Really good New Yorker story from James Surowiecki on the “performance revolution” and how it’s gone from sports to the rest of the world. I particularly liked the way he connected sports to business:
A key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same time. Look at what happened in American manufacturing, a transformation that also has its origins in the nineteen-seventies. At the time, big American companies were in woeful shape. In the decades after the Second World War, they had faced almost no foreign competition, and typically had only a few domestic rivals. That made them enormously profitable but complacent about quality and productivity. The result was that, by the early nineteen-seventies, American productivity growth was stalling, while American products were often defect-ridden and unreliable. One study, in 1969, found that a third of the people who bought a new American car judged it to be in unsatisfactory condition when it was delivered.
Reminded me a bit of a great piece I read a few weeks ago on the “responsive enterprise” and how software changes this conversation around performance and improvement. A little snippet from that:
Software promotes agility by dramatically speeding up the feedback loop between output and input. In the past, companies could measure their performance every quarter, making it difficult to adjust quickly to changes in the environment. In contrast, Facebook ships new versions of its product multiple times a day, with enhancements and fixes determined by realtime feedback from actual use of the Web site. Companies such as Amazon and Booking.com continuously perform A/B testing or multi-armed bandit experiments on users to optimize purchase rates on their Web sites.
A few weeks ago my friend Nick sent me a link to this epic 12-part series on Dennis Rodman’s basketball prowess. While Rodman has been in the news for some interesting reasons lately, prior to that he was a basketball player unlike any we’ve ever seen and this series sets out to prove the point. I was especially part of part 2(a)(i) on “Player Valuation and Conventional Wisdom,” which has a nice explanation on the battle between the eye-test and math-test in sports:
Yet chances are he remains skeptical of the crazy-talk he hears from the so-called “statistical experts” — and there is truth to this skepticism: a typical “fan” model is extremely flexible, takes many more variables from much more diverse data into account, and ultimately employs a very powerful neural network to arrive at its conclusions. Conversely, the “advanced” models are generally rigid, naïve, over-reaching, hubristic, prove much less than their creators believe, and claim even more. Models are to academics like screenplays are to Hollywood waiters: everyone has one, everyone thinks theirs is the best, and most of them are garbage. The broad reliability of “common sense” over time has earned it the benefit of the doubt, despite its high susceptibility to bias and its abundance of easily-provable errors.
I don’t know that I have a lot more to add than what Russell wrote here, but I like the way he described the challenge of describing something that is simultaneously happening the past and present (in this case, describing a soccer replay):
This is normally dismissed as typical footballer ignorance but it’s better understood when you think of a footballer standing infront of a monitor talking you through the goal they’ve just scored. They’re describing something in the past, which also seems to be happening now, which they’ve never seen before. The past and the present are all mushed up – it’s bound to create an odd tense.
I’ve been reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and in one of the footnotes he mentioned that the NBA (and all the other sports leagues) has a contingency plan in the case of a team losing all its players to a horrific accident. I guess it’s not surprising, but it’s kind of crazy to read the rules from this 1992 New York Times article. Here’s how it would work in basketball:
The National Basketball Association has a contingency plan that goes into effect if five or more players on any team “die or are dismembered,” according to Rod Thorn, the league’s operations director. The league would permit only five players on every other club to be protected, insuring that a fairly good player — the sixth best — could be drafted by the club suffering the tragedy. Each of the contributing clubs could lose only one player.
After last year’s NBA playoffs I got really into the NBA. I attribute it to two big things: First, the busier I am at work the more I want to just go home and veg out and the NBA makes it easy with things to watch every night and second, this season (and last year’s playoffs) is just good basketball.
Anyway, there’s a movement in the NBA (and every sports league at this point) about “advanced metrics”. It’s each league’s attempt to apply Moneyball principles to their sport. In basketball a big part of the point of these type of metrics is to answer the question of how much points are really worth. This is because the public gives an outsized amount of attention to guys that score a lot and not to how they actually get their scoring done (in other words, is someone who scores 30 points on 10 of 15 shooting better than someone who scores 40 points on 15 of 35 shooting). (If you’re bored of this now you can drop off, I won’t be offended.)
A site I enjoyed called The NBA Geek put together a nice primer on this question (and the point of advanced metrics generally). The point he makes is that each missed shot has a price and we need to take that into account in the same way we count the made ones. Regardless of the method of counting you use, you’ve got to be able to accept that basic idea. He sums it up like this:
But one thing is clear, to me at least: just because a player has great talent and is clearly capable of creating easy scoring opportunities, this does not make their bad shots “valuable”. The simple fact is, Carmelo Anthony would be a more productive player if he simply stopped taking shit shots; so would Russell Westbrook. The idea that the bad shots that these players take create value for their team has no basis in evidence at all (nor is there any evidence that these players are reluctant shooters who are shooting so much because “someone has to take the shots”). You can choose to disagree with me on that, but it’s rather like disagreeing with me about evolution and creationism — as far as I’m concerned, prove it or move it.
