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Greg Jordan | April 8, 2013

Out of his mind

On momentum, and why statheads and romantics will both be proven wrong someday

An eloquent rebuke to both statheads and romantics alike took place last Friday night when Trey Burke went out of his mind. Of the portrait-worthy three that he nailed to send Michigan’s game against Kansas to overtime -- not just nailed, but nailed in such a way that you could almost see the electrical current running from his hand to the hoop during Michigan’s defeat of Kansas -- the most stunning thing to me was how that electricity carried over into overtime for him and his team. It was the moment of the tournament.

Of course, a behavioral economist or freakanomics devotee will abstract Burke’s thrall, jumble it up with other data, hold the whole collection of data back up to the light, gleaming and clean, and more or less say that Burke’s performance wasn’t really magical but rather a statistical certainty, a data-confirmed inevitability. Burke had notoriously come up short, or left or right, in a series of buzzer scenes over the past few seasons. Burke was due just based on the odds.

And the romantic will take offense, saying such analysis sucks the soul out the games we watch and talk about for days afterward.

But the best sports psychologists -- the guys who admit their lack of data, the guys to whom athletes of all levels are turning to more and more and with sudden openness, and the guys who will hold, a century or so from now, the real answer to astounding athletic performance -- were fantasizing, and chuckling, and lamenting all at once.

They imagined brainwave meters at 10-foot intervals along the court focusing on Burke’s noggin. They envisioned measurable surges in his endorphin and testosterone levels. Immediately alongside them, they pictured neuroendocrinologists interpreting physiological data obtained from sensors attuned to Burke’s glands to measure the high he was obviously on. That was their fantasy.

They were laughing to themselves because they know how flawed stathead data is compared to what their field is slowly becoming.

They were laughing to themselves because they know how flawed stathead data is compared to what their field is slowly becoming.

And they were lamenting their current, albeit temporary condition. With so few ways to measure what they want to measure -- brain waves, hormonal surges, the effect of a recent personal event in Burke’s life on his psyche and physiology -- they knew they would have to continue to cede their inevitably primary role for decades more until they get their scientific act together. But someday they will, and they’ll make predictive statisticians who, despite having latched onto a cottage industry in publishing and the speaker’s circuit, are essentially, at best, Copernican-stage students of what athletes are capable of and why.

One problem with highly intelligent people is their vulnerability to self-certainty. That, coupled with our general tendency to view mathematicians and statisticians as highly intelligent people, leads to an even larger problem for sports fans: the dwindling space for heart and soul, for upsets and breakouts and underdogs, and for old-school, intangible notions like momentum and chemistry. With a statistics-based explanation now tendered at nearly every click of the Internet circuitry, I find myself suddenly enjoying the romanticism of coach-speak.

Take a look at this let’s-make-Roger-Goodell-earn-his-dough play again:

And here is Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s analysis of that play:

"That was the turning point of the game. That was the turning point of the football game there on the 40-yard-line. It was just a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest. It was Bernard Pollard making a great physical tackle — just as good a tackle as you’re ever going to see in football right there. That just probably turned the game around right there."

And here is what a very intelligent man named Tobias Moskowitz, an economist at the University of Chicago and author of the book "Scorecasting," might say to the old romantic Coach Harbaugh:

"There is a much stronger belief in momentum than is warranted by what we see in the data."

That gap -- between coaches and the guys who hang the shingle of behavioral economist on their door at universities across the country -- is one of the most interesting, irritating, and ultimately futile debates in sports today.

As I watch the NCAA Tournament, still for me the most entrancing excuse for television networks in partnership with an "association" or "league" to amass hundreds of millions of dollars, I have this year decided to count the number of times an announcer, coach or player says the word, "momentum." I have a pad on the coffee table, and mark it off in that stick format of counting: I and II and III and IIII. The tally heading into the championship game: 42 times. That includes pregame interviews, halftime interviews, and postgame interviews with coaches and players. I acknowledge something statheads rarely cite: my study is unscientific. I have not accounted for all variables, having not watched all games, having taken bathroom breaks, having grown confused by which channel is broadcasting which game, and once have devoted a whole Sunday evening to prove to my wife that I cherish her company more than college hoops.

