Should coaches start to speak some data?

During the week a tweet popped up in my timeline. I don’t disagree with the sentiment at all but should it not work both ways?


Don’t get me wrong I’m not calling for coaches to be fully grown data people but why is the onus always on the analyst to learn to speak coach?

Actually, I’m pretty sure the answer is because the coach is the boss and the common consensus is that the subordinates need to communicate up, not the other way around. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way to run an organisation but let’s be real, that’s the world we live in right now and if you want to get paid next week well then speak as much coach as possible.

Bill James was quoted this week in the Irish Examiner and among many good quotes this seemed pertinent.

“The most exciting things happen when a threshold of generations is crossed. In the first 10 years that I did this, I encountered a lot of resistance from baseball. To be honest, they thought I was a pariah. That I was full of it.

“Then one year, everybody decided I was OK. What had happened — I had small kids and I was paying attention to them — was that the people who’d grown up reading my books had become journalists or begun working for sports teams. The most progress comes when generations shift.

Just because the world works like it does now doesn’t mean it will always look like this. There is a danger in having to speak coach that important messages can’t be conveyed or certainly not in the level of detail required to be at their most effective. 

Off-field teams might operate without the blood and sweat of the pitch and dressing room but the principles are the same. Attempting to assemble the best talent available at an affordable price. Then turning the sum of the parts into something more than each individual. Having talent is a great place to start but as the margins tighten, talent won’t be enough.

A recent Vice article ran the numbers on NBA teams and the growth of analysts.

NBA teams employ way more analysts today than they did even a few years ago. The teams that employ more analysts generally win more games, and the teams that got on the train early—adoption before 2012 seems to be key—have won the most of all. We know. We ran the numbers.

Now I am sure, like some Premiership clubs, there are NBA teams where the analyst is the geek who has to sit in a dark room and very occasionally gets to talk to the manager, if at all. But as teams assemble similar talent in analytics the improvements won’t just come from hiring better analysts but from making something better than the parts and that needs an integrated approach from the entire organisation. 

Maybe it’s not enough to just throw our hands up and say the reason they don’t understand is because we didn’t say it in coach talk. Maybe it’s up to an entire organisation to learn a speak a bit of data. 

Clubs like the Red Sox, the Cubs and the Dallas Mavericks are just three examples where data is ingrained from the very top. Are these teams winning just because of that. Of course not!!! Anybody who thinks that is on another planet. Data is a tiny cog in the entire process but when teams constantly talk about finding 1%’s not putting the onus on everyone to level up might be costing them. These teams are examples where data is part of the culture, the very fabric of the club. Not everyone will be data experts but you have to imagine that a minimum is expected from everyone. 

Listening to the Analytics FC podcast interview with Rory Campbell, Head of Technical Analysis at West Ham gave a very honest view of life inside a club. It’s a good interview and well worth listening to in full. However one passage of the interview really stood out to me. 

Bobby Gardiner (Host): When you use Expected Goals models do you use the term Expected Goals or do you translate it

Rory: Yeah I don’t really use the term Expected Goals and I tend not to show things with decimal places. 

This is not a discussion about Expected Goals or West Ham per se but about the broader issue of always having to find a coach friendly way to say something. 

The point made in the interview it is up to the analyst to find a better way of saying the same thing but in a coach friendly manner. I am positive West Ham and Rory are not alone in this conflict. Rory makes the point that it is what it is and we have to be realistic and if a coach simply won’t get it then it is on you, for now at least. But surely expected goals is not that hard a concept to get across. In fact the very essence of it is already understood. Everyone who has every watched the game could get the basic concept, shots from far out have less chance of going in that shots from closer. Of course they will massively overestimate the chance of both types of shots going in, but the concept is not new. 

What’s wrong with asking for coaches to understand this concept and the name? Why is that so abhorrent? Are we always going to have to speak coach without any onus on communication improving the other way?

Perhaps this is dreamland, I suspect it probably is in most cases. Bill James is probably right, the most progress comes when generations shift, we all might just have to wait. 




Rob Carroll. Founder of The Video Performance Analyst. Always learning.