Sports & Necessary

Over at the stats-driven site 538, Nate Silver and team created a live-updating bracket for the NCAA tournament. Moving your cursor over a specific team reveals a calculated percentage chance of their winning the title. As of Saturday morning, Kentucky leads the way with a 37% change of winning the tournament. My pick of Wisconsin stands a 9% chance and local favorite Michigan State led by Tom Izzo is at 1% odds. Silver’s methodology computes team strength based on averaging seven different rankings, accounting for injuries and other missing players, and then calculating the distance of the game from their campus as a kind of ‘home team’ metric. Out of this, each team is given a likelihood of winning games up to a certain amount. As of this writing, Wisconsin has an 88.4% change of winning through round 3 (Round 1 was the play-in game), 63.8% of winning through round 4, 32% of winning through round 5, 14% of winning through round 6, and 9% of winning the championship.

Despite the sophistication of Silver’s analysis, this isn’t the only level of analysis one could take. Consider another angle for a moment…. the shot. In their Sunday game, #1 seeded Wisconsin will play Oregon, an 8 seed. On the year, Wisconsin shot 48.16% over 1864 attempts, an average of 52.97 shots a game. Oregon on the other hand made 966 out of 2084, for a 46.35% over 59.54 shots a game. Of Wisconsin’s made shots, 27.77% were 3s. For Oregon, this number was 26.39%. Oregon’s star is Joseph Young who averages 20.4 ppg, while Frank Kaminsky leads Wisconsin with 18.4. Kaminsky is a 56% shooter overall, and 41% from 3 versus 45% and 36% respectively for Young. Once we know all these details, this lower level of analysis, doesn’t the level of average rating, distance from home, and number of injuries feel like a bit of too abstract? This is not to say that Silver’s analysis is incorrect, its just that phenomena can be observed at different levels, each with their own logic and level of conscious awareness. A choice of one abstraction is a movement away from another.

Even below team averages, I personally find “the shot” interesting, in part because I have a hard time making them. Statisticians interested in the shot often want to know whether one can hit a streak, or whether the hot hand is a cognitive illusion. In exploring the ‘hot handed fallacy’ in his 1991 book How we know what isn’t so, Thomas Gillovich uses a study of NBA players to show that each player’s next shot is statistically independent from his previous. In other words… if Kaminsky makes his first two shots, his likelihood of making his 3rd is still 56%. When viewed prior to a seeming-streak, his chance then of making three in a row is 56% * 56% * 56%, or 17.6%.

But let’s remember that we don’t live at this level of abstraction. As a result, we need to understand how th perception of streaks shapes the psychology and behavior of a given player, and then whether this impacts the following shot. For example, might a player who thinks he is ‘hot’ relax more or instead take riskier lower-percentage shots? Or what about the player who thinks he is cold. Might he start to irrationally over-correct for something that doesn’t need tweaking? One depressing example of this general idea for Chicago Cubs fans is in the 2003 National League Championships. As soon as one unsuspecting fan Steve Bartman arguably interferes with a potential catch in foul territory on the part of Moises Alou… what happens next? Alou freaks, Cubs fans everywhere let out a collective sigh, and the bleachers of Wrigley echo with “here we go again.” Now, statistically, the likelihood of something else crazy happening… say, an error on the part of a near golden glove winning infield… is still unlikely… but the depressing Cubs reality is now a part of 30 for 30 history. When ‘the streak’ gets in one’s head, or when the curse of the goat begins to visit the psychology of the infield, the players can tighten and mistakes can be made. Belief can be self-fulfilling. So let’s again look at the shot. Let’s say Kaminsky starts the Oregon game and misses 4 shots in a row. While a low likelihood of occurrence, (3.74%) the outcome is possible. From the perspective of the streak, the questions is whether there are any psychological outcomes that enter in and change Frank’s likelihood of making that next shot above or below the expected 56%? Maybe Kaminsky starts believing that he just isn’t hitting the midrange two, so he moves further outside for a slightly lower probability of shot. Perhaps he misinterprets random noise (“I experienced a low probability but naturally occuring event” ) with signal (“I am not giving my shot enough strength”), and thus overcorrects and hits his next shot off the back of the rim. In this way, a good player might have to abstract to the statistical level, and trust that he is just experiencing some unlikely but possible event.

If this is all about the likelihood of negative streaks, what about the hot hand? When making a few shots in a row, a great player has to prevent that confidence from building into an irrational ego. In a lot of games, you see the ego getting in the way. A player makes a couple easy midrange shots, and then ‘irrationally’ assumes this will apply to a long-three or a double-teamed two. He starts forcing out of over-confidence. In practice, the only hot streak I potentially buy is that confidence causes one to relax, thus removing systematic barriers to performing at one’s true capability. In other words, maybe Kaminsky is actually a 58% shooter when all barriers are removed, but he averages out to 56% on the season because of specific times when he was forcing it. A hot hand might merely mean trusting the shot and getting to one’s true state of capability (58% over 56%).

In his book of essays Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace pens a wonderful piece called “How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart.” In large part, the essay is about his disappointment with pro-Tennis player Tracy Austin’s autobiography. Expecting deep insights into the nature of the game, Wallace finds abstract generations about what led her to victory. The language he finds is the kind we often hear at the end of a tournament game. “We just wanted it more.” “Ultimately the best team one.” “I just knew it was the shot that I had to take.”

But Wallace moves onto an interesting insight. While this language might be a criticism of these athletes lacking insight, Wallace sees his own inability to operate at that level as the kryptonite to his own game:

Ever try to concentrate on doing something with a crowd of people watching? … worse, with a crowd of spectators maybe all vocally hoping you fail so that their favorite will beat you? In my own comparatively low-level junior matches before audiences that rarely hit three digits, it use to be all I could do to manage my sphincter. I would drive myself crazy: “… but what if I double fault here and go down a break with all these folks watching?… don’t think about it… yeah but except if I’m consciously thinking about it then doesn’t part of me have to think about it in order for me to remember what I’m not supposed to be thinking about? shut up, quit thinking about it and serve the god damn ball… except how can I even be talking to myself about not thinking about it unless I’m still aware of what it is I’m think about not thinking about?” and so on. I’d get divided, paralyzed. As most ungreat athletes do.

The best athletes know how to abstract to different levels, even if they this without conscious awareness. Wallace continues: “How can great athletes shut off the Iago-like voice of the self? Who can they bypass the head and simply and superbly act? Who at the critical moment, can they invoke for themselves a cliche as trite as “one ball at a time” or “Gotta concentrate here” and mean it and then do it? Maybe its because, for top athletes, cliches present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or trueness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that is all there is to it.”

Good coaches know the power of a metaphor. They understand the role of touch in comfort. A good coach can look an athlete in the eyes and subtly move them back to their natural statistical state. They leverage the power of necessary abstraction. Wisconsin is likely to beat Oregon, or so my competitive bracket-playing self wants to believe, but it is the concrete decisions to get to that often matter — the confident moves to step back for three or smart decisions to step forward for the pull-up jumper. This is the finer grain that is molded and modified with a single glance, collapsed with the wrong self-talk, and believed or not believed into helpful submission. When it comes to March Madness, the devil is in the details.

Like what you read? Give Peter Boumgarden a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.