a racing bike and then we went on to village races.

It's that "hint of pride in his quietly spoken voice" that has Quintana in the headlines recently. In a sport still recovering from the Lance Armstrong scandal—himself no poster boy for reticence—Europe has fallen in love with Quintana's everyman demeanor. He's stealing headlines from the race leaders, and gets applause to rival the veterans each day, when the tour officials present him with his "best young rider" jersey, which he appears to have locked down before the race has even hit its midpoint.

It also helps that he's blisteringly fast. Just a few years after his discovery on a school commute, he's spent the last year tearing apart some of the world's best-known racers on some of the world's steepest, gnarliest mountain roads.

But it's his humility that you read about daily here in Europe. To get an idea of this guy's manner, compared to the usual pro athlete's bluster, here he is giving a rare interview two weeks ago.

And yet. So he's a great person. And a terrific story. But, unlike Bryant, Quintana hasn't won anything major yet, despite his talent. (He's won many less prestigious races.) After a particularly strong showing early in this year's Tour, some commentaries suggest Quintana, were he less respectful of his coach's orders, could be faster than his team captain—the rider the team helps reach the podium. Would more of a Bryant-like chip on his shoulder have put Quintana in the mix for this year's Tour de France?

It's an under-studied question, despite the massive interest in sports psychology. Certainly his reticent character, his lack of the swagger Bryant has always put to good competitive use, doesn't imply a lack of confidence. He's racing in the Tour de France, one of the world's most prestigious sporting events.

Also one of its most demanding. Basketball is hotly competitive, and physical, but cycling fast up mountains is more accurately called cruel. To win, Quintana attaches himself to his rival's wheel and matches his pace. As the road steepens, he slowly, inexorably, increases the pace, until his opponent feels like his legs are made of flaming straw and his lungs seem to have stopped working. Until he's essentially suffocating. Last week, Quintana did this while leading the 200-rider field in the race up a steep Pyrenean mountain. On the fifth of five climbs, more than 100 miles into the race, in mid-summer, his opponents looking like they were about to pass out from either lack of oxygen or muscle pain, Quintana looked to his team captain, the veteran Alejandro Valverde, and with Valverde's assent pushed the pedals just fractions of a percentage faster. A dozen world-class athletes surrounding him all seemed to swallow their tongues. A few wobbled slightly, and nearly fell over. Quintana danced a few yards forward, and no one followed. Then he eased a few yards back. Everyone looked relieved. Then he danced back out in front. He was taunting everyone, burning their legs to cinders on Valverde's behalf. Torture is only slightly too strong a term for it, and that only because the other riders, in theory, could have always just stopped riding. It was like watching Game of Thrones.

Self-confident? Certainly. But arrogant? Unclear.

So we have a question worth study. Does an arrogant team member cost you wins, the way an arrogant boss, per the University of Akron findings, costs you profits? Should coaches teach kids to be more like Kobe, or more like Quintana?

In terms of character, it's no contest. A game of H.O.R.S.E. with Bryant sounds stressful; a lazy Sunday ride in the park with Quintana sounds inviting.

But if the goal is victory? Quintana isn't going to win the title he's competing for this year. Kobe didn't either, though.