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How to Win

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Yesterday at the Gold Medal Squared coaching clinic, we received a sobering lesson in statistics. Why sobering?

Because the talk reminded us that in trying to measure any performance, we face two challenges: First, we must measure the right thing. Second, we must measure the right thing in the right way.

It brings to mind the quote attributed to 19th-century British leader Benjamin Disraeli and echoed by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

The best example of a misleading statistic comes from the world of baseball. For decades, batting average ranked among the most venerated statistics. Newspapers published the list of batting leaders every day. At the end of the season, one player in each major league earned the title of batting champion.

Then came a man named Bill James, who argued that batting average was not the best way to measure a player’s value to the team. At first rejected, James‘ argument is now a key operating assumption for most teams. In other words, for years baseball had been putting value on the wrong thing.

Which brings us back to the sobering issue of what you are doing with statistics. Are you measuring the right thing? In the right way?

In the Gold Medal Squared camp, the talk centered on serving. What is the best way to measure a truly effective server?

But the same question could apply to tennis serving, football punting, baseball pitching, anything in the world of sports.

For instance, in hockey, teams keep a record of “shots on goal.” But this figure has never told me much. How good are the shots? Where are they being taken from?

Without answers to these questions, we may never be able to learn more about the science of generating goals and preventing them.

Are you measuring the right thing in the right way?


One comment for “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”

  1. I’ve always wondered how one might measure playing “intensity.” This nebulous value has always seemed crucial to me whether it involves keeping up intensity when in the lead or finding a way to increase it when trailing. We know it when we see it, but what is it?

    Posted by Peter Hirsch | July 20, 2009, 9:43 am

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