Value of Statistics

Many traditionalists and old-school sports enthusiasts refuse to jump on the bandwagon of using a statistical or analytical lens to view sports.  Rather than going to numbers, percentages, and statistics to engage with sports – whether it be for analyzing quality, measuring teams, or pure fun – it is seen as preferable, potentially even better, to pay more attention to factors such as the ‘eye-ball test’ (how a team or athlete looks while playing).  At least, this type of sports fan will advocate for using statistical analysis with a grain – or a whole shaker – of salt.  To be fair, there is something pure and emotionally attaching to viewing and engaging with sport without looking to statistics for help.  What kind of confidence did the shooter exude as she drilled a buzzer-beating three, even if she was shooting 17% prior to that shot?  How much faster did the sprinter seem than the rest of the field, regardless of the actual time between him and second place?  Which team truly looks more dominating on the field, no matter the point spreads in their wins?  These questions try to use less statistics and more ‘eye-ball test’ types of measurements.  However, it is also the case that using statistics can help uncover problems and conflicts existing in sport structures.  Rather than simply having a feeling or notion that a player or team is struggling and perhaps not performing like they have before, statistics offer patterns and trends to view to detail what the struggle truly is.  Additionally, given that the same statistics can be applied to players across a sport, they can be used to identify problem areas writ large which may span across many players, teams, or years.  One particular problem which statistics and an analytical view of sports can shed light on is what I will call under-performance due to culture shock.

Culture Shock in Professional Sports

My use of the term culture shock here does not apply to the more broad definition of culture shock used to describe in large change of scenery.  For instance, a move from high school to collegiate sports, a change in scheme (such as hiring a new offensive coordinator for a football team), or the implementing of a new rule or technology, often get described as ‘culture shocks.’  The culture shock I am referring to is when a player relocates to an entirely new place – normally a new country, but even a different region of a country can have this effect (for example, moving from Japan to the USA to play baseball, moving from Algeria to Germany to play soccer, or moving from Bolivia to Spain to play basketball.)  Obviously these are just examples, and countless other places, sports, and transitions should be included.  The changing of teams is not the only difficult part in transitioning from one place to another.  The player will also have to potentially learn a new language (at least partially), learn social norms and customs, and figure out how to manage their personal life while in a new place.  Sometimes athletes have families – transitioning a family to be in a new country is no easy task.  All types of issues come up when relocating into a completely new culture, and these issues can often have an impact on players on the field or court.  It is easy to disregard this and claim that players struggle because they cannot handle the perceived harder challenge of a new league, or that they simply are the wrong fit for that team.  Looking at statistics can help us get a firmer grasp of how often this occurs, and from that we can learn that a true problem may exist – one that goes deeper than players not living up to potential, struggling with family, or being incapable of living away from home.  By recognizing this as a true issue, steps toward combating this problem can be taken by teams, or even leagues, which hope to obtain talent from various places around the globe.

A Growing Issue

Soccer is probably the sport which deals with this issue the most – both currently as well as historically.  This can be partly attributed to the fact that it is the world’s most popular team sport.  Additionally, leagues around the globe use the same infrastructure for obtaining, selling, and transferring players.  With this comes an increase of players moving abroad to play at various levels of leagues – meaning, players will often travel in order to get more playing time at a lower level club, relocate due to signing with a ‘giant’ club, or move for various other reasons.  While this is historically true for soccer, other sports (perhaps primarily basketball and baseball) are ever-growing in terms of globalizing and opportunities throughout many countries.  With this being the case, it is even more relevant to address the issue of culture shock, how this impacts both players and teams, and why it ought to be addressed as an institutional issue.  Again, I believe that looking to statistics will help us learn how widespread of an issue this is, by looking to players who change locations and cultures and then struggle in their sport.  These struggles ought to not merely be attributed to non-adaption on the court or field; rather, outside-the-lines issues should be considered, such as learning to live in a new place with new customs, traditions, languages, etc.  This piece does not intend to do the work of compiling statistics in an effort to gauge the pervasiveness of this problem, nor will it argue for an exact method to try to resolve the issue.  Rather, this is a stepping stone from which to build.  By proclaiming this a real issue which can in fact be addressed and resolved by teams and leagues, it may be possible to mitigate the effect which culture shock has on the performance of athletes.

Examples and Thoughts

In 2012, the Minnesota Timberwolves brought in Russian rookie Alexey Shved.  In what was most likely an attempt to combat some of these exact issues, they also brought in Russian veteran Andrei Kirilenko.  Kirilenko served as a sort of mentor for Shved, giving advice on the different culture, how to handle it, personal experiences, etc.  Kirilenko sheds a bit of light on the situation in this piece from Business Insider.  This would not necessarily have to play out the same way for each team – in fact, it would probably be far-fetched to think a team could always find a suitable veteran for their team from the same place as an incoming newbie.  However, the idea could translate into having some sort of guide from the same or a similar place, even if that person/guide was not a player (perhaps a trainer, tech person, or some other role in the organization).

An article from Communicaid, found here, advises professional sports teams to treat incoming foreign players the same way other businesses, corporations, or groups may.  In order to help the process go as smooth as possible, Communicaid recommends offering cross-cultural training and awareness courses intended to help the athletes adapt.  These courses could look like any number of things, and they could come to fruition in many different styles.  Whether the team or league makes these trainings mandatory for incoming foreigners or lets them be voluntary would be a question.  Perhaps the trainings would be tailored for each player, or perhaps groups of players could go through a group-process to build relationships with others in the same situation.  These types of things would need to be sorted out; however, the main thought is some type of training or awareness for incoming players, for their sake as well as the team’s.

These are merely examples, and other avenues of addressing this issue can be found and argued for.  What I believe is the next step, though, is to use statistical analysis to evaluate how widespread this problem is, who is potentially affected the most, what trends can be seen, etc.  For example, do players tend to perform better when another foreign player is on their same team?  Do players who are new to a country yet know the language do better than those who do not know the language?  Which players, from which countries, and in which sports seem to be more or less capable in performing well in a new culture?  If we ask similar questions when evaluating the statistics, we could learn enough about the nature and specifics of the problem in order to begin to think of how players, teams, organizations, and leagues can address it.

Author: Mitchell Kiefer