Beware the emotional explanation
03/29/2014 8:12 AM
03/29/2014 8:13 AM
Walk into a big league press box and the first thing you notice is how many people aren’t there. Media members who have no trouble pinpointing the faults of the manager, players or GM may not actually go to the trouble of watching the games they analyze.
The second thing you notice is how many people whoare
there aren’t watching the game. Look around the room and the majority of people are absorbed in their laptops. Some of that is the fault of the reporter staring at his computer (especially if he’s updating his Facebook status) and some of that is the fault of how things are done in sports journalism. If a news organization wants a game story almost immediately after a game ends, the reporter has to write during the game. If the reporter’s writing during the game, the reporter’s not watching the game. And if the news organization insists on their reporter tweeting during the game, that’s another distraction.
The end result is reporters tend to have their heads buried in their laptop until the crowd reacts to some action on the field. If we hear people clapping or booing we all look up at the TVs to see the replay and then try to figure out what just happened. So if what just happened was too subtle for the crowd to register, we’ll probably miss it as well. Even when weare
paying attention the media doesn’t always have the greatest grasp of the X’s and O’s involved.
Here’s an example: as I mentioned before, this winter I’ve been watching a lot of NBA games with my son, Paul. He’s taught me a lot—Paul tries to watch basketball in the same way I try to watch baseball. (By the way, Paul will be filling in for me at times this summer, especially when the book "Throwback" comes out on May 13th. Co-author Jason Kendall and I have to do some marketing events—andthere’s
my plug for the day.)
Anyway—back to basketball.
This winter we watched a couple New York Knicks games and Paul pointed out what the other teams—the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat—were doing. When the Knicks were on defense the other team would set a pick on Carmelo Anthony and if Anthony didn’t fight through the pick, the Knicks would then be forced to "switch" defenders.
Here’s how that worked, step by step:
1.) Dirk Nowitzki or LeBron James would come down the court being defended by Carmelo Anthony.
2.) Someone would set a pick on Anthony, he wouldn’t fight through it and the Knicks would then have to switch defenders.
3.) The guy defending the player setting the pick—Ray Felton—would switch to defending Nowitzki or James, and Anthony would then defend whoever set the pick.
One problem for the Knickerbockers: Ray Felton is a player not nearly as gifted—or tall—as Carmelo Anthony. Both the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat were forcing the Knicks to switch defenders intentionally. They’d get the matchup they wanted; Felton vs. Nowitzki—or in the Heat’s case—Felton vs. James and then go to work.
I would never have spotted this strategy if Paul hadn’t pointed out what was happening. And when we don’t understand what’s happening, it’s easy to fall back on emotional explanations. You find well-paid sports analysts talking about players "not wanting it enough" or "not having a fire in the belly." But the Knicks weren’t struggling because they lacked heart or didn’t have the will to win. The Knicks struggled because the Mavs and Heat used a strategy that was giving them a tactical advantage and the Knicks weren’t adjusting.
If you pay attention and know a sport well enough, you can often find a much more logical explanation for a game’s results—an explanation that doesn’t involve emotion. Of course paying attention is time consuming and learning enough about a sport to be able to rationally dissect a game is difficult. (I’ll struggle with it 162 times this summer.) It’s much easier to explain things in terms of emotion, but when the media starts talking about "momentum" or "desire"—beware.
It probably means we don’t really know what the hell is going on.
Why athletes often give lousy answers
It’s because reporters often ask lousy questions. (I know—I’ve asked a few myself). If reporters ask a cliché question, we shouldn’t be surprised if an athlete gives a cliché answer. Now here’s a good quote from a good writer:
"The majority of what we read and hear about the NBA may be the day-to-day drama—who wins, who loses, who might get traded, who threw whom under the bus—this doesn’t mean that NBA stars don’t adore the game in all its myriad intricacies.
All you have to do is ask one. Not in vague generalities, but speaking his language. Ask LeBron James for the umpteenth time about his impending free agency, or his friendly rivalry with Dwyane Wade, and he will likely say one of the same things he’s said the umpteen other times he’s been asked. But sit down with James and watch film and ask him to dissect a pick-and-roll, or how he draws a weakside defender’s attention, and it’s amazing what happens. He leans forward, he gets excited, he talks quickly. He becomes a teacher, eager to explain. Gone are the marketing catchphrases and one-game-at-a-time clichés, replaced by staccato observations. He becomes like anyone else talking about something he loves; passionate."
—Chris Ballard, The Art of a Beautiful Game
I’ve had the same experience as Ballard; if I ask a bad question—how-do-you-feel, what-does-it-mean type questions—I get a bad response. But ask something meaningful—something to do with real tactics or strategy—and most players are eager to explain. Tomorrow I’m going to write about a strategy that opposing pitchers used against the Royals last season—a strategy I missed until someone pointed it out. The short version will be in the paper, the full version will be here on this site.