Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The desire to stat bust

We start with two bits of news: -- Various news outlets have reported that the St. Louis Rams have hired Josh McDaniels as their new offensive coordinator. McDaniels was fired as the Broncos head coach during the 2010 season and will now oversee the further development of the Rams number one pick QB Sam Bradford, instead of his own first round pick in 2010, Tim Tebow. For all his perceived and/or actual failings as a Head Coach, McDaniels guided and molded the Broncos into a high scoring unit led by QB Kyle Orton. It was the defense that persistently gave the team trouble. The hope is that McDaniels can do the same for St. Louis and the chances are he'll at least take them up one notch from their 2010 showing. -- The Seattle Seahawks have a new Assistant Head Coach and offensive line coach all in one; Tom Cable, the former Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders. Cable has worked previously with famous line coach Alex Gibbs and thus should be able to bring the kind of zone blocking run attack that Pete Carroll was hoping for when he came to Seattle. I like Cable and I wish him all the best in his new role. Of course as a 49ers fan I now have to hope that the defense crashes and burns in spectacular fashion, but there you go. Finally today I have to have a moan. It's not right for me to go more than a few days without a moan, so here we go. Regular readers will know that I'm hardly enamoured with the idea of using statistics to try and break down football, in much the same way as Sabermetrics are used in Baseball. Phrases such as "Win Probability Added" and "Expected Points Added" etc just don't sit well in my vocabulary. There's a mixture of reasons for this, predominantly the fact that after years of study now and plenty of man hours poured into the research, the stats guys seem to have come up with precisely diddly squat when it comes to useful applications to football. The often cited champion of the stats heads, Bill Belichick, has been one of the more active at trying some of the theories espoused by stats heads, and has promptly suffered a series of rather embarrassing gaffs in recent seasons, all of which (naturally) seem to fly under the stats radar. But the biggest problem I've always had is the approach of trying to explain a game that is highly dependent on skill, physical abilities and psychological attitude into a contest of spreadsheets. We're always hearing about how xyz factor should cause certain teams to win more or make certain teams more successful because the numbers add up, and yet we never seem to see the end product of all this speculation, usually because the above factors of skill, physical ability and mental attitude are somehow neglected. The most recent example comes from an article on AdvancedNFL hosted and run by Brian Burke. Mr. Burke could be considered a leader in this field and has been asked to make various contributions to a number of high profile newspapers, magazines and websites. His articles have been cited by such sites as and he's been sought out for information and consultation by no less than the mighty ESPN. In other words he's been bloody successful and yes, I am just a little jealous of his success. But I take serious issue with the statements made in the article linked to above, which I shall highlight for you here, because I know how damn lazy some of you can be. Talking of the Green Bay/Atlanta game; "Well, their luck had to run out sometime. One game proves nothing, even a blow-out like this, but it was hilarious to watch ESPN's Sports Reporters Sunday and see the likes of Lupica and Albom struggle to comprehend such an upset. They threw up all the usual fallacious narrative nonsense: momentum, wanting it more, playing under the big lights. Frankly, I'm not sure what all the excuses were because none of it made sense." Basically what appears to be happening here is that Mr. Burke is laughing in the face of the possibility that psychological issues could somehow have an influence on the game. And while the reporters in question probably aren't adverse to the chance to work on their narrative building skills, probably in the hope that one day it will see them kindly in the future when they sit down to right a biography of some famous player/coach/executive, I also believe there is legitimate merit to what they're saying. Psychology plays a factor in sports. Momentum, wanting it more, playing under the big lights. These may sound like esoteric Eastern Martial Arts terms, but they have a genuine place in football. I can recall some fond (and some less fond) memories of my own experience in various team and individual sports over the years, including the impact that emotions and psychology played in those experiences. I remember in my early twenties when I was playing with a group of friends in a purely amateur 6-a-side soccer tournament. We were doing it primarily for fun and for the exercise, so you can imagine our shell shock when by the end of the first 15 minute half of game 1 we were down by 4. The game ended something like 9-0. It had a depressing effect on morale. We didn't score a single goal until the last game of the season, when we won a penalty which yours truly slotted home. Even though we lost that game, just like all the others, the feeling of elation at having finally scored lifted our team and encouraged us to come back for another season, brimming with sadly misplaced hope. Now, I understand that on the scale of importance our team basically represented a cockroach compared to the Leviathan that is the NFL, but that only serves to convince me more of the importance that emotions and psychology play in the league. If we were down in the dumps mid-way through the season having lost all our games up to that point, imagine how much worse it would be if every single loss was broadcast on national television, with the media hanging over you like a pack of wolves after each game just waiting for one sheep to break away from the flock and with the distinct prospect of a loss of employment should the poor run continue. This is why I believe that things like momentum are at times perfectly valid explanations of what we see on the field. As a fan, how many times have you watched your favorite team go down by two scores and suddenly had that sinking feeling. Now apply that feeling to the players on the field. Think of the range of emotions they're experiencing. Anxiety. Apprehension. Outright fear. Fear of losing the game. Fear of having their pride dented. Fear of being embarrassed. Fear of making another critical error that perhaps sinks the team. Are any of these things conducive to creating the required mental approach to play sports? What about wanting it more? Or to be a little more precise; determination and desire. These are powerful tools for a sportsman or sportswoman. One thing that is fairly common across all sports is that as time passes, competitors who are behind and are about to go into an outright downward spiral have an early tendency to display certain common body language, such as drooping of the head and dragging of the feet during breaks in play. Desire is a trait. We can't really measure it. But we can observe it. We see the players on the field who run that little bit harder, who fight and claw for every ball. It's the difference between a ball carrier who regularly steps out of bounds to avoid a hit versus the player who tends to cut back inside and take on a hit in the search for extra yards. We see it in the way some players chase down ball carriers from behind. We see the difference in a desire to make the tackle just by comparing someone like Ray Lewis to Peyton Manning. As for playing under the big lights? Again, I think that can be classed as a fairly legitimate factor worthy of consideration. There's a hell of a difference between a playoff game where it's a "lose and you go home" situation versus a regular season game where a single loss doesn't necessarily break a season. It's a lot of added pressure to cope with and unless you have experience of handling it, it could become a factor that ultimately effects performance on the field. So anyway, that's me done ranting. Hopefully if Mr. Burke takes the time to read this, then in future he'll give the "usual fallacious narrative nonsense" a little more consideration and credit, instead of trying to break everything down into a solvable equation.


