Computers, Jeopardy and Sports Decision-Making

Harvard Sports Analysis Collective reviewed the IBM vs Ken Jennings Jeopardy episode:

The ironic aspect of human thresholds is that thinking usually screws us up, especially in sports: we spend plenty of time criticizing coaching decisions on the blog, but the most important choices are made by the athletes. Unless Tim Wakefield or Jamie Moyer is pitching, the batter doesn’t have a chance to get out his calculator before deciding whether or not to swing. Hesitation and introspection usually don’t work out. The greatest athletes get a lot of their value from the ability to do what Watson does: take in a seemingly infinite amount of information and act upon it in a seemingly infinitesimal amount of time. The next time you watch a highlight of Gretzky, Messi, or Nash (John or Steve) on the attack, try to figure out their decision-making process. It’ll take you a few slow-motion instant replays, and you’ll probably still be wrong.

This presents a problem in coaching and learning. First, since the best athletes are feelers, not thinkers, they often struggle to pass along their knowledge to the next generation of players. Their knowledge is procedural – they understand how to do something. However, coaches use declarative knowledge – they tell players what to do.

When Steve Nash dribbles down court and makes a move to his right instead of his left, he does not contemplate his options consciously. He probably does not realize the cue that he noticed that caused him to go right instead of left. He felt something based on a catalogue of experiences stored in his procedural memory.

This, of course, is the second problem. We ask players to think in order to get to a state where they don’t think. We break movements into small parts as a teaching tool, but this often eliminates the feel of the movement.

We teach players where to look or what cue to read, but when they try to read these cues through conscious thinking, they are too slow. Rather than create learning experiences for players, we tell players what to do through explicit instructions, thus taking away the learning experience from players. They may learn to verbalize the correct response when prompted, but they fail to act on the response at game speed.

I coached a clinic last spring. When I asked questions, the players knew the correct answers. They had been well taught. They knew the standard responses to typical questions, like where to attack if the defender plays a certain way. However, when I watched them play, they almost never made the right decision. They often missed the opening completely. They had developed declarative knowledge, but not the procedural knowledge. They were working at a conscious level, and this was too slow to notice small openings in real time.

The genius of Steve Nash is the ability to work at the subconscious level where he feels the right solution rather than thinking through the situation. He feels a cutter to his left, so he takes a dribble to the right to move the defender and then drops off the pass. Developing this level of feel requires experience. Knowing the right answer does not mean that one performs the skill optimally at game speed. Verbalizing the correct response and executing the correct action are different skills, and like the computer, the true test of skill is the ability to take in a constantly shifting situation with multiple moving parts and execute the correct solution at the appropriate time at a subconscious level.

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