Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tommy and the Madam

Whenever sordid details come out about sports stars, commentators start throwing out the cliché: “we don’t really know these people.” It’s a condescending, and a rather obvious, statement meant to deflate fans who hero-worship athletes. Unless you are under 12-years-old and/or really believe a Nike commercial is reality, you have probably figured out by now that athletes are physically gifted individuals who are susceptible to as much human folly as anyone. Give someone stardom, a lot of money and free-time and funny things start to happen. There was a time, before the book Ball Four was published, that athletes' private lives were private. In The Fray is certainly no prude but after reading the alleged sexual exploits of Dodger great Tommy Lasorda (yes, you read that name correctly) perhaps we can bring back another cliche: "ignorance is bliss."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Penalty Shots: How goalkeepers can increase their odds

Like kickers in American football and coxies in rowing, soccer goalies fit into a subculture within a sport.

So when the March issue of Psychological Science appeared with the intriguingly titled, "Imperceptibly Off-Center Goalkeepers Influence Penalty-Kick Direction in Soccer" by R.S.W. Masters, J. van der Kamp, and R.C. Jackson, In The Fray was excited to finally find out the psychological makeup of goal-minders. Alas, "imperceptibly off-center" has nothing to do with being "a little off," rather it is a reference to where the goalie stands on a penalty shot.

Here's the crux of the study: when a goalie lines up for a penalty shot, he is usually "imperceptibly" off to one or the other side by nine or so centimeters. The penalty taker senses the slightly larger open area and usually shoots to that larger space and scores. (Only 18 percent of penalty kicks are saved.) Goal minders, however, don't really realize they are standing to one side or the other--of 190 penalty shots in World Cups, African Nations Cups, European Championships, and UEFA Champions League matches, the goalie actually dove to the smaller area 94 times so "the displacement was not purposeful strategy," according to the authors of the paper. So here is what goalies should do to get a little advantage: stand a little to one side (six to 10 cms is enough) and dive to the larger space because that is where kickers are at least 10 percent more likely to direct the penalty kick.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In Remembrance: Mean Coaches

With the firing of Marty Schottenheimer last night, and Bill Parcells and Bill Cowher leaving the coaching ranks, the NFL has lost three of the better scream-n-spit style coaches, a rapidly depleting group. Much was made at the Super Bowl about Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, two nice guys by all accounts, who treat their players like men. A Wall Street Journal columnist, praising the two coaches for not cursing or sarcastically chewing out players, quoted Dungy saying, "there's not a lot of profanity from the coaches, there's none of the win-at-all-costs atmosphere. I think for two guys to show you can win that way is important for the country to see." While that is all really nice and pleasant and probably great for America, as an observer of sports it's much more fun to watch a coach have outward, insane passion. That doesn't mean a coach, especially at the high school or college level, has to go all Col. Jessep (a guy like Bobby Knight is a relic), but it is fun to see some basic rah-rah enthusiasm. The scene of a defeated coach completely losing it might, sadly, go by the wayside. Pro and college coaches--a profession turning bland before our eyes--are supposed to hide any candor, and when they are interviewed at half-time during a game, it is difficult to watch the fake niceness with the side-line reporter. (Here is old school Bear Bryant barely stomaching questions from a sideline interviewer.) While calm-cool-collected is the new trend, apparently, Dan Hawkins, the University of Colorado's football coach, is grasping to the old tough guy--bordering-on-missing-a-few-marbles approach. Truth? You can't handle the truth!

[Links from Deadspin, The Wizard of Odds , and Lion In Oil.]

Friday, February 09, 2007

Freakonomics & Fan Violence

In light of the violence and barring of fans at Italian soccer stadiums, the Freakonomics economists have an interesting post about fan violence. In the Fray explored the same topic a couple months ago in a lengthy post, entitled "Fan behavior: How has the U.S. escaped bigotry in the stands?"