Regressing to the Mean

This fall for the first time in five years I don’t have a team to coach. Long story. So I thought I should use the time to write, with busy coaches in mind. Write stuff I’d like to read if I were a busy coach. I don’t expect many hits but it will keep me out of the 540 Club for a while.

The topic of the next few posts will be great ideas from the new soccer book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally. Originally published in England, it has been available here in the US since August and every coach, fan and literate player should go out right now and read it. But if you can’t . . . I’m blogging.

The Numbers Game is commonly referred to as a sort of Moneyball or Freakonomics of soccer; quantitative analysis that researches common beliefs and either corroborates them or, as the subtitle so lovingly points out, proves you don’t know what you’re on about.
Here is the first thought-provoking idea for youth coaches. When it comes to affecting our team’s performance, what we say may not matter very much. Statistically, performance goes up and down, always homing in on the mean, or average.

For example take this team’s fictitious season and the coach’s interventions:

Meatball chartThis chart contains random numbers and I selected a part that shows an upward trend. But the coaching interventions inserted here happen every day and the point is, it is our explanatory style that creates the explanation for what is happening: “I gave them a stern lecture and they improved because of it.” Or “I praised their performance and they tanked it because it swelled their heads.”

Anderson and Sally would say “not so fast.” Yes, you yelled at players and they did better. You praised them and they did worse. But maybe it is because you yelled when they were below the mean and they were destined to go up no matter what. And because you praised them when they were so far above their norm, they were going to regress no matter what. In other words the changes would have happened regardless of our words.

To explain this point, the authors cite Danny Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel prize in Economics. While trying to extol the value of praising students a flight instructor raised his hand from the audience and said, “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some acrobatic maneuver, and in general when they try again they do much worse. On the other hand I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution and in general they do better the next time.” Kahneman goes on to say “it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.”

A paper entitled, “Abuse, Intimidation and Violence as Aspects of Managerial Control in Professional Soccer in Britain and Ireland” (doesn’t the title say it all?) documents the prevalence of bullying behavior among coaches and how it even convinces players that they need it to “get the best out of them.” But it’s not enough to be angry and confrontational, even though many coaches behave this way. Anderson and Sally go on to investigate what really happened in a famous match when Manchester United were unpredictably losing 0-3 to Tottenham Hotspur at halftime:

“Ferguson didn’t use the hairdryer. What he said, very calmly, was:

‘Obviously you know this is Spurs we’re playing, in their minds they’ve already won, they’re at the pub celebrating. Get a goal back in the beginning of the second half and they’ll panic.’”

United scored five in the second half and won.

Good coaches instruct. And as the Positive Coaching Alliance would remind us, positivity is always the way to go. When results are poor, praise effort and improvement. When results are good, praise the same thing. Because the only thing that makes players better is sustained, deliberate practice and this is only possible in a supportive atmosphere. Coaches, instead of regressing to being mean, should remember to keep returning to teaching and instructing. In a word, coaching.

Pep talk or hairdryer? It just doesn't matter.

Pep talk or hairdryer? It just doesn’t matter.

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1 Response to Regressing to the Mean

  1. ThinkPurpose says:

    Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:
    Very interesting post about a book that is Moneyball for football (soccer). It touches on concepts like regression to the mean, cognitive biases and that. The book’s first chapter can be downloaded for free for kindle, and it seems full of counter-intuitive goodness like:
    -corners don’t lead to goals.
    -defending a 2-0 lead is as easy as any other leasing score
    -chance accounts for 50% of the final score.
    -managers account for only 15% of a teams success

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