Tuesday, March 24, 2015

No Strong Enough Microscope: Sport, Data, and Delusion

Keeping the ball about a foot off the ground and aiming for a spot about a foot inside the post, kick the ball, after a relatively short run-up, as hard as you can ,to your natural side. You will score on pretty much every penalty shot in soccer you take. Practice the technique at the end of training sessions. If you are in the position to take a lot of penalty kicks, thus, allowing opponents to discover your strategy, randomly select a kick on which to aim for your non-natural side. If you kicking technique is good (as most professional soccer player's kicking techniques are) you'll score 90% of the time and be the world's greatest from the spot.

Sports are rich in statistics because, unlike, say, the weather or the economy, they are, essentially, closed systems. You have stable units of data to work with. And within sports, the penalty kick in soccer might be the cleanest, most closed, most noise-free data set available. A single shooter. A single goal keeper. A spot twelve yards from the goal line. One shot with three possibilities; goal, save, or miss. And with modern video technology pretty much every aspect of the process can be recorded and analyzed.

So what does “Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick,” conclude about “the perfect penalty kick?” Given all the data, all the interviews, all the experts, all the history, not much. At best, a few guidelines about the psychology, the need to actually practice penalty shots, and some suggestions for how players and coaches should manage themselves during the time between when the whistle is blown and when the shot is actually taken. The introductory statement is the practical that I gleaned from Lyttleton's more psychological examination.

But what happens when we begin to examine my perfect technique? How long should the run up be? How long should you take to set the ball and arrange yourself for the shot? Where on the twelve-yard mark do you actually place the ball? Where do you look and when do you look there? Can you give your target away with your eyes? What about the state of the turf? And this is before we get into the actual physical technique. Where do you place your plant foot and how do you angle it? Where should the point of contact on the ball be? What are the mechanics of that “kick it as hard as you can?” And, of course, with all the craziness going on around you, all the pressure, all the expectations, how do you ensure that you replicate the simple technique in important moments?

Sports are fractals. The closer you look, even within the closed systems of sports, the more you see. And no microscope is strong enough to distinguish (in the moment of course) the different lengths of grass, the different textures of ice, the millimeters distinguishing a successful point of contact, a successful angle of stick, a successful catch. It's not that data is unable to remove “bad bounces” from sport and more that it's impossible to ever be sure what is and what is not a “bad bounce.” Even with our super slow-motion, our high definition television, our ability to gather hard statistics, the base of sport, just like everything else, is mystery.

But, let's look at that opening statement again. Is there really that much mystery to it? I mean, people know how to kick a soccer ball. Especially professional soccer players. In terms of psychology, most of the psychology-based errors come from the decision making process, so the above technique would remove pretty much the entire source of psychology-based errors. Technique fails for professionals when they execute with doubt, and the above technique removes doubt. And the importance of routine is pretty much sports orthodoxy anyway. I'm not bringing this up because I think I'm some soccer genius, but to note, that despite having all the data, despite having the above conclusion so obviously before him, Lyttleton doesn't make it. In fact, he doesn't make any practical conclusion at all. It's almost as though he wants the penalty kick to be an “art” despite all the data pointing to the fact that, at least at the professional level, it's a “craft.”

As with fractals, once you see the pattern in sport, you see the pattern in sport, and, there's a point at which, that pattern becomes boring and powerless. I've touched on this before (here, in fact), but a big part of how we enjoy sports (all sports) is what we choose not to see. We ignore luck. We ignore statistics. We imagine phenomena like “momentum” and “wanting it more.” We build huge structures of rational information and then use those structures to be utterly and completely irrational. To put this another way, somehow our relationship with sports manages to be equal parts data and delusion.

Lyttleton's book is a fascinating micro-history, filled with interesting characters, anecdotes, and enough data to feel scientific, but, ultimately, I think Lyttleton is less interested in discovering an actual “perfect penalty kick” and more interested in the general phenomenon of the penalty kick. Which is just fine by me. Lyttleton succeeds at his project even if he doesn't necessarily succeed at his sub-title. (And there's a chance the subtitle was not even Lyttleton's idea.) However, if you're a player for England's national team looking to break your shoot-out curse, keep Twelve Yards for the off-season, and just read this post's opening paragraph.

Pre-order Twelve Yards.
 (Wondering why you pre-order a book coming out in June? Well, here's some publishing industry wonkiness.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ordering An Exaggerated Murder

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