I especially love witnessing that near tangible phenomenon called team chemistry.

And I have a bias: I, like you, love underdogs, and I especially love witnessing that near tangible phenomenon called team chemistry as it creates that near tangible phenomenon called momentum, and, good God, what a joy to watch Burke, the Shockers, La Salle and Florida Gulf Coast defy science.

In trying to comprehend not only how a FGC can stun a Georgetown but also how Burke can go out of his mind after having not done so the whole game, we must inevitably turn to a groundbreaking study called, in shorthand, The Hot Hand. The real, and typically concise and unassuming title: "The Hot Hand in Basketball: on the Misperception of Random Sequences." Cheered by scores of the statistically-minded and "Freakanomics" co-author Stephen Dubner alike, the study of course said that there is no such thing as the hot hand, but rather just a random run that in the end makes perfectly logical sense because it fits into the whole sequential logic of predictable results. I’ve come to realize that these guys get you if you simply retort, "Well, what the hell is going on with xxxx." So you have to come back at them with something more than impulsive logic.

From my mathematically-challenged intellectual perspective, I would offer three more substantive retorts.

First, the study and its ilk take a stunning, inspired event, extract it from its immediate moment and line it up alongside other such events, and call it normal in the overall sequence of events. A logical blip.

The problem I see here is a lack of respect for the moment and for the specific athlete. There is magic in the air that science may someday be able to explain away once neuroscience masters those quirky human behaviors that neuron firing cause, but for now it remains momentary, statistic-resistant magic. Witness Trey Burke.

Second, the rage to explain, to reduce the mysterious to pure materialism, often forces behavioral economists to write lines like this:

"This does not attempt to capture all that people might mean by "the hot hand" or "streak shooting." Nevertheless we argue that the common use of these notions implies that players’ performance records should differ from the sequence of heads and tails produced by coin tossing in two essential respects. First, these terms imply that the probability of a hit should be greater following a hit than following a miss. Second, they imply that the number of streaks of successive hits or misses should exceed the number produced by a chance process with a constant hit rate ... "

That rather long-winded comparison of free-throw shooting with coin tossing proceeds to ignore, or perhaps dismiss what we’ll call, in freak-speak, the accumulation of intangibles affecting a free-throw shooter, namely the pretty cheerleader calling his mother names, the tragic death of his father a few years prior, and the whole mix of mundane and grave life events that come to bear on one’s mental state.

There is no room in statistical analysis yet for the professional field that likely will best explain, analyze, and predict athletic performance.

And third, back to the unknown knowns. There is no room in statistical analysis yet for the professional field that likely will best explain, analyze, and predict athletic performance, or any sort of performance, once its practitioners get their act together. Trouble is, they, psychiatrists and psychologists and neuroscientists, are about a century away from getting that act together. For even as science and medicine start to decode our genetic composition and use it to target diseases, even as physiologists learn to train the human body into a state of near-robotics, and even as athletic innovation -- the pistol offense or the Princeton press -- reaches newfangled heights, the keen minds who study the last frontier -- the human mind -- are long, hard years away from understanding how and why athletes, especially underdog athletes, go into spontaneous and stunning states of creative performance.

So, to ease my angst over the aggressive encroachment of the rationalists onto our fields and courts, I did the true American thing and called a shrink. Several of them, in fact. For, in a bit of an ironic development, just as rationalists now turn from biological and social analysis to sports, suddenly athletes and teams are opening up about the value of sports psychology, a field that the rationalists cannot wrap data around. And it seems, from these chats, that the gulf between the doers and those who compile and interpret data from their doings is actually growing wider.

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Dr. Richard Ginsburg, co-director of the Sports Psychology Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, suggests a pattern that I found, in my unscientific study of sports psychologists and freakonomists, to hold: while psychology generally welcomes the devotees of data, data devotees ignore sports psychologists.

