Posts Tagged 'Basketball'

Talent is a Process

With the semester over, I was able to dive into a couple of books that I had been waiting to read.  On the surface, they seem very different in subject matter, but reading them in succession allowed for some interesting insights.

The first book that I read was David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, whose thesis is that the usual conception of talent is incorrect.  Rather than being innate, talents are developed over years of sustained practice. (The canonical 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

The book, which is shorter than it looks due to the notes that fill about half of the volume, covers a variety of interesting topics to help debunk the notion that talents and other personal qualities are inborn.  The author describes a new understanding of genetics by throwing out the classic “nature vs. nurture” distinction, and arguing that the two are inextricably linked through the interaction of genes with their environment.  He goes too far with this in the final chapter, discussing the impact of epigenetic material (stuff other than DNA) on gene expression.  While there seems to be some credible and recent research on the effects of lifestyle on heredity, his assertion that “we may well be able to improve the conditions for our grandchildren by putting our young children through intellectual calisthenics now” seems to me to be a gross overstatement of the research.  Although much of the rest of the book is couched in this genetic argument, it isn’t dependent on his perhaps flawed understanding of the biology.

To determine the true sources of talent, Shenk discusses everything from the history of intelligence testing and “gifted” designations to the reasons for the athletic dominance of certain ethnic groups in their chosen sport.  (It is interesting to note that people used to wonder what genetic gifts allowed Jewish players to dominate basketball in the 30s and 40s, in much the same way that people discuss black players today.)  However, it seems that the most important factor for the development of talent is still the same: deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice requires more than just hard work, and it is not achieved by simply “putting in your 10,000 hours,” although both hard work and large amounts of time are certainly required.  Instead, it involves pushing beyond one’s current skill level to the point of failure, then picking up the pieces and trying again.  This type of practice is not necessarily enjoyable, but pushing beyond current limits is the only way to improve.  The practice activities have to be focused on particular aspects of the performance, with appropriate refinement and feedback for improvement.

It’s easy to imagine this deliberate practice as applied by a musician: seeking out more challenging pieces of music to play, focusing on the most technical measures, playing them repeatedly in solo practice, and later for a demanding instructor.  Or we can imagine the chess student, poring over volumes of opening and closing strategies, learning the tricks of the masters through solo study of their games, before testing those skills against ever tougher competition.

And of course, we can see this playing out with athletes, as it did in the other book I read to start my summer: Chris Ballard’s The Art of a Beautiful Game, which has chapters that discuss several of the basic components of basketball.  Though the book is wonderfully written, and a great read for any basketball fan, I couldn’t help but notice a strange battle playing out between the belief in natural athletic talent with the evidence of his descriptions of the players’ relentless practice habits.

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The Science of Who’s the Best

The Physics ArXiv Blog recently discussed a paper on the statistical problem with soccer tournaments.  In particular, the authors note the problem that there is only a 28% chance that the “best team” won the most recent World Cup.  They also point to the presence of intransitive triplets,  or rock-paper-scissors type relationships where team A beats team B beats team C, who then beats team A.  They cite these results to support their claim that single-elimination tournaments, and soccer games in general are a bad experiment to determine the best team.

I don’t know much about soccer, but as a basketball fan, I’m not surprised to hear about the existence of these intransitive triplets.  Sure, after an 82-game NBA season where every team plays each other at least twice,  you can feel pretty confident about ranking the teams on a rough hierarchy.  But three teams of roughly the same level can definitely have a rock-paper-scissors relationship because of different areas of strength.

More interesting, however is their claim about single-elimination tournaments, as it makes me think of the age-old debate that seems to come up every March: Which is better, NCAA or NBA basketball?

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Missing the Important Stuff

Bear with me as I force an analogy between watching basketball and grading physics quizzes.

When I watch basketball on TV, especially during March Madness, I’m often annoyed by the way they handle the replays.  After an exciting play, I’ll yell at the TV, begging for a replay so that I can see again exactly how the play developed.  When they do show the replay, I’ll often end up yelling at the TV again, because they left out all the important part of the play.

They show the shot being released, traveling through the air and splashing through the net, ignoring the pick and roll and the deft pass that set up the shot.  The time that the ball is in the air is really the least interesting part of that play.  The ball flies the same way every time, and we already know the result of the play.  Show us how they got there.

Or they show the dunk at the end of a fast break, hiding the defense that set up the break and the smart decicion making of the point guard that got the ball to the right player to finish the play.  The dunk gets the fans excited and shows up on Sports Center, but it doesn’t happen without the key plays that set it up.

Now the switch to physics…

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