Jim Glass said...

Hi Chris: I followed over here from Brian Burke's site (links in comments actually work!)

Regarding the emotional factors that you believe affect pro game outcomes "performance disrupted by something like anger, or worry, or sadness?" that the sports stat analysts discount, well ... I may be wrong, but I'd be willing to make a small wager that you don't really believe professionals' performance is affected visibly by such things yourself. E.g.:

If a heart or brain surgeon fumbled things and a loved one died, then the surgeon as an excuse said "My wife is suing me for divorce and my kid was just arrested for drugs...." most people would not say, well sure, it was more likely then -- they'd shout "Malpractice!" sue, be right, and win. And the insurance company would assure sure that that surgeon never operated again -- he'd be removed from the pool.

Similarly, if an airplane you are on hits a big storm, I doubt you will think: the pilot must be scared so I understand if he's more likely to fly us into the ground out of fear -- you'll probably be thinking, now is the time I expect him to fly his very professional **** best!

If a lawyer is about to make your case to the judge ... oh, you see the point. Surgeon, pilot, lawyer, before you put your life in their hands, literally, I bet you *don't* ask them "Hey, how's your personal life recently, feeling OK today?"

If not, the reason you don't is you don't really believe their personal feelings affect the quality of their work when your life is in their hands -- professionals do their best all the time, they are selected, trained and desire to do so, and those who fail are removed from the pool.

Thus it is a mistake for us amateurs to identify with the top fraction of 1% of professionals in any field -- they are *very different* than us.

Take Brian Burke. He was a navy pilot flying off carriers. Are these pilots scared? I sure would be! Them, probably some more than others. Do they have real bad days in their personal lives? They are human so they must.

But it doesn't matter. They have to land the plane exactly the same way every time. No exceptions. Typhoon coming, ship rocking, wife just left 'em, child just died .... doesn't matter. Same performance every time.

They volunteer because they think they can, are selected because others think they can, are rigorously trained, repeatedly tested, those who fail tests wash out at every stage, only those who *can* do it remain at the end. And they do it every time.

What's the difference between them and pro athletes -- except that being a pro athlete is a whole lot less dangerous (and emotionally scary -- especially in a shooting war) and pro athletes make a whole lot more money?

I lose my bet if you do always ask your surgeon, pilot, lawyer how his personal life is going before entrusting your vitals to them. (But good luck finding me!)

OK, now: If other very top pros, the top of the top 1%, perform their best all the time, why wouldn't athletic pros? Logic seems to indicate they *do* -- otherwise, just as in all the other cases, they'd be culled out in the bottom 99+%, removed from the pool.

And the evidence backs it up. "Stats" are "facts" -- if emotional situation significantly affected the performance of different players, (via "clutch play", "choking", whatever) it would be visible in their performance records. There have been a zillion studies on this in all pro sports all reaching the same conclusion: no effect visible. Zip.

So logic and facts agree, which is always comforting.

Is there evidence of emotional factors affecting play at *our* level, back in little league, in the weekend softball league, whatever. Sure, tons of it!

But professionals are very different than you and I.

Chris said...

First of all Jim, thank you for taking the time to drop by.

Secondly, you lose your bet because I don't have to ask my Surgeon, Lawyer, Pilot how their vitals are.

You really think a Surgeon who was undergoing some kind of extreme negative emotion would walk into the theatre in the first place? How many surgeons do you know who on hearing of a death in the family would just shake it off and say "it's cool, I'm good to go."

How many Lawyers would walk into the courtroom and tap their client on the shoulder and say "hey, my wife just died, but it's ok, I've got your case nailed."

How many pilots would get on your plane and...

You get the point.

Professionals aren't affected by such wide extremes of the emotional scale becasue they would simply refuse to put themselves in that situation (or at least should refuse to).

Now you're really telling me that every single one of those pro players is ideally suited to handle the circumstances that face them?


So why do we see pro players getting arrested for drugs/weapons/abuse/misconduct charges on a frequent basis. I thought these were the top 1% of perfect individuals?

Why do we see some players get angry after games at their press conferences? Randy Moss has been around for 10 years or so, so why does he have a hissy fit sometimes to the press? What about T.O.? Shouldn't, under your theory, these guys have been eliminated from the process by now?

How do you explain Peyton Manning walking around on the field/sideline, throwing his hands around and getting flustered when his team isn't doing well? This is Peyton Manning, Mr. Number one etc. You're telling me he doesn't have an emotional reaction.

Please think about these things carefully.