Sunday, November 18, 2012

The "Wheaties Theory"

My brother gave me a call tonight.  He's been a System enthusiast since we started running and gunning in 2004.  He said he'd listened to our Tipoff Tournament online, and enjoyed the comments of the two college students who were doing the announcing.  Their commentary indicated they apparently hadn't done a lot of homework about the System before the game.  "We're sure Coach Roof is going to get on these girls at halftime about taking too many threes!" they said. 

Well, I was in the locker room at halftime, and I can assure you that she didn't mention anything about taking too many threes, but she was a little concerned about missing so many.  Typical early season shooting woes.

On a more positive note, my brother told me that our intrepid announcing crew did mention how much energy and enthusiasm the team played with, "more than we ever saw out of them all last season!"  I'm guessing they thought that we were enthusiastic in spite of--rather than because of--taking all those threes.

That reminds me of the nice gentleman who took me by the arm after Saturday's game and asked me, sincerely, "Tell me Coach, what is your feeling about taking a player out of the game who is on a hot streak?"

Although I expressed concern for his expression of concern, I told him, "That doesn't really concern us." 

I explained my belief that "hot streaks" are a statistical myth, that a shooter will sometimes hit two or three treys in a row because the law of averages dictates it, and that the odds of that player making (or missing) the next attempt are no greater than they would be had she just missed three in a row.  I also pointed out that our main problem right now is making one in a row.

I don't think he believed my analysis, because most people are unquestoning believers in the "hot streak" theory.  (I, on the other hand, believe in the "Wheaties Theory," which I will explain below.) But if you are as intrigued by statistics and probability as I am, take a look at the fascinating book Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb.  He explains that many things which we believe are cause-effect relationships are simply random occurances, statistical "freaks of nature."  So you have to be careful about making such assumptions.  As Oakland As GM Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame) has shown, many time-honored coaching maxims are are either dead wrong or should at least be questioned.

That's what Paul Westhead believes, too.  I met Coach Westhead at a recruiting event two summers ago.  What an honor that was, and what a fascinating conversation we had!  At one point I made a comment about how I thought some component of the System "caused" something to happen, and Coach Westhead replied, "You have to be careful about making assumptions about what causes what in basketball.  There's a phrase in Latin (Westhead was an old English teacher): Post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means 'after this, therefore because of this.' " 

"You can't assume," he went on to say, "that just because one thing happens after another thing that the second thing was caused by the first."  And just because a player makes three in a row, that doesn't mean that the third bucket was caused by hitting the first two.  Maybe it was, or maybe the shooter just happened to get lucky.  Or maybe that shooter has spent many more hours in the gym than normal!

So although I don't want to make the post hoc ergo propter hoc mistake, I'm still pretty sure of two things: 
  1. A player who makes three in a row will be too tired in System ball to make four in a row, so you might as well go ahead and sub her out along with the rest of her unit, and
  2. If you take enough threes, and you practice long and hard enough, eventually you will score a lot of points.  Or, to put it another way, "The harder you work, the luckier you get."
Which reminds me of what Bob Richards, the Olympic pole vaulting champion from the 1950s, once said.  Richards was the first athlete to every have his picture on a box of Wheaties, and when asked whether he did, in fact, actually eat Wheaties replied, "I sure do, every morning!" 

When pressed further to give his honest opinion about whether Wheaties had been the cause of his becoming an Olympic champion, Richards admitted, "Well, I don't know about that, but I will tell you this:  a bowl of Wheaties every morning and 10,000 hours of hard work will get you anything you want in life."

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