Don't Believe in Super Heroes
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Analytics and Sports

Don't Believe in Super Heroes

My guess is that most adults do not really believe in super heroes. They do not believe that there are people that are born with super human powers that allow them to perform acts that are not thinkable for “normal” humans.  Yet this is exactly how we tend to view athletes. Somehow, when we see Michael Jordan fly through the air and dunk, or Adrian Peterson bully his way through the line of scrimmage and then outrun defensive backs, or Usain Bolt appears to be literally faster than a speeding bullet, we attribute these feats to something called “natural ability”. When we talk about natural ability, what we tend to mean is that these individuals were born with the ability to do the things that so amaze us. If these athletes are truly “born this way” then that means they are genetic freaks and that, to significantly simplify things, have the basketball, football or sprinting gene that the rest of us simply do not. While there is some evolutionary argument for a sprinter’s gene, I’m pretty sure that football and basketball have not been around long enough for evolution to works its magic.

So if we should not believe in athletic super powers and natural ability, how can the truly amazing accomplishments of these and many other athletes be explained? If it is not just through genetic luck that the all-powerful Jordan was created, what was it? In order to fully appreciate the answer, we must first make a fundamental distinction between athletic ability and the ability to play a sport. Michael Jordan was not an elite athlete; he was an elite basketball player (he very famously demonstrated that his athletic ability did not translate to other sports).  Tim Tebow, for example, is probably more athletic than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, yet he many never throw another pass in the NFL. Being athletic does not mean you are capable of performing at an elite level in any particular sport. The qualification is not physical, but mental.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are able to perform as elite level football players, not because they are better athletes than anyone else, but because they see the game differently than the rest of us. When they get under center, they can see, based on visual cues from the defense, how the defense is likely to react to the play they are about to run. Elite performers are able to take in and quickly process these visual cues to allow them to have an understanding of how the play will develop. There is growing research that demonstrates that the brains of these athletes are different from those of everyone else, in how they process what they see on their field of play. When faced with an in game situation, non-elite performers have to take in the information that they see and make a decision about what to do next. Elite performers, process all of the information that they see in a different part of their brain from the rest of us, they are not making decisions, but reacting – it is just reflex to them. Manning and Jordan are not making decisions during, they simply know where to be and how to react and they do it.

The video clip below of Ray Lewis on 4 and 2 against the Chargers is a great example of reading perceptual cues, making a prediction about what is about to happen, and getting to the best place to make the play ahead of everyone else. Notice that Lewis actually starts sprinting towards the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, and never breaks stride until he has made the stop in the backfield. He was not in decision making mode; he was in reacting/reflex mode. The announcer even says "almost as if he knew what was coming." In fact, he probably did. He recognized the cues from the offensive line and the QB, and the RB and saw what they were about to do.

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Ray Lewis 4th Down Game Over
Ray Lewis is one of the best defensive players the NFL has ever seen. I know this doesn't look like much. But Ray Lewis stopped the game & Darren Sproles with one hit.

That the difference between elite and non-elite players is mental and not physical does not rule out the existence of super heroes. Maybe Jordan was just born with a basketball expert brain. The research suggests otherwise. The research suggests that there is no such thing as someone who is born to be an elite basketball or football player, but rather that these athletes, and their brains, are made.  They are made through hours and hours of deliberate practice. The research suggests that these skills are developed over time and practice and, in fact, when coaches focus on them, they can actually help their players develop them more directly.

Given this point of view on what makes an elite athlete, the challenge for the scout or analyst, is to determine which players have these well-developed instincts and which are getting by on athletic ability. Drafting or recruiting the ones that are getting by on athletic ability is like believing in super heroes. While understanding the player’s brain, and helping them develop it, is understanding how to create elite level performers.


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