Baseball Fan Group Dynamics

Watching sports live is one of the best places to observe group dynamics. I’m not talking about watching the actual teams play, although that’s great too. I’m talking about watching the fans. Baseball, in particular, is great for this, because there’s a lot of downtime between plays.

The richest experiences come from watching teams with great fans. Oakland fans are some of the very best in sports, bar none. Warriors fans are widely acknowledged as the best in the NBA, and A’s fans are right up there. I don’t even have to mention Raiders fans.

I went to the A’s game yesterday, and I got some video clips of fan dynamics and collective leadership in action. This guy consistently got the crowd going, simply by standing up and clapping loudly, rhythmically, and enthusiastically. But this doesn’t work unless you have the right fan culture. I’ve been to many games on the other side of the Bay where these types of efforts are met with uncomfortable passivity.

I’ve been to a lot of baseball games in my life, but somehow, I’ve never seen this before: fans taunting the opposing relief pitchers warming up in a very creative way. I wasn’t sure what would happen with a second relief pitcher, but when it happened, the fans didn’t miss a beat. I was literally rolling around in my seat laughing.

This video shows the fan ritual whenever closer Grant Balfour comes into the game. It’s known as “Balfour rage” in honor of the closer’s legendary volatile temper, and the history of its evolution is fascinating.

My only regret was that there were no waves. Watching a wave form is a fascinating study in group dynamics.

LeBron James, Heroic Leadership, and the Danger of Narratives

For those of you who don’t follow basketball, the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs last night for this year’s NBA championship. It was a classic series featuring seven future Hall of Famers and going the full seven games.

What made this series particularly fascinating (besides the unbelievable level of play throughout) was that it featured the best player on the planet, LeBron James.

James is a freak of nature. He’s built like a power forward, he moves with the speed and agility of a wing, he sees the floor like a point guard, and he defends all five positions. In human-speak, he is a transcendent basketball Swiss Army knife, not just versatile, but superiorly so.

He also happens to be polarizing for a variety of reasons. He was anointed the future king of basketball while still in junior high school. He decided to leave his hometown team for his current one (an entirely justified decision) in a less than graceful manner, which created a lot of animosity. (Beyond that one minor transgression, which has been completely overblown in a way that all things sports are, James has been a model citizen.) He is the classic Goliath, and we love rooting against Goliath.

Because of this, James is intensely scrutinized and unfairly judged. Now that he’s won back-to-back championships, that scrutiny is likely to fade. But what I find fascinating is why we so easily and incorrectly judged him in the first place.

This series was fraught with those moments. It largely centered around James’s performance (he would go from hero to goat back to hero in a single quarter of play), but no player or coach was spared. And in the end, all of it was wrong.

Zach Lowe wrote in Grantland:

We remember players for their work in big moments, and that is never going to change. But when we overvalue those big moments at the expense of everything else, we do both those players and the game itself something of a disservice. We ignore the role of randomness and luck, as Henry Abbott beautifully reminded us this week. We ignore defense on a possession-by-possession basis, mostly because defense is hard to see and understand.

And we pick and choose which big moments are really big in strange ways that don’t make a lot of sense. Why is Leonard’s missed free throw more important, and more memorable, than the fact that no other Spur made a field goal in overtime? Why is Parker’s missed free throw in overtime less important than Leonard’s miss and Ginobili’s miss in regulation? Why do we eviscerate Ginobili for his eight turnovers while passing over the fact that Miami turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the last 1:10 of regulation in an elimination NBA Finals game — including two turnovers by LeBron? The Bobcats might have done better on those three possessions than LeBron and the Miami Heat managed.

The result — the Heat won, the Spurs lost — too often informs our analysis of the process.

These aren’t just wise words about sports, they’re wise words about almost everything we do. The reason stories are so valuable is that we are particularly attuned to them, and we are more likely to learn and integrate knowledge in that form. The problem with stories is that we are so attuned to them, we confuse narratives for truth. It is so easy to assign credit and blame in simplistic and incorrect ways, and to frame it as “rigorous analysis.” Daniel Kahneman has written extensively about our proclivity for finding causality where causality does not exist.

The other thing I found fascinating about this series was how it embodied our collective mindset about leadership. James has consistently been criticized throughout his career for being too unselfish “in the clutch.” In basketball, there is a mythos that it’s the best player’s job to “take over the game” in the fourth quarter, that the laws of team basketball are suddenly rendered irrelevant with the game on the line. We reward players who buy into this mythos, the classic example being Kobe Bryant. And so the common wisdom is, when the game is on the line, there’s no player you’d rather have on your team than Kobe.

