Reasons to Follow Sports (and Bill Simmons)

Over the last ten years my interest in sports has shifted away from closely following teams and players and towards:

1) maintaining cultural literacy and facilitating social bonding by understanding the basics of the most popular sports and the most important facts associated with them (e.g. who Lebron James is or which teams are in the NFL Superbowl).

2) following how sports generally affects culture and the economy. What's the economic impact on a country when its team wins the World Cup?

3) using the rich examples in sports to learn about widely-relevant ideas.

#3 is most important to me. For example, I'd rather read about how Baron Davis manages side projects than follow the Warriors' specific wins and loses. Other examples:

  • One way to think about the general idea of whether you'd want to be universally loved or loved and hated to a greater degree is to compare Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
  • One way to think about the general idea of how superstar contributors affect group dynamics is by pondering Barry Bonds' impact on the Giants.
  • You can discover the power of framing by reading about the non-differences between dog fighting and the NFL.

General ideas found in sports are served up regularly by some excellent sports journalists whose writing you can admire even if you can't keep up with all the details. Frank Deford has interesting things to say on NPR. Gregg Easterbrook mixes smart commentary on sports with nuggets on economics and finance. Even if Rick Reilly is past his prime, he's wise and still finds inspirational stories.

But the most famous sports writer of today is Bill Simmons, who writes for ESPN.com. Here's a quick take on Bill Simmons' new book with this interesting nugget:

Mr. Simmons may be the first sports writer to see the games purely from the view of the fan — and a very modern, unsentimental fan at that. As Mr. Simmons sees it, his job is not to get into the heads of the players, but into the heads of his readers.

Tyler Cowen says, "Bill James and Bill Simmons are two of the greatest living social scientists. Seriously."

Bottom Line: Even if you're not a hard core sports fan there are still good general lessons to be taken from the sports world and excellent writers, such as Bill Simmons, who can deliver them to us.

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If you want to experience the fascinating and under-researched phenomenon of goosebumps caused by an emotional reaction and not cold weather, watch this clip of ESPN highlights from the past 100 years. One word: goosebumps.

Of the 30 Teams in the MLB, 12 of the Managers are Former Catchers

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Matt Blumberg cites a Harvard Business Review article:

Of the 30 teams in Major League baseball, 12 of the managers are former catchers.  A normal distribution would be 2 or 3.  Sounds like a case of a Gladwellian Outlier, doesn't it?  The authors explain their theory here…that catchers face their teammates, that they are closest to the competition, that they have to keep track of a lot of things at once, be psychiatrists to flailing pitchers, etc.  Essentially that the kind of person who is a successful catcher has all the qualities of a successful manager.

Catchers in baseball, by virtue of their physical place on the field and job description, are uniquely positioned to build the skills that later make them good managers of teams.

Matt advises businesspeople to identify similar types of "training ground" positions within their own organization, and to rotate high potential folks through those positions to build a leadership pipeline.

Every Group Needs an Outcast

The always interesting Bill Simmons, in his recent ESPN.com column, rejects the usual line that superstars like A-Rod or Barry Bonds, while cancers in the clubhouse in one sense, are on the whole destructive to team unity. On the contrary, the "guy everyone hates" can be helpful in fostering team dynamics:

There are undeniable positives to having one antisocial wild card in any close-knit environment. You know that one grating guy in your dorm hall or in your office? Don't you like bitching about him? You lob grenades at him as soon as he leaves the room. He's your running joke, an easy target. But he's also a galvanizing force, one of the few things that bring everyone else together: a mutual contempt for one human being that won't go away. You're stuck with him, so you make the best of it — by belittling him.

It's a common bond of sorts. Even as you believe he's tearing your group apart, he's bringing it closer and distracting anyone from turning on someone else. He's your mean decoy, your Paula Abdul, your Newman. He's your necessary evil.

As Simmons notes, baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one, so this theory plays better in the field than on a basketball court for example. But I do think there's something worthwhile here — the benign role of group outcasts — that's applicable in other settings…

Universally Loved vs. Loved and Hated to a Greater Degree

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Chris Yeh asks a very interesting question:

Sports Illustrated recently conducted a survey of 190 NBA players (the NBA has a total of 450 players) in which they were asked which current player they'd most want as a teammate, and which player they'd least want as a teammate.

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant tied for third in the race for least desirable teammate, behind Stephon Marbury (22%) and Ron Artest (9%), and tied with Stephen Jackson and Gilbert Arenas at 5%.

Kobe Bryant came in second in the race for most desirable teammate (13% selected him) behind only LeBron James (32%) and ahead of famously unselfish point guards Steve Nash (8%) and Chris Paul (7%) and super-teammate Kevin Garnett (7%).

He is the only player near the top of both lists.

Would you rather be universally loved, like Steve Nash? Or loved and hated to a greater degree, like Kobe Bryant?

If I were honest, probably universally loved. (Most people downplay how much being liked by others matters to them.)

