Do athletes get in a "zone"? David Brooks thinks not. | Bleader

Do athletes get in a "zone"? David Brooks thinks not.


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Hot hand or random three?
  • Mike Mantucca/Sun-Times Media
  • Hot hand or random three?
Though I think statistics tell us a lot more about ourselves than shamans do, they're not all-revealing. Op-ed columnist David Brooks asserted in the New York Times Tuesday that "data-ism" is the "rising philosophy" of these times we live in and he intends to spend the next year getting "a better grip on some of the questions raised by the data revolution."

"In what situations should we rely on intuitive pattern recognition and in which situations should we ignore intuition and follow the data?" Brooks doesn't know. But because he thinks it's important to know, he's going to try to find out.

He enters his project in the right frame of mind. He's a skeptic, someone inclined to believe "that we tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable." But that said, there are a couple of things that's he's already certain "data does really well." One is reveal patterns of behavior we hadn't noticed. The other is to reveal the lack of a pattern even though we're sure we're looking at one.

For example: a basketball player's hot streak when he's really lighting it up.

"When a player has hit six shots in a row," writes Brooks, "we imagine that he has tapped into some elevated performance groove. In fact, it's just random statistical noise, like having a coin flip come up tails repeatedly. Each individual shot's success rate will still devolve back to the player's shooting percentage."

Brooks's authorities in this are Thomas Gilovich, Amos Tversky, and Robert Vallone, academics who back in 1985 published a paper called "The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences." I advise Brooks to read this paper carefully and draw conclusions from it humbly. Athletes jumping and pumping on the basketball court are not chunks of copper-nickel alloy—that is, American coins—and I advise caution in making the comparison. To shift sports for a second, a coin doesn't know it's being flipped to determine which team kicks off to start overtime in a Super Bowl. Every player on the field knows.

The authors of "The Hot Hand" did an analysis of shots taken, made, and missed by the Philadelphia 76ers during their home games throughout the 1980-81 season, and of free throw attempts by the Boston Celtics during that season and the next. What they found was that the last shot wasn't predictive of the next one. Sure, there were streaks—but for the same reason an incessant coin flipper will have streaks of heads and tails. There was no contingency.

However, they were modest about what this means. "The independence between successive shots, of course, does not mean that basketball is a game of chance rather than of skill," "The Hot Hand" cautions, "nor should it render the game less exciting to play, watch, or analyze. It merely indicates that the probability of a hit is largely independent of the outcome of previous shots, although it surely depends on other parameters such as skill, distance to the basket, and defensive pressure."

And on self-confidence and coolness under fire. So, indeed, the probability of a hit hinges on a lot of factors that aren't reducible to data. Moreover, even though players don't actually enter states in which they "can't miss," most players think they do—as the authors of "The Hot Hand" discovered in interviews. Players believe in getting the ball to whoever is torching the nets, and in riding a hot hand until it cools off. This means that the "hot hand" affects the game even if there is no such thing. How often have we all seen giddy players who think they're a zone where they can't miss fling up wilder and wilder shots until, well of course they miss, and the next thing they know they're riding the pine?

An important difference between a winning team and a losing team might be that the winning team is composed of players who understand their skills, accept the ebb and flow of a game, and keep their heads. The losers wait for lightning to strike. That's a huge piece of the game that's played in the players' heads. Meanwhile, all coins do is flip. As long as Brooks doesn't think of intuition and data as opposing sides of one coin he should be OK.