Some thoughts about Sports Analytics and if Art is reducible to Science

Been awhile since I’ve blogged so here I go:

In the past decade or so there has been an outpouring of sport analytic data. With the “Big Data” wave and films like Moneyball, sports have begun to use advance statistics. Things such as player tracking and efficiency rating. Teams are beginning to rely more and more on math and analytics to win games instead of “heart” or “determination”. Of course, “heart” and “determination” are still important and still are an important factor in making teams work. Heart is the art, and the analytics is the science. Knowing what to do is different from having the ability or wanting to do it.

But is motivating players to give them this “heart” or determination” really an art? We have studies and focus groups showing the proper way to motivate. We can do analysis of what motivating techniques provide the best results. Same thing with mental states. What happens when we have studies showing what the coach should say in a time-out for the best results? What happens if art is reduced to psychology?

Let’s take the coach time-out example. This example will be riddled with holes and ridiculous simplifications, but the point of it is just to convey an idea so please be patient (If you want to claim this as a sort of Intuition-pumping, and that using simplistic and impossible hypothetical examples is the exact problem with theoretical analysis, well suck it up for now. That’s a topic for a different blog post)  Let’s say that a research organization has done a study that shows that over-all if a coach says themes A, B, and C during time-outs in the last 5 minutes then the team will have an over-all increase in wins.

Do coaches start doing this? Or would they argue that “this wouldn’t work for their team” or that “this only produces over-all wins and doesn’t take into importance the context.” Also what happens when every coach starts doing this? Wouldn’t that lessen the affect? Also as years go by and players mindset change, wouldn’t this technique work less and less?

Sports analytics can answer all these questions. They can adjust the measure to take into account the context and they can do monthly new studies to determine changing mindsets. If a motivation theory becomes widely adopted then they due new studies and find out new ones. Everyone can always be acting on the best analytic data available.

Ok. At this point I don’t know where I am going with this blog. I was going to say that everyone acting on the best analytic data available may cause teams to be very similar. But analytic data will become a desired thing and so it probably won’t be freely open and teams will have their own measures and protect them secretly while trying to steal others. So Sports League turns into Wall Street? Will you have research teams working for each team collecting data and trading it and stealing it? That’s interesting. But really far fetched.

All my speculation so far has been building around the idea of a dystopian world where every action is calculated and based on studies instead of random or heartfelt. I’ll start writing the young adult novel now… Of course such a world is ridiculous, because such a world always favours the innovators. The coach that can discover the current motivation phrase before everyone else does will win. And what fuels innovation or big shifts? Creativity. Being able to see or do the right thing before there is tangible data to prove it is the right thing.

I believe I just went in a nice circle. I distinguished between art and science. That which is done without objective knowledge and that which is done with it. I then went on to claim that science might swallow art. That as it fills in more and more of the realm we thought belong to art – When writing a best-seller can be mathematically calculated based on current trends without needing the genius of a great author- what happens to art? What happens when creativity becomes a science? Well what happens is the science needs creativity in order to get rid of creativity. Ugh.

At -what you and I both hope- is the end of this blog, I have reached a very simple idea. In the process I hope I made you think about some bigger ones.


About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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