Email of the Day, Youth Sports Edition

A girls soccer coach in Massachusetts was recently forced to resign after emailing the parents of his 7 and 8 year-old players that he expects them to "kick ass." Here's the entire email. Below is an excerpt. When you read "kids" remember it's 7 and 8 year old girls.

Some say soccer at this age is about fun and I completely agree. However, I believe winning is fun and losing is for losers. Ergo, we will strive for the “W” in each game. While we may not win every game (excuse me, I just got a little nauseated) I expect us to fight for every loose ball and play every shift as if it were the finals of the World Cup. While I spent a good Saturday morning listening to the legal liability BS, which included a 30 minute dissertation on how we need to baby the kids and especially the refs, I was disgusted. The kids will run, they will fall, get bumps, bruises and even bleed a little. Big deal, it’s good for them (but I do hope the other team is the one bleeding). If the refs can’t handle a little criticism, then they should turn in their whistle. The sooner they figure out how to make a decision and live with the consequences the better. My heckling of the refs is actually helping them develop as people. The political correctness police are not welcome on my sidelines. America’s youth is becoming fat, lazy and non-competitive because competition is viewed as “bad”. I argue that competition is good and is important to the evolution of our species and our survival in what has become an increasingly competitive global economy and dangerous world. Second place trophies are nothing to be proud of as they serve only as a reminder that you missed your goal; their only useful purpose is as an inspiration to do that next set of reps. Do you go to a job interview and not care about winning? Don’t animals eat what they kill (and yes, someone actually kills the meat we eat too – it isn’t grown in plastic wrap)? And speaking of meat, I expect that the ladies be put on a diet of fish, undercooked red meat and lots of veggies. No junk food. Protein shakes are encouraged, and while blood doping and HGH use is frowned upon, there is no testing policy. And at the risk of stating the obvious, blue slushies are for winners.

These are my views and not necessarily the views of the league (but they should be). I recognize that my school of thought may be an ideological shift from conventional norms. But it is imperative that we all fight the good fight, get involved now and resist the urge to become sweat-xedo-wearing yuppies who sit on the sidelines in their LL Bean chairs sipping mocha-latte-half-caf-chinos while discussing reality TV and home decorating with other feeble-minded folks. I want to hear cheering, I want to hear encouragement, I want to get the team pumped up at each and every game and know they are playing for something.

Lastly, we are all cognizant of the soft bigotry that expects women and especially little girls, to be dainty and submissive; I wholeheartedly reject such drivel. My overarching goal is develop ladies who are confident and fearless, who will stand up for their beliefs and challenge the status quo. Girls who will kick ass and take names on the field, off the field and throughout their lives. I want these girls to be winners in the game of life. Who’s with me?

Go Green Death!

(hat tip to Andy McKenzie for the pointer)

Infidelity and Trust: Boardroom vs. Basketball Court

In an earlier post I asked, Would you trust less a business partner who cheats on his/her spouse? Or do you completely separate personal and professional?

My answer is I would trust the person less in a business or corporate environment, but would still trust enough to maintain a relationship.

Here’s a question for people like myself, people who do not strictly separate bedroom character from boardroom character:

Suppose that you were on an NBA team and you knew one of your teammates was cheating on his wife. Would you trust him less on the court? Trust is vitally important in basketball, just as it is important in business.

My answer to this new scenario is no, I would not trust my point guard (who’s cheating on his wife) any less on the court.

Why do I answer the questions differently? Is the trust required on the basketball court different than the trust required in most other professional settings? Is it that not trusting a teammate on the court would result in failure easily observed by coaches and fans, whereas trusting a colleague a bit less in the office is not easily known by others? Or do I just hold two contradictory views?

For those who said you would trust your business partner less if you knew he or she were being unfaithful in the bedroom, what say you to the NBA teammate scenario?

(thanks to Tyler Cowen for raising these questions.)

Being Behind by a Little Yields the Greatest Possible Effort

NCAA basketball teams that are behind by one point at halftime are more likely to win than teams that are one point ahead.

That's the fascinating finding of two professors who studied more than 6,000 games. The results are the same even when taking into account homecourt advantage, the team winning percentages and which team got the ball to start the second half.

So what may be driving this pattern? The reason is motivation. Being behind by a little leads to victory because it increases effort. Not only do teams down by a point at the break score more than their opponents in the second half, they do so in a particular way. They come out of the locker room fired up and make up for most of the point deficit in the first few minutes of the second half.

Let your imagination run wild in terms of how this could be applied in the world of business and leadership.

As the authors of the study say, "Companies competing to win contracts or research prizes would be wise to focus employees on ways their competitors are a little ahead. Similarly, strategically taking breaks…when one is slightly behind should increase effort."

The Underrated, No-Stats All-Star

I'm fascinated with people I think of as "underrated" — folks whose contribution is larger than their reputation would suggest. I wonder, why don't more people appreciate this person? What do I see that others do not? (The same thought process of anyone who buys a stock they feel is underpriced.)

I've blogged about why it's better to reach out to underrated people if you're trying to build your network. And I've blogged about how to spot these people by de-emphasizing popular filters.

