It is often said to me by friends that statistically analysing sports can ruin the ‘beauty’ of our games. Taking matches and competitions apart, stat by stat, leaves nothing to the imagination – objective but cold numbers replace the fun of subjective interpretations.
This argument reminds me Richard Feynman's ‘Ode on a Flower’ where the great scientist tells of his artist friend who blames him for taking a flower apart, making it dull. Feynman disagrees and says that he too can appreciate the beauty of a flower, but by taking it apart he can see much more and ultimately reveal beauty at a smaller scale.
I agree with Feynman and would go cautiously further when it comes to sport. Unlike flowers, sporting contests can be controversial. As individuals create complex identities through their affiliations to particular sports, clubs or franchises, one can easily be blinded by an ideology. When two parties with opposing beliefs and motivations compete it is usually not long before disagreements occur. If we have motivations to support one particular point of view, whether it is Manchester United, Miami Heat or Cork Hurlers, we hold an outlook that can make us observe sport in a biased way. One person’s strong but fair challenge is another’s stone-cold penalty.
The self-serving bias is a prominent finding of psychologists and has been explored by behavioural economists. Broadly defined this is a tendency for people to interpret information in favour of their own perspective. This relatively simple psychological mechanism is often forwarded as an explanation (outside of information differences) for why two parties in a negotiation fail to reach an agreement - people confuse what is fair and what benefits them. In an old study in 1954 this bias was addressed in the context of sport. Hastorf and Cantril showed how students at Dartmouth and Princeton had a tendency interpret the award of penalties in an American football match quite differently. Princeton students judged that Dartmouth committed twice as many clear penalties as their team. Dartmouth students were more neutral and saw more of a 50/50 split in penalties. Both sets of students however saw different matches.
For me, it is for reasons such as this that we need objective measures to address our sports – a sphere of life which is clearly important to so many. Just like Feynman’s flower, understanding the inner structure of sports can only add to our knowledge and their beauty, at times bringing a dose of clarity and objectivity. The beauty of the game and statistics I don’t think are at odds and by studying sport we are ultimately creating more questions.