Sunday, May 20, 2018

Words About Numbers - How Do We Make Them Matter?

Sometimes, even when we are speaking the same language we aren't speaking the same language.

Wait, what?!?

Sometimes we are talking about the same things but when we do, we mean different things because the things we say mean different things to different people.

Still don't get it?

Language is massively complicated, which means that using language is complicated. The words (and numbers, and pictures, and gestures, and...) we use can have one meaning to us as we say them and another meaning for the people that hear those same words. Even describing an object that we are all looking at can lead to misunderstanding. If language alone wasn't enough to complicate things, then we use language to talk about complex and important things like statistics. It is important that we recognize the potential for differences in understanding and work together to build common understanding.

We as coaches appreciate statistics for their evaluative power, what they can tell us about what is happening with and to our athletes. Given their importance to us, it becomes important to share those stats with our athletes. Talking to our athletes about stats is more complicated than just telling them what we are measuring and the equations that we use. We need to build a shared language and understanding of how the stats actually impact what we do and teach.

Statistics in sports are examples of what sociologists call boundary objects. Boundary objects lay in between the people discussing them, like a menu being used by restaurant wait staff and a patron. These objects require interactions in order to gain meaning. The numbers mean nothing by themselves, they gain only the meaning that we assign to them.

With these boundary objects, there are three different conversations going on: athlete-stats, coach-stats, and athlete-coach. It is unlikely that our athletes think about the numbers in the same way we do so we have to coordinate our thinking with the athletes if we are to have meaningful conversations. Since most athletes come to us with very limited knowledge of stats, it is likely that the conversations they are having with the stats are much more limited than the conversations that we as coaches are having with the stats. Because of this difference, the main goal of the athlete-coach conversation should be to expand the athlete's understanding. Each side is making assumptions about what the numbers mean and making those assumptions clear is a big part of the conversation.

Expanding the athlete's understanding is far trickier than walking through equations and saying that we understand how the math works. When we acquire new knowledge, that acquisition is strongly tied to our identity, how we view ourselves in light of this new knowledge. The athletes are trying to make sense of what the information is, what that information says about them, and how that affects what others (including the coach) thinks of them. They recognize that the coach knows more than them and that means that the coach has considerable control over them. This is a scary place for them to be so we have to be aware that we hold the power to either include them or alienate them through our conversations. When we feel vulnerable and uncomfortable like this, it is common to shut down since we don't know how it will turn out for us. With this in mind, we must engage our athletes to keep them from withdrawing.

Engaging our athletes in these situations means giving them a voice in the conversation (Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory again (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-determination_theory)) Giving them a voice makes the conversation worthy of their energy and attention, which then gives us a chance to find common understanding about how the numbers can help them better understand themselves and their skills. Giving them a voice means asking them questions about what they think the numbers mean and how they arrived at those meanings. It means asking them how those numbers describe their performance.

By asking our athletes questions about how they interpret the stats, we gain an understanding of not only what they know but also get a sense of how they feel about themselves as they evaluate themselves. This gives us a foundation to which we can add our insights and discuss misconceptions or discrepancies. As we go back and forth, we create a shared understanding of each party in the interaction (athlete, stats, and coach).

Of course, we don't have to have these conversations with our athletes. We can tell our athletes what is happening to them and tell them what they have to do. We can coach bodies instead of brains but how much more limited is our world? How much have we limited their worlds? We increase the limitations on what our athletes are capable of doing, thinking, and being. We miss opportunities to motivate our athletes intrinsically (here's how the numbers can help you get better) instead of relying on extrinsic motivation (here's how the numbers show that you're not good enough). The stats can be a chance to make the athletes the focus rather than the coach (execute at this level or I won't be happy).

