If you are like me, the 2017 World Series has been incredible. The highs and lows for each team have been as wild as a rollercoaster ride at times, with each team teasing its fan base with performances that fuel hopes of ultimate success, then the plunging feeling that all is lost, only to rise again to the next challenge. And as we listen to the “talking heads” during, after, and between games, we hear the criticism of decisions made by each manager. One of the more frequent criticisms has been in-game decisions based on metrics (statistical measure), rather than trusting an athlete and playing a hunch based on the situation. For myself, listening to the various experts made me think about where we are with regard to the science of performance. In recent times, we have seen heavy investment in the science of numbers that we hope predict best possible outcomes. And while I would agree that in the long-game the numbers likely will play out well, I also recognize that being blind to the current moment may lead to missed opportunities for seizing the moment.
Let’s start at the beginning. Teams, regardless of level, begin the season with goals in mind (see my mid-August article on Effective Goal Setting). The great part about setting goals is that they are intention based, promote focus, and give a sense of purpose to the season and training. The down side is limiting goal setting to a long-term, or outcome based only approach. Doing so can diminish motivation, and become a distraction to the needs of the moment with regard to preparation. Yet, molding goal setting as an ongoing process can be very effective. Set goals for today, for this game, even for this situation. Set up future successes by focusing on what you are trying to do right now.
One of the more common techniques for setting goals is to establish statistical measures of achievement. Each sport has evolved with means to measure accuracy, consistency, and so on. But athletes and coaches should proceed with caution here, as statistical goals can become yet another distraction. Such goals have the potential to take on the power of “destination”, as a means of evaluating one as being successful (or not). This can also lead to directing behaviors in a way that is only focused on reaching statistical goals. But there are often times when the means to get the stats don’t actually help the team reach the objective of the moment or game. Also, individual goals may not contribute to the greater good of the team. However, shifting the use of stats as a feedback becomes much more effective. Looking at stats as a measure of ongoing progress helps identify critical needs for focus in practice and play. Instead of attempting to reach a certain statistical measure as an absolute, instead look at the numbers that “are” and modify your strategies to shift the stats in a direction that measure situational success.
As goal setting and statistical measure have evolved, there has been a recent trend to base in-game decisions on historical records (for both team and individuals). While this seems a logical progression to ensuring a desired outcome in specific situations, there is also great potential to inhibit player learning and achievement. Rather than allowing a player to work through a difficult spot, to rise to the challenge of the moment, or to overcome mistakes, too often we see coaches make a change to “play the numbers”. Perhaps a simple communication about strategy, that incorporates trying to hit a statistical target, would promote an adjustment by the athlete(s) as a result of sharper focus and intention. Instead of relying on the law of averages, coaches and players can fine-tune their reactions to stressful situations and save valuable resources (a roster of bullpen pitchers, one-use substitutes, etc). This doesn’t mean that statistics of measure aren’t valuable, but rather can be used to improve play rather than being an attempt to control the outcome (which isn’t possible anyway).
In our quest to obtain the competitive edge, it seems we may have gone too far. Searching for the perfect match-up, one where we feel we can control the outcome, we have lost sight of the real value of goals and statistics. The key is to stay in the moment, to focus on the process, and to use statistical measure as feedback for adjustments to further improve performance. My hope is that this insight proves useful for coaches and athletes alike. Should you find yourself wanting specific guidance in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.