Friday, January 16, 2009


At this blog, I often link to and use statistics and statistical analysis to understand and argue about football. I do certainly believe that we should look to what objective data we can find to understand sporting events. But I am also frustrated with how statistics can be used, as totalizing explanations of reality (this frustration likely springs from my literary tastes and religious sensibilities). I want argument to be based on objective evidence, on factual data--but that doesn't mean I don't believe in "intangibles," in the existence of things that cannot be proven with numbers.

At Football Outsiders, Mike Tanier mentions

"'intangibles,' like home-field advantage and playoff experience. Flacco's remarkable implacability notwithstanding, he's playing in his 19th NFL game, completing a whirlwind of a year that took him from obscurity to the center of the sports universe. He has completed just 44 percent of his postseason attempts, and he'll attempt to make history on Sunday in one of the most hostile stadiums in the sports world. You can't put a DVOA number on the pressures he's facing, nor can you shrug them off as immeasurable, and therefore nonexistent." (emphasis mine)

I find Tanier's statement to be a clear and nuanced expression of my thoughts, primarily that "immeasurable" does not mean "nonexistent." I remember in a high school Economics class when I balked at some of the basic tenets (to the claim that there is a limited supply of all things, with value placed as such, an adolescent PV raised his hand and said "What about love?" I blush at the expression, but the belief is still sincere: much of what drives human existence--love, faith, fear, etc.--is "intangible," immeasurable, unlimited, but quite real (it's not exactly a surprise that my academic pursuits ran toward literature and language over math and science). I continue to find this belief supported in my literary studies (such as the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, explicitly in Notes from the Underground where the narrator talks about the irrational motivations of human beings).

I certainly believe those intangibles are relevant to the world of sports. But Tanier makes a further point:

"It's the nature of intangibles that they can go either way."

The "intangibles," by their very nature, are immeasurable, unpredictable, erratic and unclear. They do, indeed, impact the events of the world, including sports, but we don't usually know how they will influence the world. And that's why when talking about sports, I again and again turn to the objective data of statistics. The numbers do not always give us a whole picture, but the numbers are facts, grounded in a firmer reality than our subjective interpretations of the intangibles. I think good writing about sports can feature the tangible or the intangible (or both), but a sound argument requires supportive evidence to be convincing.


  1. I think that's always been my problem with sports analysis - I don't think enough value is placed on the intangibles, and I think a lot of analysts/experts/whatever are afraid to admit that because it would seem to invalidate their work. I guess in a way it would be like saying "here's a service/product I want you to subscribe to or buy, but it's just numbers which aren't the whole picture, so it's rather incomplete, sorry".

    My passion lies in sports psychology, and from my studies and the interviews I've done it is readily apparent that the intangibles matter just as much as the tangibles when it comes to winning and losing, and quite honestly it's the intangibles that have a direct effect ON the tangibles, so why aren't we studying them more? It's the proverbial elephant in the room, and it's frustrating to see it ignored by statisticians but I guess that's their nature.

  2. Sorry to comment twice -

    With regards to the nature of the intangibles...while I agree there is, and always will be, fluctuation because we are human, that is not to say that we will follow a perfect pattern of ups and downs with the same amount of fluctuation forever.

    The whole premise behind sports psychology, the field that deals the most with the intangibles, is that athletes can be trained to change the frequency and amplitude of these swings. An athlete can be trained to focus, create positive mental images, and put themselves in positions where they will be more likely to succeed (just to name a few things). Athletes can become more consistent, thus eliminating SOME of the unpredictability from their performance.

    Certainly there are some intangibles that we really cannot change - "the bounce of the ball" so to speak - but human "intangible" traits such as focus, determination, problem solving, team mentality...these things can be taught, learned, and incorporated into an athlete's repertoire of skills and qualities. They are less "intangible" than some might think. It's just that most of us aren't sports psychologists, and we can't psychoanalyze the players on a weekly basis, so WE can't measure these things. But there are people out there who can, and do.

  3. Psychology is an interesting field to bring up in this discussion--it is a Science (using the scientific method, practicing experiment and observation), yet in my readings it sometimes comes off more like Philosophy (particularly in the way conclusions are drawn from the observable data). I think of Stanley Milgram or Philip Zimbardo, doing controlled experiments but reaching sweeping, grand conclusions about human nature and atrocities. I guess it seems to me both the tangible and intangible are relevant in psychology.

  4. Thinking about it more, psychology probably does get at many of the "intangibles." When we talk about concepts like "clutch" (why some individuals mentally handle pressure situations better than others) or "home field advantage" (the field dimensions are the same--does crowd noise or travel fatigue adequately explain any advantage?), we're talking about psychology, right?

  5. Though now that I mention it, "home field advantage" might be a bad example, since there are several tangible factors at play (in addition to crowd noise affecting one offense and not the other and travel fatigue, differences between turf and grass or more prominently between domed and outdoor stadium may impact a road team).

  6. great piece, pv!

    there's plenty of work out there that doesn't talk numbers and gets it all wrong. plenty of work out there that crunches numbers and gets it just as wrong. it's a difficult line between the two. and the great thing about sports, there's no substitute for what your eye sees.

  7. Sh!t Happens!!! Enough said!!!

    Only God can know all the intangibles in the lives of every person, the actions of every game, event, or battle and no matter how well a soldier or athlete or person is trained/conditioned... nothing is absolutely certain (aka the outcomes of games).

    So many things are believed certain through training, conditioning, and faith in achieving a positive result for the unknown outcome of (life, eternity, and of course NFL games)!!!

  8. The problem is that, in sports, saying someone has "intangibles" is akin to saying "They're not very good, but we're going to root for/pay them anyway."

    You never hear about Adrian Peterson's and Albert Pujols's "intangibles," but Wes Welker and David Eckstein (who are both decent, but not great) are always touted as having them.

    It's largely just a way to support an argument about a player's worth when there's no actual data to back up said argument, which always strikes me as just a bad way to make an argument