But when you look at the data, it turns out that the classic wisdom is wrong. In crunch time, Kobe makes it easier for the opposing team’s defense, because they know with almost utter certainty that he’s going to shoot the ball. And the numbers confirm that this is a poor strategy, as Kobe consistently shoots worse in the last few minutes of a game than he does on average.

For years, James was eviscerated for his crunch time unselfishness, even though he single-handedly made mediocre teams great with his superior team-oriented play. We loved him for his unselfishness, unless it was the final minutes of the fourth quarter, at which point we expected him to get selfish again.

It’s totally irrational, but it’s pervasive not just in sports, but in business and in life. Our classic notion of leadership is of the heroic kind, and even though that’s beginning to change in leadership circles, old mindsets are hard to break.

Photo by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Kangaroo Court: A Tool for Constructive Feedback

One of my personal challenges at Groupaya was not overwhelming my team with negative feedback. I was generally proud of the quality of my team’s work, and I think I was decent at expressing that pride in the form of positive, constructive feedback. However, I also generally had a long list of nitpicks, and I never felt the need to hold any of that back. In my mind, my positive feelings far outweighed my criticism. However, I often had difficulty communicating that.

My friend, Alex Kjerulf, is a happiness guru, and he speaks often about negativity bias. Humans are biologically more attuned to negative than to positive feedback, between three-to-five times as much. To compensate for negativity bias, you need to share positive feedback three-to-five times as often as negative.

I tried to do this, and I was sometimes even successful, but there was a deeper issue. Rebecca Petzel once said to me, “You’re the most positive person in the company, but somehow, your negative feedback stings more than anyone else’s.” My problem wasn’t necessarily quantity, it was quality.

I tried a lot of different things, and nothing seemed to work well. Out of desperation, I decided to invent a game inspired by kangaroo courts.

Kangaroo courts are essentially arbitrary forms of justice. In government, they describe a corrupt judicial system. In sports, however, they’re used as a way to enforce unwritten rules and to build team camaraderie.

A team’s veterans are usually the arbiters of justice, although the coaches sometimes play this role as well. Veteran leaders might fine their teammates for something ludicrous, such as wearing a really loud tie, but they also dole out justice for disciplinary reasons, such as showing up late to practice. Fines are often used to fund team parties.

I decided that Groupaya needed a kangaroo court. If I could attach a number to my feedback, then the magnitude of my feedback would become more clear. For nitpicks, I would dole out small fines. For major problems, I would dole out larger ones.

Given that we were not as liquid as professional athletes, I figured that an arbitrary point system would serve our purposes. Since we were using points instead of money, I figured we could actually reward people as well as penalize them. Since we had a flat, collaborative culture, I decided that anybody in the company should be able to both dole out and take away points. And if we were going to go through the effort of giving and taking points away, we might as well keep track of them.

On June 13, 2012, I created a page on our internal wiki outlining the “rules” of the game, and I announced the game on our internal microblog. I then modeled the game by docking two points from myself, one each for misspelling two people’s names in different places. (This is a huge detail pet peeve of mine, given that we’re in a relational business.)

The game lay dormant for a few days, then on June 17, 2012, I gave and took away points four additional times:

Eugene: +5 to Kristin for her June 14 addition on Charter markers to the Groupaya Way wiki. It was great information, and it showed that she’s developing an instinct for how to use wikis in-the-flow. Love it!

Eugene: -1 to Kristin for being overly motherly with Rebecca

Eugene: -1 to Rebecca for comparing me and Kristin to her parents.

Eugene: +1 to Eugene for unintentionally conceiving of a way to get people to learn how to use the wiki.

Out of the six times I delivered justice, three were “real,” and the rest were jokes. Two of the three “real” instances were me penalizing myself, and the other was me awarding points rather than taking them away.

At this point, our ops guru, Natalie Dejarlais, figured out what was going on, and contributed her own dry sense of humor:

Natalie: +1 to Rebecca for not comparing me to her parents.

Rebecca and Kristin Cobble, my Groupaya co-founder, were mystified. Rebecca, ever the competitive one, was miffed that she was down a point in a game that she hadn’t signed up for. Keep in mind, all of this was happening online. We had not seen each other or talked over the phone, so I had not had the chance to explain the game verbally.