Brian Phillips (of Football Manager fame) has a good piece over at Grantland about the Williams sisters’ impact on tennis. I thought this observation about their matches against each other was especially interesting:
There was another aspect to my Venus love, however: the family-psychology trap. When the sisters started playing each other in majors — they met in four straight Grand Slam finals between 2002 and 2003, the only time two women have done that in the Open Era — the Williamses gave a lot of weirdly unselfconscious interviews in which they talked openly about how Serena, as the youngest, had always been the princess of the family, and how, growing up, it had always been Venus’s job to make sure Serena was OK. (Venus is 15 months older.) The now-adult Williamses all somehow seemed to broadcast that not only was this still the case, it was, moreover, totally aboveboard and natural. And you could see it, I thought, in the awkward, occasionally unnerving matches the sisters played against each other. Serena spent those matches looking like she uncomplicatedly wanted to win. Venus spent them looking trapped in some excruciating psycho-emotional cross-current between wanting to win and wanting Serena to be happy. When Serena won, she would celebrate. When Venus won, she would kind of half-celebrate and half-console Serena. This middle-child plight of Venus’s, so ingrained that she wasn’t even fully aware of it, struck me as wickedly unjust. I wanted her to break out of the trap, crush Serena 6-1 6-2, and smile so wide the seasons changed.
Bill Barnwell weighs in on the finals and the debate around “clutch” free throw shooting:
The natural argument against that math is that the Finals represent a clutch situation where regular-season statistics don’t apply. Well, that’s a testable hypothesis! As it turns out, the Finals don’t really represent some magic world where free throws become more difficult. From 1986 through 2011, the teams that made the NBA Finals shot 74.9 percent from the stripe during the regular season, and then shot 73.8 percent on free throws during the Finals themselves. If you can convince yourself that one free throw in a hundred represents teams wilting under pressure, go nuts.
Was poking around my Kindle highlights (looking to see if there was a way to export them easily) and I ran across a quote from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s biography “I Am Zlatan”. I was going to post that and then I thought, maybe I should just post lots of sports stuff in one big post, so that’s what I’m doing. No rhyme or reason here, just some interesting sports-related stuff I’ve run into lately.
First the quote from Zlatan on a player’s relationship with their team:
The management owned my flesh and bones, in a sense. A footballer at my level is a bit like an orange. The club squeezes it until there’s no juice left, and then it’s time to sell the guy on. That might sound harsh, but that’s how it is. It’s part of the game. We’re owned by the club, and we’re not there to improve our health; we’re there to win, and sometimes even the doctors don’t know where they stand. Should they view the players as patients or as products in the team? After all, they’re not working in a general hospital, they’re part of the team. And then you’ve got yourself. You can speak up. You can even scream, this isn’t working. I’m in too much pain. Nobody knows your body better than you yourself.
Everything from Grantland has been amazing lately. I think that’s the best site going on the web right now. It houses my favorite sportswriter, Brian Phillips (if you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend his ~100 part series of his Football Manager escapades), everything else is generally excellent, and I read the funniest thing I’ve read in awhile there recently. Here’s Bill Simmons on Dexter Pittman’s flagrant foul at the end of Miami/Indiana game 5 (here’s the video in case you missed it):
Dexter: “Yeah, that!”
LeBron: “I saw it, thanks for that. You’re probably getting suspended, though.”
Dexter: “Yeah, but he’ll never give you the choke sign again, that’s for sure! I SHOWED HIM!”
LeBron: “You sure did, Darius.”
LeBron: “I mean Dexter.”
Dexter: “If you want, I could try to run him over in the parking lot as he’s walking to the Pacers’ bus.”
LeBron: “No, I think we’re cool.”
Dexter: “You want to grab something to eat?”
LeBron: “I can’t, I made plans.”
Dexter: “Want to play video games sometime?”
LeBron: “I don’t really play video games anymore.”
Dexter: “Well, if you ever want to hang, lemme know.”
LeBron: “Sure thing, Darius.”
In other NBA-related reading, Wages of Wins, which tries to put some science behind the ranking of players, has been excellent throughout the playoffs. Here’s how they explained Lebron’s play in case you were curious:
A superstar gives your team a five point edge being on the court. With this scale in hand let’s point something out. LeBron James has played 10 playoff games so far this season. In 4 of them, he’s put up a PoP of +10!
Lebron is playing twice as good as a superstar in the playoffs. That’s mind boggling. Oh, and before I finish the basketball section, the New Yorker wrote a little about former Knick, Latrell Spreewell.
On to soccer, put this on Tumblr earlier, but Michael Bradley’s goal against Scotland was magical. If you missed the insane last day of Premier League soccer in the UK, I highly recommend reading 200 Percent’s recap.
