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.

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19 Responses to “Our Weekend at the Sports Nerd Super Bowl”

  1. doc says:

    Dan, With all the data that teams gather on other teams and players they are very familiar with the tendencies and what they will do in any given situation. Pitchers spend a lot of time studying hitters and vice versa. Football teams do the same. It would be interesting (at least to me) to see what would happen if a football team chose each play based on a random number generator or a pitcher threw the next pitch based on the same. I realize the downside of this (wouldn’t want a quarterback sneak with 4th and 30 with the superbowl on the line)but I still think it would be interesting when you took the scouting aspect and past tendencies out of the equation.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Doc, I love your idea. It sounds like something the conference ought to explore — the power of true randomness!

  3. Christine says:

    Excellent rule. The first thing I thought of is how much this also applies to the business world when you really think about it. Thanks for sharing this insight!

  4. Peter says:

    Absolutely love it, Dan.

  5. John says:

    I have long coached that teams have piano players and piano carriers……equate to sheepdog and sheep. I often use the aircraft carrier analogy – 5500 crew members whose job it is to make 250 pilots look and perform perfectly.

    I remember reading an article on developing football (soccer) players in Amsterdam….the director of coaching for Ajax FC (youth) said that when scouring the countryside for future talent, he zeroes in on 2 things – 1. players who are on the balls of their feet 2. players who are motivated.

    To this day, I use that as one metric at my soccer academy….the Excellence Through Mastery (ETM) Soccer Academy in Charlottesville, Va. It works!

  6. John says:

    I meant to include the website of ETM Soccer Academy in my previous comment…..much of what we do is based on what you refer to as the “soft” stuff. Thanks Dan!

  7. I said it before. The worker bees make the honey, not the queens. Give me worker bees. Or call them sheep. The special quality of a sheepdog (and you don’t need many of them – sometimes one will do) is that they make the players around them better. They move the entire herd along.

  8. Takeshi says:

    Perhaps we haven’t cracked the “Culture” code yet because we don’t have enough of the right data yet? I feel that if people were able to gather the right data about these things, patterns would emerge and strategies could be developed.

  9. sparky says:

    Couldn’t agree more about cracking the “culture” code. Sounds like it would make a great book!

    Sheepdogs: It should be said that we’re not talking about a big loveable lap dog here. When working, they’re snarling, persistent, nip at your heels, obedient work dogs eager to please and willing to do what it takes to get the job done!

  10. Yet when sheepdogs are “working” it is almost like play to them. They enjoy the game.

  11. Aleksander Eidsvåg says:

    How can we challenge our selves and change the corpses and terrorists into team players, instead of just getting rid of them?

  12. Mike Hargrove says:

    Sorry to say, but usually by the time a coach gets the corpses and terrorists, their patterns of behavior and play are so deeply imbedded by nature and possibly nurture that it is a Sisyphean task to correct in the face of trying to build a team for those who are fit for the process.

  13. doc says:

    Has any study been done on the best ratio of sheep to sheepdogs?

  14. Candice says:

    Hi Dan, Love this post. I notice you’re speaking about the soft stuff more and more regularly. I’m an EQ specialist – so I help people get smarter with feelings. I’ve wanted to write a book like The Talent Code except about emotions, character and how to help develop it. The title I like is ‘A User Manual to being Human’. I realize at the rate I’m going it’s not going to happen. Do you think it’s something you might like to do?

  15. Will says:

    Hi Dan,

    You mentioned the places that Big Data can’t yet go. (“motivation, heart, team culture, work ethic, leadership, friendship”)

    But it is starting to go there with specific personality tests. For example, a company called “Cream” (http://cream.hr) uses personality tests to help businesses make new hires. The main benefit from these tests is to make the hiring process more efficient and accurate. Instead of reading hundreds of resumes, personality tests can filter out all of the resumes that can be safely overlooked. Instead of hiring people who have a lot of experience but no heart, businesses can find younger people with less experience but the right personality and potential. And instead of hiring people who are good at lying in interviews, businesses can find people with personalities that match the position needing filling.

    But there are a few things that differentiate Cream from other companies who attempt to do the same thing:

    One interesting thing is, when Cream teams up with these businesses, they also work with them to identify the personalities that would best suit the position (and different jobs really do require different personalities). So it’s not just a one-sized-fits all type of test.

    Another interesting thing is that they use a specific type of test where applicants have to be more honest. They do this by forcing the candidate to choose between 2 desirable alternatives, for example. (See this study if you want more information: http://psych.utoronto.ca/users/peterson/pdf/2008%20Hirsh%20JB%20Peterson%20JB%20Unfakeable%20Big%20Five%20JRP.PDF )

    A third interesting thing is that the qualities you mentioned are actually testable. The guy who made up this personality test and who is handling this part of Cream is a psychologist, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, who is an expert on personality testing (among other things). His tests can find people who are high in the trait conscientious, meaning they have high work ethic and integrity. He has done multiple experiments on conscientiousness showing that the trait helps predict performance. He is also developing tests that study a thing called “latent-inhibition” which is predictive of creativity.

    Dr Peterson was by far my favorite professor when I studied psychology in university. He is the most interesting psychologist and the best lecturer that I have ever seen. Here is his website: http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/peterson/

    (No, I don’t work for Cream, but I am Peterson’s #1 fan!)

  16. Will says:

    Gahh typo:
    “His tests can find people who are high in the trait conscientiousNESS.”

  17. Richard says:

    Dan, another great piece and another Dweck reference, which is no surprise. I tend to agree with Mike n relation to Aleksander’s comment. Short of some players maturing, once they get to around 20 ish, their core behaviours and values are locked in. The skill and physical parameters are changeable, the underlying personalities are fixed.

    My question or challenge is we need to identify better ways of talent scouting the sheepdogs and sheep, and for that matter being able to id the corpses’ and terrorists and not waste our time with them. They do not change. If they can change of their own accord they will find a way back.

    Coach K talks about watching how kids treat their parents when he interviews them, that it has been as good a predictor as any in relation to the character of the player. Pretty simple test!

  18. Sarah says:

    I live in the Middle East and coach my son’s 12 yr old basketball team. I love the sheepdog, sheep, corpse, terrorist analysis. However, while sheep are fine, popular,even, I would get into huge trouble if I used some of the other words explaining attitude. Any suggestions for replacing corpse and terrorist with equally strong but less emotionally charged words?

  19. djcoyle says:

    Hi Sarah – Wow — how right you are! How about keeping with the animal theme and using “fox” instead of “terrorist”? And you could use “sloth” or “cow” instead of “corpse.” Best, Dan

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