Shortly afterward, I left town for a client, and while I was gone, Natalie explained the game to Rebecca and Kristin at coworking. They got it, both started playing, and the game took on a life of its own. Everyone played. We gave and took points away from each other and ourselves about 40 times a month.

Lots of them were silly, where we were simply goofing off and having fun with each other. Many were concrete and substantial. Unexpectedly, the vast majority of these were positive. I had designed the game to be a safe way to give negative feedback, but it had emerged as a way of celebrating each other’s successes, of tracking what we were doing well, and of lightening the overall mood.

At some point, I decided that the points winner each month should win a trophy (a Surfer Obama bobblehead doll I picked up in Hawaii along with a tiara that Natalie contributed to disincentivize me from trying to win) and that the points would reset each month. We had a monthly awards ceremony, where Natalie would blast the theme song from Rocky, and Kristin would pretend that she didn’t love Surfer Obama. (When she finally won, she confessed her true feelings.)

The game had its desired effect in terms of improving the overall learning culture in our organization, but its most important contribution was joy and humor. I often pondered writing a mobile app so that we could extend the game to our larger network, as we often found ourselves granting points to our external colleagues and clients, who never got to actually see them (or, more importantly, win Surfer Obama).

I’m strongly considering introducing some variation of the game into Changemaker Bootcamp, as I’m looking for creative ways of introducing more concrete feedback so that participants can track their progress. Amy Wu, Groupaya’s brilliant designer, recently told me that she had adapted the game for her kids to great effect. If you decide to adopt or adapt the game for your team or organization, let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear about it!

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time ESPN.com columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.

Technique, Practice, and Craft

Last week, Sports Illustrated published an article about Georgetown’s basketball program and its coach, John Thompson III. Georgetown has a long tradition of producing skilled big men, starting with Thompson’s father in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Thompson has continued that tradition, he’s gained a reputation for something different:

Much has been made about the Princeton-style offense that Georgetown runs under Thompson, about how difficult it is to defend and prepare for. But what is unique about Georgetown’s system has little to do with anything that is written in a playbook. Everything the Hoyas do offensively is based on reading the defense and reacting to those reads. Most systems involve a player being told something along the lines of: cut here, run off of that screen there, set a pick for him and roll to the basket, lather, rinse, repeat.

Georgetown’s theory is different.

Thompson doesn’t tell his team what to do on any given play. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, rather he teaches them, from the day they set foot on campus, how to make that decision for themselves based off of what they see on the floor in front of them. In his words, “the ability to just be a basketball player is something that we stress. Don’t be a position.”

And that is the most difficult point to get across.

“A lot of freshmen want to be told specifically what to do,” he said. “The difficult part becomes understanding that they have to make the read, because they’re so used to being told where to run in the play next.

“It’s new for most players to have to make reads and have to make decisions based on how they’re being played and how the defense is set. But once you grasp that way of thinking, I think it is very simple.”

I’ve loved basketball my whole life, but I’ve never played it competitively. So I’m intrigued by what this actually means in practice. I totally agree with it in theory. However, before you can learn how to make your own decisions, sometimes you have to learn things by rote.

I recently heard chef extraordinaire Jacques Pepin on the radio talking about cooking, and he gave a wonderful definition of technique:

For me, technique is very important. Technique is really a repetition, repetition, endless repetition of a certain movement, whether you use a knife or whatever, so it becomes so engrained, so part of yourself that you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.

You learn a certain movement, a certain reaction over and over and over again until, as Pepin said, “you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.” That, to me, is the essence of craft, whether it’s sports, cooking, or my own craft of collaboration. Learning certain things by rote ultimately gives you the freedom to express yourself.

After a recent playoff game, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had this to say about his point guard, Rajon Rondo:

“He’s got to be in attack,” Rivers said. “I thought the second quarter he was attacking and attacking. I thought he was reading a lot instead of playing on instincts. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him at times. He’s trying to read the defense, but you can’t read and play with speed at the same time.

“We go through it a lot — at least Rondo and I — about, ‘Rondo, just trust your instincts. Your speed has to be part of it. Your instincts will take over. You’ll make the right decision.'”

Doing any craft well is all about trusting your instincts. You get those instincts by doing your thinking in practice rather than in the moment.