Hot Hands and Heavy Hearts: A Theory on City's Slump
by, 06/09/2010 at 10:47 PM (2762 Views)
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
A. Bartlett Giamatti
Strange things, leads. Like an investment banker checking his bank balance, you can never be too far in front. And when things go the other way, any lead at all will inevitably seem paltry compared to what could have been. It’s all about momentum; when you see a lead chipped away at over the course of a few weeks it’s easy to panic.
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side famously blew a 12-point lead over Manchester United in 1996, an image twinned in many observers’ minds with the Tyneside supremo’s embarrassing 'I'd love it' rant directed at his counterpart that April. While it’s difficult to see the rather more level-headed Stephen Kenny going on Radio Foyle to threaten Monaghan United’s Mick Cooke, the anxiety must be there at this stage of the season.
It’s all psychological of course. Most teams would be happy with a four point advantage heading into the final eight games of the season, especially given the dogfight the First Division traditionally is. Since Dublin City won promotion in 2003, all but one of the next six First Division winners won by a single point. You have to go back to 2005 to find the last time a team won the First Division by more than that, and even that year’s winners, Shamrock Rovers only managed two more points then second-placed Dublin City.
Just ask a Dundalk fan how tricky the First Division is to get out of: it took one of Irish football’s giants a full six years to claw their way out after going down in 2002.
Sport psychologists have long identified the ‘Hot Hand’ phenomenon; the idea that an individual or a team suddenly becomes hot, where everything they touch turns to gold (its name comes from the basketball player who starts nailing 3-pointer after 3-pointer). When it happens to a team, everything starts to go right for them, the goals fly in, and each and every player knows, just knows, that everything is going to work out alright.
Of course, the ‘Hot Hand’ is ultimately an illusion. As David Runcimanspoints out: “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.”
Look at our form at the start of the season; 12 consecutive victories beginning away to Limerick in March and stretching all the way up to a home win against Finn Harps in May in the EA Sports Cup.
It was an incredible sequence of wins but by the law of averages, at some point things were going to even out and the ball wasn’t going to bounce for us. Which isn’t at all to say that our form in the first half of the season was based solely on luck, but that the little decisions; the referee, the bounce of the ball, the prowess of our strikers- everything we football fans call ‘luck-’ seems to have gone for us in those months. In the second half of the season, the reversion to the mean has left us ruing what might have been- a 12 point lead, which might have been a 13, a 15, an 18 point lead is instead reduced to only four.
We’re still, however, the same good team we were at the start of the season, and we are still more than capable of finishing strongly. Rearrange the order we’ve played our games in this season for instance, and we could have just pulled away into a lead!
The most important thing is for the team to keep thinking of themselves as having a four-point lead, rather than having conceded eight points.
Of our remaining eight games, only one is against one of the three sides immediately challenging us for the top spot (and that on the last day of the season). It’s far from straight-forward, but on paper at least, the hardest challenges are behind us.
The quote at the top is from a fGiamattiamous essay about baseball by A. Bartlett , although his experience of winning streaks could easily by applied to football. Winning streaks like the one we prospered from in the first half of this year generate their own mythology and as sports fans we easily, and often deliberately get caught up in the hype. The final words of his essay regarding the ending of the run are probably the most apt:
“It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”
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