And since I’m writing about sports, if you’ve never read it, go back and read David Foster Wallace’s “profile” of Roger Federer from 2006. It’s magic.
That’s all, have a good Memorial Day.
This story of NBA player JaVale McGee pretending to have bought a pet platypus (two of them, actually, but I don’t know the plural for platypus) is pretty amazing. The gist is that he was tired of the way the media was treating him, so he Tweeted saying he had “just copped a pet platypus” and then posted a picture forty minutes later of two hands holding a platypus duo (like how I’m avoiding that word?). Grantland explains what happened next:
After alerting the world of his new “pets,” JaVale went on with his evening and following morning, but the MEDIA did not. Stories were written about JaVale, talking about his odd acquisitions that he apparently just copped. Articles by “reporters” and “journalists” claimed that, in classic JaVale fashion, he had made an interesting platypus investment, but the “reporters” and “journalists” who wrote these stories never consulted the platypus buyer in question.
The next day he called them out for not having called or even Googled (it’s the top image result). Good on JaVale McGee.
Here’s the image in question:
The story of Fabrice Muamba from yesterday is hard to imagine. A professional football (the English kind) player had a heart attack during the game. The facts themselves are pretty crazy, but this article does a great job giving the broader context to what happened around the story:
Many said yesterday evening that football becomes irrelevant in such circumstances. This is partially true, but doesn’t tell the complete story of last night. When something such as this happens, the match that is taking place ceases to be of much importance, of course. The game, however, to the extent that “football” exists as an entity in and of itself, certainly doesn’t become irrelevant, and this much was demonstrated by the messages of support and concern that we saw last night. Football frequently seems to exist in a bubble, isolated and insulated from the outside world. When the full horror that real world can occasionally offer came calling last night, though, its humanity shone through. Considering what happened at White Hart Lane last night, it’s a tiny consolation. But a tiny consolation is better than no consolation at all.
Science fiction writer John Scalzi’s thoughtful take on the abuse, and subsequent cover up, at Penn State [via Boing Boing]:
Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. Le Guin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.
At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia — or at very least the illusion of their utopia — was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.
If you’re up for more takes on the whole situation, two of the more interesting things I read come from The Nation, who try to help paint the picture of how Penn State found itself so reliant on football that it could look past what’s probably the worst crime anyone can think of, and ESPN, or more accurately Poynter Institute blogging on ESPN.com, who takes the cable channel to task for it’s misguided coverage. Here’s an excerpt:
By Tuesday, we expected ESPN to find its footing, but that didn’t happen. When Penn State canceled a scheduled news conference that morning, that left “SportsCenter” with a reporter outside the stadium with nothing to report. Then in the 11 a.m. hour “SportsCenter” brought in Matt Millen, who played for Paterno and now works as an ESPN analyst, for an interview with anchor Chris McKendry.
Neither seemed prepared. McKendry’s questions were indirect and non-specific. And Millen himself was understandably still working through the implications of charges. He started by defending Paterno’s job and cautioning folks to withhold judgment of the legendary coach. Pressed by McKendry, Millen meandered, eventually choking up and acknowledging that if the charges are true, this is a massive moral failure.
Football manager is an interesting position. In Europe the job wraps up what is two positions in the United States: Coach and GM. The big difference between a manager of a european football club and the coach of a US football team is final say over personnel decisions. In the US a coach has a say, sure, but it’s the GM who is really making the decision. Obviously that makes the European job much different, more strategic and, probably, harder.
Which makes it all the more impressive that Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has been at the helm of one of the world’s most successful sports franchises for 25 years. In the US, the average tenure of a coach in one of the four major sports is right around 3 seasons and althought I’m having trouble tracking down good numbers for European football at the moment I have no reason to believe it’s any longer (especially with the addition of relegation, which is one of the more brilliant things in sports).
Anyway, here’s how the article explains Ferguson’s success:
Shuffling his backroom pack has given Ferguson a fresh pair of eyes to see United through and also prevented players, in particular the longer-serving ones, from going stale on the training ground. New ideas, combined with players willing to adapt to them, are essential for the top clubs. Manchester United have not played in the same style for these 25 years; they have bought new players to adapt to new systems, sometimes to pull further away from their counterparts and sometimes to narrow a gap. This season’s style is different again and, in terms of their pressing game, has parallels with the way Barcelona try to win the ball back.
One of the things that always strikes me about NFL coaches (I know the NFL better than any of the other sports leagues) is that they always bring a system with them. In the case of the Chicago Bears and Lovie Smith it’s the cover-2 defense. There are those coaches that bring offensive systems as well, but seldom do you hear about a coach who is adapting their system to the talent on the roster. It sounds like this is exactly what Ferguson has done and, as a result, has helped him keep his gig (I’m sure lots of football fans would argue extraordinary amounts of money to spend on players had something to do with it as well … but Joe Torre still got fired).