Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Analytics or…?

A defining moment in the 2020 World Series (Dodgers versus Rays) will be the expression on Blake Snell’s face as he awaited the handoff to Tampa Bay manager, Kevin Cash. After pitching lights out and still under his pitch count, Snell understandably seemed upset at the lost opportunity to continue his gem.

While hindsight is a perspective available now but not in that moment (from which it all fell apart), an old argument calls to mind the blurring of boundaries that ruin so much of human resource, production, and expression: when to be guided by quantitative versus qualitative measures. Simply put, not everything that matters can be measured. Here are a few arguments for ignoring analytics and leaving Snell on the mound:

Management versus Leadership: Management is about systems and things, and leadership is about people. While numbers may inform decisions, the human element will always be beyond measurable. You have a Cy Young winner pitching at the peak of his ability. Unhittable is a feeling. The Dodgers would have attested to this.

Variability of performance: Even at the elite level, athletes need to find out who they are that day. The great Willie Mays said it best: “When I’m not hitting, I don’t hit nobody. But, when I’m hitting, I hit anybody.” (New York Times, April 25, 1976). Interestingly, on that day Snell’s fastball was more electric, and his slider and curve had more bite. All three pitches working at the top of his register. Athletes dream of these days… So who do you want on the mound? Your best pitcher at his best in the moment or someone who hasn’t thrown a pitch yet?

Analytics draws from a larger context: While data is useful and informs decisions, the production of numbers always draws from a larger context and remains an approximation. These probabilities are called “models’ for good reason as they do not represent a complete picture of the territory. Consider all the variables that have to be ignored, and all the assumptions that have to be made in an open-system of human beings. This is not to say, throw out numbers and analytics. They are good tools. But complete dependence upon tools denies some of the greatest gifts of being human: feel, creativity, and intuition.

History: Sports annals are full of stories of athletes going above and beyond. Michael Jordan in the “Flu” game. Willis Reed limping out on to the court in the finals for the New York Knicks during their 1969-70 Championship season. Lebron James running down Andre Igoudala in Game 7, bringing the Cavaliers all the way back from a 3-1 series deficit. And Tom Seaver throwing 150 pitches (yes, 150 pitches!) to lead the Mets in a Game 4 win on the way to the 1969 world championship. All these efforts derive from the intangibles of athletic performance. They are memorable for a reason. We show up as competitors and fans not for the benign and predictable, but for the sublime and unexpected.

So, Snell’s expression was more than the stock “I wanna keep playing” seen from little league to the Bigs. The athlete who knows when he is in the upper register of performance also knows it’s a feeling beyond words and logical explanations. Flow. The Zone. A sublime feeling you can bet on more than algorithms pretending that a Game Six is the same as a weekend series in Baltimore (sorry O’s fans).

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Michael Dziedzic and Ben Hershey (unsplash.com)

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