15battier.1-500 Michael Lewis has the cover piece in today's NYT Magazine titled The No-Stats All-Star. Lewis makes the case that Shane Battier of the NBA team Houston Rockets is a seriously underrated player. His contributions are not easily tracked by the conventional statistics, but whenever Battier is on the court the team does better. Why?

It's the philosophy of Moneyball (a book which looked at the Oakland A's use of unusual statistics to size up players) applied to basketball. I recommend reading the whole thing. And then asking yourself, "Who's the Shane Battier on our team?" Every organization has one.

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There's a throwaway sentence in the piece that touches on a class / race issue that is worthy of an entire separate article:

Is it a coincidence that many of the things a player does in white basketball to prove his character — take a charge, scramble for a loose ball — are more pleasantly done on a polished wooden floor than they are on inner-city asphalt?

The Day Job vs. Side Passions Dilemma via Baron Davis

Every team — corporate or athletic — needs a motherfucker. Baron Davis, a superstar point guard and one of the leading talents in the NBA, is the Los Angeles Clippers’ motherfucker.

Or is he? Sports Illustrated has a great feature on Baron in their latest issue. At 29 years old, Baron probably maintains one of the most active and interesting personal lives of any NBA player — he lectures Congress on health issues and the inner-city obesity crisis, consulted with Barack Obama during the campaign, cites Malcolm Gladwell when explaining social phenomena, produces documentaries, invests in internet start-ups. All good right? Maybe not, if it distracts from his day job:

When you’ve been involved in a successful presidential campaign, produced an Oscar-worthy documentary and include among your goals for 2009 brokering a truce among Bloods, Crips and Latino gangs, it’s easy to see how tossing a ball into a basket against, say, the Milwaukee Bucks could seem somewhat trifling. And while Davis won’t cop to it, there is a sense in some corners that his extracurricular activities have exacted a price on his basketball…

Davis is finding out that the line between being perceived as a Renaissance man or a dilettante can be a fine one. Asked about Davis’s competitive resolve, Hornets coach Byron Scott says tepidly, “My take on him is that he’s a very talented point guard, and I’ll leave it at that.” Recently, Roper, the Crossroads coach who now works for Davis’s foundation, had a heart-to-heart with his former player. “I told him we all get distracted by what’s attainable and obtainable, but first and foremost, you’re a basketball player. Focus on what made you what you are. I want to see you be an All-Star for the next four or five years and turn the Clippers around. Movies and whatnot can wait.”

My buddy Kevin Arnovitz, who writes about the NBA for ESPN.com, has an interesting re-frame:

Here’s a question: Would you take umbrage — both as a parent and as a taxpayer — if you learned that your kid’s fifth grade public school teacher was coming into the classroom a little less prepared this semester because she’s been serving as the chair of a cancer research walk-a-thon, which requires as much as 15 hours a week of her free time, time she’d otherwise spend composing lesson plans? What if her side project wasn’t a charity? What if she were spending those hours starting a business that indulged one of her many passions outside the classroom?

In this scenario, no, I wouldn’t mind. But what if I were CEO of a company with an employee who decided to indulge her many passions outside of work to the tune of 15-20 hours a week? I’d like to think I’d be supportive, if it didn’t prove too distracting, though I can’t be sure. There are no easy answers to the day job vs. side passions dilemma that so many of us face.

Related Post: Are You Your Team’s Motherfucker? In the comments, Chris Yeh says he is a “situational motherfucker” but claims he can “step up to full motherfuckerhood when necessary.”

Success and High Expectations for Happiness Can Feed Depression

Henry Abbott at the ESPN TrueHoop blog writes:

The other day I talked to a guy who is close to several NBA players. I asked him to estimate the percentage of NBA players who are depressed. I guessed 60. He said more like 95.

Why are so many successful people depressed? Theories abound…

One I often think about is that people get depressed when there's an expectation that they're always supposed to be really happy and grateful, as NBA players must feel when interacting with starry-eyed fans. This effect also explains higher-than-normal depression over the holiday season: there's an expectation that you're supposed to be jolly and merry and if you are not something is wrong with you.

Anything with a strong narrative around it (like the holiday season) fosters this dynamic. Take New York City. This article about a couple leaving New York City for Buffalo, NY notes their frustration that the real New York — the one you dream about — always seemed just out of grasp to them but fully accessed by others. Or take college life. Hollywood films frequently portray college as the "best four years of your life." These expectations produce an effect similar to the NYC couple who felt the romantic, exciting New York was always just around the corner: in college, the real party is always somewhere else. Surveys of college students show that the average student perceives his peers as having more fun than him, and he wildly overestimates the drinking and sex habits of his classmates.

Bottom Line: When you're successful, like an NBA player, people expect you to be super happy, grateful, stable, and so forth, most of the time. Or, even if you're not successful, if you're thrust into certain well-mythologized environments, a similar unrealistic expectation can drag you down.

(thanks to Chris Yeh for tagging this)