September 8, 2012
The Mechanical Flaw Fixers
There's nothing worse than not knowing why something went wrong. Pinpoint a problem, and it immediately seems more manageable. At some point, you’ve probably caught yourself doing something silly like sitting in a certain position while watching a playoff game, suspecting that the slightest movement could cause your team to stop scoring. Jason Parks displays a signed portrait of Warwick Davis when he wants the Cowboys to win. Only a fool would discount the power of Warwick Davis, but no team triumphs every time, even with Wicket on its side.
We know this, but we perform these little rituals anyway, because they give us the illusion of control. The unsettling alternative is accepting that we can’t do anything to affect the outcome. There’s a famous prayer that starts, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Sports fans aren’t seeking that serenity. They’re too busy trying to hold their heads at a 45-degree angle to keep the rally alive.
Baseball players have much more say over what takes place on the field than the typical couch potato, but there are many things that even they can’t control. Whether they're in the lineup. Whether the wind is blowing in. Which way the ball bounces. Players have much more than a rooting interest in the outcomes of these events. Their livelihoods are at stake. So when things aren’t going well, they often try to tinker. There’s a lot of raising and lowering of hands, and opening of stances, and shortening of strides. The problems all sound very technical, like they do when your mechanic tells you what’s wrong with your car. Sometimes those car problems are real, and sometimes your mechanic is making them up.
Slumps sort of resemble the “black swans” described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
Slumps aren’t all that rare, but they are unpredictable, and they can make a major impact on a player. It wouldn’t be surprising if players sometimes invented an explanation for a slump where there wasn’t one, just to make their struggles seem more predictable (and therefore preventable). That’s not to say that slumps are always black swans. Sometimes—maybe even most of the time—players slump because they’re really doing something different. Players and coaches are acutely aware of mechanics, and they can spot and correct problems. But in any particular instance, we can’t know with any certainty A) whether the problem was really responsible for impaired performance, and B) whether identifying the flaw fixed the problem.