From London Review of Books
In the United States, there has been a lot of serious academic research – and some not so serious – into the curious phenomenon of the Hot Hand. In all sports, there are moments when an individual player or whole team suddenly gets hot, and starts performing way beyond expectations. When this happens, the player or team seems to acquire an aura of self-assurance that transmits itself to supporters, fuelling a strong conviction that things are going to turn out for the best. This sense of conviction then reinforces the confidence of the players in their own abilities, appearing to create for a while a virtuous circle of infallibility in which nothing can, and therefore nothing does, go wrong. The quintessential instance of the Hot Hand (which gives the phenomenon its name) occurs in basketball, where certain players suddenly and inexplicably acquire the ability to nail three-point baskets one after another (in basketball you get three points for any basket scored from a distance of over 23’9’’, a formidably difficult feat which means even the best players miss more often than they score). When a player gets the Hot Hand, his or her team-mates know to give them the ball and let fate take its course. Anyone who has watched a game in which a player acquires this gift will recognise the feeling of predestination that descends on all concerned: players, spectators, commentators (above all, commentators) just know what is going to happen each time the Hot One lines up a basket from some improbable position on the court. He shoots! He scores!
What the research shows is that all this – the sense of destiny, the effect it has on a player’s confidence, the virtuous circle – is an illusion. Exhaustive analysis of the data has revealed that making a sequence of three-point baskets has almost no bearing on the likelihood of making the next one, which remains determined by a player’s basic skill level (some players are more likely to make the shot than others, but that is just because they are consistently better at it, not because they are intermittently Hotter). What we experience as the Hot Hand is simply a result of the random distribution of chance, which determines that some players, inevitably, will string together a successful series of shots, just as if you get enough people tossing a coin, some of them will get heads 20 times in a row. We believe these sequences reflect a kind of destiny only because we are predisposed to remember the occasions when the sequence seemed to go on for ever, and forget all those other occasions when a promising little sequence went kaput. This is exactly the same as our propensity to recall and fixate on those very rare instances of dreams or horoscopes that appear to ‘come true’, as some must do under the law of averages, and to ignore the countless others which turn out to be groundless and are instantly forgotten. The Hot Hand, like astrology, is a fallacy, though there is some argument about whether or not it is an ‘adaptive’ fallacy, i.e. one we might have good reason to cling on to anyway, because it helps to remind predominantly self-interested, cocksure players that they are better off passing the ball to the best three-point shooters on the team. Whether adaptive or not, fallacies like this are evidence of a persistent human tendency to imbue randomly distributed events with magical properties, particularly when they conjure up an ability to peer into the future.
In sport, the magic that everyone is after is a sprinkling of the fairy dust of ‘self-belief’, that elusive quality that is so often said to separate out the winners from the losers. It turns out that really and truly believing the ball is destined to go through the hoop makes no difference. But this doesn’t mean that there is no magic out there. The clearest evidence that mysterious forces are at work on the sports field comes from the unarguable impact of home advantage in almost every kind of sporting contest (in professional basketball the home team wins about 66 per cent of the time, and in Premiership football the home team wins nearly 64 per cent of the available points). There has been a lot of academic work on this phenomenon, too, but there is nowhere near as much consensus about what is causing it. Some have argued that the advantage of playing at home derives from a series of ‘technical’ factors – away teams are tired by long journeys, have to sleep in uncomfortable hotel beds, may be unused to local playing conditions – which means that it is no different from the other technical advantages, such as fitness and skill levels, that players bring to a game. The problem with this view is that although the advantage of playing at home has declined somewhat over the century-plus history of professional sports, it hasn’t declined by much; meanwhile, the technical disadvantages of playing away have been greatly reduced by significant improvements in all aspects of travel: first-class flights, fancy hotels, on-site physiotherapists etc. These days, no big league team should ever arrive at an away game tired, tetchy, homesick (the top players lead such bicoastal, transcontinental, post-nuclear lives that it’s not clear what it would mean for them to be homesick anyway); yet winning away from home is still very hard.
Something else is clearly going on: something happens during a game that makes home teams raise their performance levels, and away teams drop theirs. In fact, it seems likely that two things happen, though no one is sure what their relation is to each other. First, even though football pitches and basketball courts are more or less the same, familiarity with one’s surroundings, however anonymous they might appear from the outside, seems to enhance confidence in the performance of repetitive physical tasks. Teams that move stadiums, even from one identikit arena to another, tend to sacrifice a big chunk of home advantage until they familiarise themselves with their new surroundings. The other thing that improves performance is an audience – any audience, so long as it is relatively benign (home advantage is more or less constant between the football leagues, regardless of the size of the crowds). Home fans like to think that what makes a difference is the noise they make, but in fact it seems that they make a difference simply by being there, and by wanting things to go well for their team. Away players, who can’t be nearly so confident of how the crowd will react when things go well for them, don’t have this advantage.
Where do modern football managers, those devotees of the gospel of self-belief, fit into this magical/mechanical universe? Can they, like the home crowd, really make a difference to their players’ innate abilities by instilling that ineffable something extra? Or are they, too, at the mercy of the Hot Hand, mere surfers on the inexorable waves of chance like everyone else? Patrick Barclay’s portrait of José Mourinho, with its subtitle ‘Anatomy of a Winner’, promises an answer to these questions. But in fact it simply confirms how little thought even the best football writers are willing to give to the workings of chance in the building and destroying of reputations. Barclay buys uncritically into Mourinho’s self-created myth which holds that he is ‘A Special One’, a manager who promises great things and then unfailingly delivers them. In the lazy phrase that Barclay uses as the title of his first chapter, Mourinho ‘does what it says on the tin’. The evidence for this is that Mourinho, fresh from delivering the Champions League title to his previous club, Porto, arrived in London in the summer of 2004 promising to make the difference for Chelsea, and within nine months had presented them with their first league title for 50 years. Barclay talks to a number of other coaches, including David Moyes of Everton, who originally believed that Mourinho had made himself a hostage to fortune by his blind faith in his ability to shape his own destiny: ‘The initial feeling was that you just couldn’t display that kind of arrogance in this country and get away with it.’ But when Chelsea swept all before them, Moyes also became one of the converted – here truly was a manager with something special to add.