It starts with randomness. When you start watching a sport for the first time, all you see is randomness. Everything seems chaotic. In hockey, the puck bounces here, then there. A pass tips off one player’s stick, another picks it up, and…GOAL! In soccer, a corner kick comes in, glances off one player’s head onto another’s foot, whose shot is saved by the keeper, who spills it to an attacking player and…GOAL! In football, the ball is snapped, the line of scrimmage is a tangle of bodies, one player emerges with the ball and…TOUCHDOWN! When you’re new to a sport, these events often seem to come out of nowhere. Everything seems like an incredible fluke. The play that led to the goal could have broken down in any number of ways or it formed though a series of what looked like random events.
With time, you begin to notice patterns. Some players or teams seem to find success more often. Plays that looked random at first now seem to have purpose behind them. The corner kick didn’t glance off the player’s head; he deliberately flicked it on. As we get to know players and teams, we begin to construct narratives. We see a team come from behind a few times and, when we see them fall behind again, we nod sagely: “They’re just biding their time – they’ll turn it on in the final period.” If one player scores a couple of game-winning goals: “He’s a clutch performer.”
This is reinforced by what we read about the sport and what we hear on TV and radio. We want to know the story behind what we see. We want to make sense of it. We see a rookie player; he impresses us. After he becomes a star, it seems preordained somehow. We knew it. “I remember when I saw his first NHL game – you could see then that he was gonna be a star.” A team is consistently successful; we need to know why. What does this team have that others don’t? If it’s high-end skill players, that’s the reason. If it doesn’t seem to have enough skill players to explain its success, then it has to be the coaching system, or the presence of “character” players, or something.
Beyond making sense of things, we also seem to need to feel that these things fit into a larger picture, a narrative. And many who write or comment on sports are happy to oblige. As an illustration of what I mean, read almost anything written by the Globe & Mail’s Cathal Kelly. For example, before the recently-completed US Open tennis tournament, Kelly wrote this about Eugenie Bouchard:
“Though we’ve seen too little of her to know for sure, Bouchard is shaping up as that very specialized athletic beast – a form player.
This genus thrives in professional team sports, where they can hide for long stretches when things aren’t going so well. Usually in the regular season. They emerge into the open when it matters, in the playoffs. A lot of great careers have been made out of very few great performances this way.
However, it’s hard to think of anyone who manages this sort of thing in an individual sport such as tennis. Here, consistency is key. You build into a big win.
Trainers and sports psychologists call it peaking. Somehow, Bouchard has turned this theory on its head. In her world, she bombs out in a bunch of tournaments she should dominate, using those failures as inspiration for the ones that should be difficult.
There’s no explaining it, because it doesn’t make any sense. The majors bring out the best in Bouchard. Everything else bores her.
One day in and you could already see the mental portcullis coming down. The cocky, game-faced Bouchard has returned. Someone underhanded her a beach ball in the post-match Q&A: Who were her Canadian tennis influences?
“I never had any Canadian tennis influences,” Bouchard said. “I looked up to the best.”
Alrighty then. And quickly moving on.
This looks a lot more like the player who has dominated for short stretches when it mattered this year. Some people think summer stock matters. “They paid good money for a ticket,” and all that noise. Bouchard mails it in until she gets to Carnegie Hall. It’s hard to gainsay when it works.”
Does the fact that Bouchard lost in the fourth round to a lower-seeded player change how you view what Kelly wrote? The heat and humidity were extreme and Bouchard was clearly struggling. Maybe that was it. And what if she wins one or more non-major tournaments next year? What then? Is she still a player who “mails it in until she gets to Carnegie”? Time will tell. If events don’t bear out this version of the narrative, you can bet that another will replace it.
Since most of us grew up with this there’s-a-story-behind-everything model of sports coverage, we’re comfortable with it. We’ve left far behind our initial perceptions that all is random and chaotic. Now we see that there’s an underlying story that explains everything. Perhaps sportswriters and broadcasters may disagree on what that story is, but no one doubts it’s there.
I think that’s why the analytics movement in hockey has caused so much controversy. Its focus on objective data and modeling of outcomes has uncovered a number of truths that those who explain sports results to us would prefer to lie hidden. One that had a particularly big impact on me is the role of chance in performance. After years of hearing stories to explain why things that looked like luck in fact aren’t, to be shown objective evidence that chance is a significant factor in performance is mind-blowing. You mean that player didn’t “elevate his game on the big stage” when he scored two goals, including the overtime winner, in the Cup final? He was just lucky? You can see how that leaves the Cathal Kellys (and Jack Todds and Steve Simmonses, etc.) of the world in a tough position. What are they going to write about in such a world?
And now analytics is going mainstream. Not only have a number of the leading analytics thinkers and bloggers been hired by NHL teams, it looks like mainstream hockey coverage will have an increasing analytics focus. It’s going to be really interesting to see if the average fan, so long conditioned to the narrative view of sports coverage, will accept a focus on objective, fact-based coverage that is willing to call a team’s winning streak or a player’s hot streak a pretty-much random event, rather than looking for the “underlying reasons” that “explain” it.
For me, it’s oddly liberating. What it means to me is a freedom to “live in the moment” when I watch sports, without having to wonder what everything means or portends. It’s a way to keep me from getting too high when things go well or too low when they go poorly.
In any event, it’s certainly something to watch with interest as the coming NHL season unfolds.