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 ( 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.

1 comment:

  1. This post makes me think back to how many times I "phoned it in" talking with a player about their stats, but not putting in enough time and effort for them to understand through MY eyes, and my coaching brain, what those numbers mean to me and how I used them in coaching decisions for our team.
    Coaching can either be a hobby, or a profession - a post like this is a punch in the face reminder if you want to be one of the professionals.


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