"Did these guys ever play sports?" Dr. Ginsburg asks. "The study of data is transforming fields essentially by giving us a better sense of potential outcome. But the problem with absolute devotion to data is that there are simply too many variables to measure, and some variables, like my field, that are still impossible to measure. The influence of confidence levels, even for professional athletes whom I have treated, is to me the most fascinating and frankly, predictive thing to measure, yet it is still impossible to do so. So we are left with this completely anonymous variable that, at times like the NCAA Tournament, seems to be the most important factor in outcome."

Mark Aoyagi, Director of Sports and Performance Psychology at the University of Denver, works with several professional teams and like Dr. Ginsburg, he respects the contributions of the rationalists. But he similarly does not feel the mutual interest from them in his field as he has in theirs.

"Sabremetrics is an example of a real trend in our society that says if you can’t put a number to it or measure it, it doesn’t exist," Dr. Aoyagi said. "In psychology, we are subject to the criticism that we can’t measure much, but that doesn’t mean that sabermetrics brings the whole picture. The data guys do bring more science, but it’s just not the total picture. What we call psychological momentum they will say is a random increase in performance that reverts to regular performance. But if the reversion occurs after the Tournament is over and a team has won the NCAA title, who cares about the reversion? The data will tell you it is random. But the psychologically-driven, confidence-based shifts, however momentary, really do exist and really do determine outcome."

"Confidence-based shifts, however momentary, really do exist and really do determine outcome."

In fact, Dr. Aoyagi and his team actually did a study which tried to identify momentum in games and then quantify it. They encountered varied and inconsistent definitions of momentum within each game from their case studies, ultimately throwing up their arms at the lack of attainable scientific certainty. They did deduce, interestingly, that momentum actually may have a more powerful effect upon its victim, in this case Georgetown or Kansas, than on its perpetrator.

"My belief," Dr. Aoyagi confessed, "and I don’t have numbers or scientific evidence to put to this, is that momentum is an actual phenomenon, and that there are two types -- an individual player who is hot or, second, the contagious effect where an entire team seems to raise level of play."

In speaking with this handful of leading sports psychologists over the course of the Tournament, three things become clear to me: the psychologists indeed are not nearly as dismissive of statheads as statheads are of psychologists; the gulf between analysts and practitioners, i.e. statheads and coaches/players, is indeed growing wider; and the last realm yet to be subject for rational analysis -- the human brain and its manifestation, human behavior -- is indeed a limitless overtime away from becoming a soluble, statistically-presentable document. And that is good news for romantics -- the mystery, the poetry, and the ineffable stand stout in the face of the certaintists’ assault.

In the face of such momentum and chemistry, more the rule than the blip, behavioral economics end up looking more and more like purebred economics, the so-called dismal science that has done such a crack job predicting and commentating and alleviating the great recession of the past five years. For the dismal science is really just a social science that makes predictions based on data that is ever-incomplete. Numbers are eloquent, but language is, too, and it is their combination – the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of sports – that makes games the great fun that the NCAA Tournament is.

The best antidote to the larger rage for certainty, the moments during the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 and Final Four when still inexplicable momentum becomes almost tangible, teem so regularly at this time of year that they -- the product of the human heart and mind, and someday, we will learn of human physiology and endocrinology -- are not blips, but rather the magical rule. Trey Burke comes off as a smart guy in front of the mic, and I’ll stick with Burke’s sense of wonder when asked why the clutch shots went in this time and not all the previous times:

"All of them looked good and felt good," Burke said. "I just kept asking, 'Why are they all going in-and-out?'"

Someday, when you and I are dead, a modest but perplexed basketball hero will ask the same question, and the neurophysiologists will be able to concisely answer. But for now, it is enough to let Burke, and us, cherish the feeling that the rush of chemicals coursing through our brains creates. The romantics are still winning, and will keep on winning, I think, until that hard day when the brain guys finally map the brain and statheads go back to being accountants and romantics, unanimously and defeatedly, become alcoholics.

About the Author

Gregjordan

Greg Jordan's most recent book was Safe at Home, a biography of Willie Mays Aikens, the fallen slugger who became the face of mandatory minimum sentencing reform. His screenplay about the first circumnavigation of the globe was recently optioned by Mono Films in Spain. He is at work on a book about the troubles in Juarez, Mexico.

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