What is most important in your sport?

In 2003 Michael Lewis published a short book detailing the plight of a small major league baseball team called the Oakland A’s and their visionary general manager Billy Beane. In 2011 the book was made into a film and came to international attention. The book is based on the initial work of Bill James, a baseball fanatic who saw the game as an exercise in statistics, the complete opposite to the view of those who worked in baseball. From Bill James’ initial work and the story of the Oakland A’s there has been a explosion in interest in assessing sporting performance from a statistical view point, with a whole new discipline named ‘Data Analytics’ being defined. This new discipline has drawn attention from athletes, coaches and academics alike, with 2 of the latter (Prof. Chris Anderson and Prof. David Sally) publishing ‘The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong’ in 2013. The authors of this book highlight a number of very interesting insights into the game of football, including:

  • Luck – Professor Martin Lames of the Technical University Munich, through examining 2500 goals, has determined that 44.4% of all goals require some degree of luck to occur. This underpins the findings of Eli Ben-Naim, Sydney Redner and Federico Vazquez, who found that from 43000 matches the underdogs won 45.8% of the time, indicating that skill is not the predominant determinant of winning football matches.
  • Weakest link – Traditionally at a lower level, something we are all familiar with, one or two better players may dominate the possession of the ball and therefore significantly influence the game. This idea has infiltrated the thinking of high level professional football and so when a team wants to improve they spend vast sums of money on superstars. This is reinforced by the media and fans who demand a marque signing during the transfer window. However, Professor’s Anderson and Sally have identified that any given player, regardless of the price the club paid for them, has the ball at their feet for no more than 2% of the total match time, therefore the superstars they have bought will have very little impact. Conversely teams should spend their money improving the 2 or 3 worst players, resulting in a much greater improvement of the team as a whole.

Taking these insights into consideration, have you thought about your sport? What could you learn if you looked at it dispassionately and without the benefit of experience? Just food for thought, could you be the next Bill James, Prof. Anderson or Prof. Sally, opening better understanding in a sport that until now have relied upon traditional thinking in an attempt to improve.

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