Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, December 21, 2014

High-Tech Performance

James Surowiecki writes the Business, Finance and Economics columns for the New Yorker magazine, so I was surprised to see an article in the Nov 10 issue entitled, “Better All The Time --- How the ‘performance revolution’ came to athletes --- and beyond.” What could an economist have to say about sports? Intrigued, I read on.

Like all good storytellers, rather than outline his thesis at the outset, Surowiecki begins with a real-life story which illustrates his thesis. He tells the tale of Kermit Washington, a power forward playing his third season in the NBA. Washington’s performance had been, ‘less than mediocre” in 1976 and while most every NBA player would never admit that they “still had something to learn’, he enlisted the help of Pete Newell, an assistant coach. Thanks to Newell and the grit of his pupil, Washington continued to improve to All-Star status. This did not go unnoticed by other players in the league who followed suit realizing finally that it was a fallacy to believe that, “what you are is what you are:” and there are always ways to improve your game.

This is where the technology comes in. The development of biometric sensors working with computer software to capture and analyze the data (e.g. heart rate, muscle activity, oxygen levels, etc. ) while an athlete trains has fostered a revolution in all sports. The computer program analyzing your heart rate as you accelerate, twist, turn and decelerate during your training sessions is able to recommend a training regimen tailored to maximize your performance. Even sleep patterns can be factored into the training. We are now able to answer questions on an individual athlete basis like, “Does training in extremely hot and humid weather increase or decrease performance on game day?”

Of course the economist in Surowiecki speculates that this trend toward high-tech training “reflects the fact that the monetary rewards for athletic success have become immense. ... It has become economically rational to invest a lot in player training.” While players of the past had jobs like insurance salesmen during the off season, now they can now afford to spend that time training. He goes on to describe examples of how training (or the lack thereof) has led to success (or failure) in such disparate fields as baseball, football, chess, classical music, manufacture of automobiles,, medicine,and education. Guess which field has shown the least improvement in the last 3 decades? Hint: it rhymes with “vacation”.

While it’s pretty obvious how performance can be boosted through higher tec training in the two sports mentioned above, it’s interesting to see how that applies to some of the other categories..Surowiecki gives evidence for the improved performance of modern day chess players: “In the 1970s, there were only two two chess players who had Elo ratings (a measure of skill level) higher than 2700. These days there are more than 30 such players.” ( Visit Wikipedia to see what Elo ratings are all about) He makes a similar claim for current classical musicians: “Pieces that were once considered too difficult for any but the very best musicians are now routinely played by conservatory students.” These gains he attributes to more effective training programs.

Personally, the most interesting enterprise investigated was Education (rhymes with “vacation” --- sort of.). Surowiecki claims that “Schools are, on the whole, little better than they were three decades ago --- test scores have barely budged...but he is quick to point out that, on average, poor kids get the lowest test scores across the board --- and “the US has more poor kids relative to other developed countries.” But that doesn’t completely explain our poor performance relative to countries like Canada, Japan and Finland; the key difference is that these countries spend a great deal of time and money training their teachers before they enter the classroom and this training continues throughout their careers.

Surowiecki ends the article with a succinct and potent observation: “...the way you improve the way you perform is to improve the way you train. High performance isn’t, ultimately, about running faster, throwing harder, or leaping farther. It’s about something much simpler: getting better at getting better.” To which I would add: The technology for collecting and analyzing the relevant data is a crucial piece of the solution.

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