Chance

This is a comment from Joe Posnanski’s blog:

I think this is about two things: meaning and chance.

Meaning–People want sports to mean something. They want it to be about dedication, or about drive, or about a team overcoming obstacles. It’s usually just about the player or the team that executes or gets lucky on a given day. But when there is a good guy and a bad guy, a redemption, a comeback–something–there is a story with meaning. People like to have meaning. Sports provides meaning and stories provide meaning. So people like for there to be stories in their sports (and sports in their stories).

Chance–people hate chance. They find it revolting and hard to comprehend. People like to eliminate the chance element in sports, even though it’s so dominant. Why did Tiger miss that put? Probably a chance event–he misses lots of puts and this was one of them. People don’t like to think that, so they create a story (popping up again) that explains the event in a way not depended upon chance, a way that has meaning. Who will win this upcoming game? Well, it’s likely that chance will play a huge roll in it. (As an aside, that’s why European soccer fans don’t like playoffs–the team with the best record after 38 games is the best teams, playoffs are too often decided by change. That’s also why the MLB regular season is so good–it a big enough sample to eliminate the chance element. If you’d in first after 162 games, you’re the best team). But we don’t like having change play such a big role, so we come up with narrative-centric keys to the game (stay committed to the run; be tougher on the line of scrimmage). People also, because they don’t like change, confuse execution with results. Sometimes you can make a good decision–even a great decision–and still have the result go against you. That’s why we fire coaches too often.

When people talk about sports, they don’t want to talk about chance. They want to talk about stories. So we create stories to talk about.

Interesting. Chance plays a massive part in football.  While bad outcomes usually have some root in bad somethingorothers (e.g. England were poor at the World Cup… but had the Germany game gone to 2-2 as it should have, Germany would have been deprived the counter attacking opportunities they thrived on and England could well have won the game, resulting in stories about mental strength and English spirit in adversity which could have propelled us onwards. But didn’t, because a clear goal was ruled out) the breaks of the ball do matter, football games do take on a life of their own.

I’ve done a lot of research on football’s past recently, and it was reasonably common for teams to play twice in a short period of time (often twice in two days).  Once in the 50s, Fulham beat Wolves, then an amazing side.  A few days later Wolves beat Fulham 9-0.

How could this happen? Answer: that’s football.  Weird things happen all the time and however much we might analyse it, there isn’t always a reason, a problem or something to fix.  The trick is to think long-term, do the right things and allow this to even out over the season.  People got bent out of shape about the Wolves game and I found that surprising. We played really, really well, Schwarzer had very little to do, and Wolves scored out of nothing.  Play that game another 10 times and we’d have won 5-6 of them.  That’s the key: do the right thing and let results take care of themselves.  I’ve seen enough from recent performances to believe that we’re broadly on track.  No quantum leap improvement under Hughes, just the same team doing things a bit differently.  Which is fine for now.

5 thoughts on “Chance

  1. Good article Rich.

    I think sport offers up a nice paradox in this respect in that it would not be popular if we knew what was going to happen and the ‘best/most well paid/most well prepared’ team always won, yet we all hate chance (when it goes against us), the very thing that makes us want to watch.

    I am a firm believer in ‘chance’ and its bedfellow ‘luck’ evening themselves out at the end of the season. For example, the three teams that get relegated at the end of the season, do so for a reason, not because of a highly improbable series of bad luck moments.

    The play-off point is an interesting one, although I would argue that European football fans do enjoy a playoff system, we just call it a cup rather than a play-off.

  2. You mention the old back to back fixtures, which reminds me that over Christmas 1963 Fulham beat Ipswich 10-1 at the Cottage, then lost 4-2 at Portman Road. The turn around was put down to Alf Ramsey’s tactical astuteness. He withdrew his wingers leaving our full-backs unsure of their role.

    While managers can make these adjustments between games, or sometimes at half-time, I find it frustrating that few players in games like football or rugby seem capable of thinking on their feet and changing things for the better during a game. This may be the fault of coaches and managers wanting to drill players rather than teach them to think. Perhaps to do this you need strong leaders which after all is what most really successful teams have.

    1. This may be the fault of coaches and managers wanting to drill players rather than teach them to think.

      It is their fault entirely. Across all sports, coaches work year round with so many underlings that everything is now micromanaged.

      Things left to chance? Bah.

      1. You should watch cricket. Coaches are gaining more importance in the sport nowadays. But still, the captain rules the game, often with the input of senior members of the squad and the bowlers.

        Also, I’m not convinced this is entirely true of football. Goalies arrange the team at set-pieces. A senior defender will often keep the defensive line in check. A midfield general will often orchestrate the attacking moves. All according to a manager-set plan, for sure. But very very different from the autocratic nature of American sports.

        1. Cricket is different because of the pace at which it is played and the fact that the fielding captain has always had to choose his bowler and field placings. American Football has a stoppage after each play during which the coach chooses the tactics and personnel for the next play. In soccer and rugby there isn’t the same opportunity for detailed interaction between players and coach. You therefore have situations where players or a team captain needs to think “this isn’t working – we need to change tack”.

          I also remember Barry John (the great Welsh rugby union fly half of the late 60s / early 70s) lamenting that players would not look up and react to what was happening around them. He hated the regimentation which pervaded the sport even then and would try to make the point when practicing team drills in training. Defenders would be persuaded to slip or stumble to see if their opponents were savvy enough to change a planned move and take advantage. They rarely did.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s