Our Weekend at the Sports Nerd Super Bowl

This past weekend my 17-year-old son Aidan and I traveled to Boston to attend the Sports Nerd Super Bowl, also known as MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It’s the year’s supreme gathering of scientists, coaches, scouts, team owners, and others who are obsessed with capturing and understanding the hidden metrics that drive performance.

Here’s what we learned, in the form of DOs and DON’Ts:

  • 1) DO NOT attempt to challenge a basketball-playing robot to a free-throw shooting contest.
  • 2) DO attend late-night Chianti-fueled Italian dinners with British soccer scouts and U.S. Olympic talent-development researchers, who are among the most entertaining and insightful humans on the planet.
  • 3) DO NOT, under any circumstances, choose the vegetarian option for the boxed lunch (which may have been assembled using spare parts from the aforementioned robots).
  • 4) DO accept the fact that your future is all about embracing big data.

Sorry, I should have typed BIG DATA, because that’s the way it feels. The analytics avalanche triggered by Moneyball continues to accelerate and widen, and is now on the verge of taking over many aspects of training, scouting, coaching, and performing — exactly the same way that it’s making fundamental changes in the way we approach business and education. (As if to prove it, on the plane ride home I sat next to an educational consultant who was reading Driven by Data.)

We are all living in Dataworld, where nothing is sexier than massive piles of raw information. Did you know, at most NBA games, six specialized cameras hang in the rafters to capture every dribble, every acceleration, the precise arc of every shot — and convert that data into terrabytes of useful strategic information? Or that it’s possible to use retinal tracking to predict which soccer players are the most effective passers? Or that you could write a paper entitled “The Algorithmic Taxonomy of Basketball Plays from Optical Data” and actually be considered kind of a rock star? (If you’re curious, I’d recommend touring the website).

For me, however, most fascinating part had to do with the mysterious places Big Data can’t yet go — motivation, heart, team culture, work ethic, leadership, friendship. In short, the Soft Stuff, the black box of emotions and communication and that powerful force-field we call “culture.”  As former NFL coach Herm Edwards said in one panel, “Numbers are numbers, but people play the game.”

It’s true. We are social animals, driven by emotional forces we don’t understand. No amount of analytics can explain how broken relationships can destroy a team’s chances to succeed. Likewise, there’s no algorithm that explains how a combination of selfless players, with the right leadership, can become far more than the sum of their parts.

In fact, most insightful piece of information I heard all weekend came not during the conference but during that late-night Italian dinner in Boston’s North End. It came from a highly experienced soccer scout for a large English team, who had spent most of the past decade traveling the world trying to find out which nameless 13-year-old might have a shot at becoming the next Messi or Ronaldo. He was a brilliant guy who understood all the analytics. But the advice he shared had zero to do with numbers.

“At every level of sport there are four types of players,” he said, holding up four fingers. “Sheepdogs — the leaders, the guys who call the tune. Sheep — the ones who follow where they’re led. Corpses — who just lay there, who aren’t going to really try — and Terrorists, the ones who will undermine the coach and destroy your team if you give them the chance. So to have a good team, you need to find sheepdogs and sheep, and get rid of the corpses and terrorists.”

Around the table — a table filled with scouts and talent-development types — heads started nodding. Yes! In those four words — sheepdogs, sheep, corpses, terrorists — the scout had neatly explained the dysfunctional culture of the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Lakers, and all the other super-talented teams that had failed to perform. I started thinking of all the teams I’d ever been involved with, and the pattern fit — the teams with sheepdogs and sheep succeeded, the ones with corpses and terrorists imploded.

I love Big Data.  But the Sheepdog/Terrorist Rule is information that I can really appreciate.