In most coach-athlete relationships, the power balance favors the coach dramatically. Utilizing boundary objects like stats gives us a chance to gently move that balance towards the athletes and benefit in the process. We benefit by increasing engagement of and motivation in our athletes. We benefit by understanding each other better. We benefit by widening the way that both athletes and coaches view and discuss our sport.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Four Things I Learned from an Astros Analyst Spending a Summer in the Minors

This post is about this article:
https///www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/sports/baseball/houston-astros-analytics.html

1. Even World Series champions can get better
Winning the World Series seems like a good reason to pause and stay the course. If anyone in baseball did it right last year, it was the Houston Astros so it makes sense for them to stand on their accomplishments. But, better than that, they went looking for ways to deepen the roots of what had brought them to the pinnacle. They were looking for ways to make their organization better, whether that improvement went from the top down or the bottom up. So they sent their top analyst to the bottom of the farm system, not just to teach, but maybe more to learn. Sig Mejdal didn't show up to show off a championship ring, he embedded himself and learned how the future of the franchise functioned. He didn't show up and tell anyone what to do. He found ways to make himself useful and to raise the level from within instead of from on high.

2. Stats people and coaches can learn a lot from one another
It's easy to call Mejdal a "numbers guy" and he knows that. But he also knows that we are all human beings and that we can communicate with one another. He was there to communicate and see how the relationships he built might inform what the club would do going forward. He found players and coaches hungry to learn and improve. He found that they were open to new tools and ways to look at their game if it meant making gains. Mejdal learned more about what coaches are looking at and how they are interpreting what they see, information that can help him better tailor his messages to coaches on the senior team. He was able to give coaches and players insight into how data could shape decision making and game management.

3. Running a complete organization means immersing yourself in and caring about the whole organization
When we have multiple teams in our care (high school and youth club programs), we are faced with discrepancies in how teams are trained and in how resources are allocated. The Astros are suggesting that the best answers are not to allocate resources equally across the board nor to train all teams the same. But, instead of just surveying their farm teams for short periods, they committed to sending people out for long periods so that they could deeply understand the landscape. Their solution to Ivory Tower Syndrome was obvious enough, get out of your tower. Are we as head coaches and program directors either ruling from on high, assuming that we know what it's like for every team in our care, or being laissez faire, believing that our coaches are completely aware of the big picture? The Astros are showing the value in committing people and time to learning about one another, up and down the chain.

4. Players are motivated to improve and to win. Normalizing more tools for them to improve and win helps them do exactly that.
If players on developmental teams aren't exposed to the tools that are part of daily life at the top levels then they will have difficulty assimilating those tools into how they think and train. If stats and video are staples for the top levels, how are we preparing our future top-level players to use those tools? Younger players don't necessarily have to use the tools in the same way or with the same frequency but using those tools in a modified way at appropriate times normalizes their use and allows the players to be functional with and knowledgeable about the tools that are integral to their future success.

The last two points demonstrate the importance of vertical integration at clubs or school programs. Winning a championship changes how the Astros can spend their money and how they can draft new players. There is a stronger emphasis on development and the best way to improve development is to increase integration so that development becomes a more continuous process from beginning to end. Such integration requires coaches to work together in ways that put the values of the organization ahead of their personal views and this can often pose a challenge in a world where we are conditioned to serve our egos first. This is just another expression of valuing the process over the outcome. Coaches that value learning and growth in their players generally have the same approach with themselves. Developmental coaches could just take ideas from elsewhere in the program on their own but when top coaches spend meaningful time with and solicit ideas from them as well, then we increase the buy in from those coaches while also increasing their knowledge. Mejdal and the coaches and players he worked with learned to look at the same thing together and see more of what the other people saw and use that information to make improvements. At its heart, that is what vertical integration is about.

There are many positive outcomes to integrating and collaborating in ways like the Astros are doing. The more integration there is, the better all parties understand the challenges across the program. Coaches can better prepare players for their futures and have more opportunities to change how that preparation is carried out. As coaches collaborate, they create more opportunities to problem solve in creative ways and they expand their ways of thinking. There's so much going on in front of our eyes so wouldn't it be nice to feel like we had support in seeing more of it? If you want that support then you should get busy building it in your program.

What I Did on My Summer (and Spring) "Vacation"

I noticed recently that I had not posted much in the past few months. There is a part of me that feels bad about that but I also realize tha...