This past week Oliver Gage, an analyst who is best known for his work with Houston Dynamo in MLS, wrote a very interesting post which featured an encounter he once had with a first team coach. It may be the first instance I’ve ever read of performance analyst failing to pay nervous deference to the first team coach:
Allow me paint a picture…. It’s Monday morning after a good, multiple goal win vs a high quality opponent. I was on the wrong end of a 60-hour working week and had missed one of my best friends wedding in order to work for this game (welcome to professional sports). The coaching staff and myself are talking about the game & about to watch some film when:
Assistant Coach – “Incredible that we had just 40% possession and still managed to win”
Head coach – “That just goes to show that all this stats shit means fuck in football” (whilst looking at me).
Oliver – “What it actually shows is you know fuck all about how to use stats in football… there’s a big difference”
The following 10 minutes did not go well for Oliver.
Though Gage regrets his outburst, his reasoning seems fairly sound:
Can you imagine any other business in which it’s acceptable for the boss to talk to an employee about his or her role in the company in this way? Imagine a restaurant in which a dessert chef is told that his profession means “fuck all” because everybody loves cake and ice cream (who doesn’t?) or a server being told his job doesn’t really contribute to the customers experience. It’s highly offensive and quite frankly, completely untrue. Said manager would no doubt lose good staff and in the long run devalue his business.
Coincidentally, I’ve been tearing through Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh’s extremely compelling book, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team. It details their season in charge of the Pacific Association’s Sonoma Stompers, and how two stat nerds and Baseball Prospectus authors scouted and ran a very lower tier pro ball club using Sabermetric methods.
One of their main challenges—which readers might recognize from Moneyball’s depiction of Oakland As coach Art Howe—is convincing player-coach Fehlandt Lentini to follow their advice, whether that means setting up a more optimal batting order based on slash lines, or adding “spreadsheet” players to the team.
Both Miller and Lindbergh are averse to confrontation, and so send agonizingly polite emails and suggestions. Though Lentini is often quick to disagree, the authors note their advice is sometimes heeded anyway. No spoilers, but the relationship doesn’t end well. The stat guys, however, hold their ground and win the day.
In an ideal world, analysts would walk into clubs with the red carpet rolled out, with a supportive front office staff, a receptive, communicative coach, and players who are eager to get help wherever they can.
The reality is that there are longstanding, entrenched club cultures, particularly in football, and analysts often find themselves navigating a complex world of superstitions and customs they are not privy to. As Gage writes, “The problem is deep rooted and fundamentally a social issue. The unfortunate fact is that the majority of footballers and therefore future head coaches are not mathematicians, scientists or economists growing up. From ages 7-35 they eat, sleep and live football/soccer.”
Up until now, many have taken a highly deferential approach by avoiding stepping on any toes, listening more than speaking at meetings, doing their work in a quiet corner. After all, the manager/coach is still king, and work in close tandem with the most valuable assets in the club—the players. While it seems exceedingly stupid, at least to me, to hire an analyst when you have a manager who thinks statheads are full of crap, the fact is this is still the case.
And so the approach that is often espoused is for analysts to quietly eat shit and make small gains wherever they can. The idea of an analyst calling out a manager to their face, in front of others no less, is anathema in football.
One could argue, “The coaches were here first, they have the final word.” But then why hire an analyst at all if you plan to make them subordinate to a person who thinks their methods and ideas don’t work? If you, as a director of football or a chief executive, hire a quant and then do nothing to ensure they are treated as a respected equal and not as a mathematical fifth column, you are literally setting money on fire.
Unhealthy conflict is rarely good in any organization, but if stats and performance analysts hope to gain a greater foothold in the game they’ll need to pick their battles and then fight them, to the death (ie a sacking) if necessary.