The Elephant in the Room

There is a famous Indian parable called Blind Men and an Elephant. The story, as told by Wikipedia, goes like this:

 

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “the elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

 

How many of us have worked out the shape of it, all the different textures and wrinkles? Many of us have played it and watched it and talked about it and read about it and still can’t fully explain how the whole thing fits together, yet how is it that people who are paid money to talk about the game can’t articulate which tactical choices are better or worse than others?

 

Aside from some noteworthy exceptions, particularly in cricket where there seems to be a deliberate attempt to both inform the reader on the specifics of play and reflect on the game in a broader cultural context, I’d argue that what passes for journalism or reporting on sports in the mainstream media of Australia is disappointingly mediocre. The preference for ex-players talking rubbish, tabloid-esque reporting of off-field incidents, and the depressingly familiar retreat to lazy clichés and questionable statistics does fans a disservice.

 

Enhancing our understanding of the game, explaining what tactics are effective or which statistical measures are important would enable us to experience the game in a different way. Should I care about a player’s ‘metres gained’? Are there good and bad types of disposals? Is the use of wingers on the defensive side of play during stoppages effective when compared?

 

In American sports media, analytics is more than just a buzzword to be used in talking-head segments involving retired players arguing that what they see with they own two eyes is all that matters. The use of data to more effectively understand sport came to prominence following experiments like that undertaken by the Oakland Athletics Club. Made famous by the Brad Pitt feature film Moneyball, the club identified that certain metrics were undervalued by the rest of the league (though I’m not for a second suggesting that Aussie Rules has some magical metric like ‘On Base Percentage’ that has yet to be found and exploited).

 

While baseball has been a frontrunner by virtue of the structure of the game – each pitch exists in isolation and metrics can be counted distinctly with relative ease – advanced statistical analysis has also been used to completely overhaul the way that basketball is played recently. The current dominant strategy now supports a greater reliance on 3 point shots over 2 point shots based on the accumulation of data that demonstrated a strategic advantage in such an approach. This did not occur by accident.

 

Sports change frequently; in Australian Rules there have been several shifts in the style of play within the game over the past decade including defensive flooding, increased handball usage rates, increased short-distance kicking rates etc. However, while the game continues to change, the reporting and explanation of the how and why of the changes has rarely kept pace.

 

There is now a thriving community of Australian Rules writers who have taken it upon themselves to attempt to better understand, and explain, how and why teams are performing the way that they are. Ryan Buckland of OnBallers, Matt Cowgill of The Arc, HPN, Matter of Stats, FMI, and Figuring Footy are some of the people leading the way.

 

Passionate people are doing the hard yards on the fringes, but in contrast the standard of reporting that exists in the mainstream media rolls mindlessly along. In lieu of even the suggestion of a proper attempt at genuine analysis we get the likes of Luke Darcy, Brian Taylor, Wayne Carey and Campbell Brown on Talking Footy discussing whether a draw is a satisfactory outcome to a game of footy. Hint: It is.

 

This week there were two articles prior to the ANZAC day clash about Joe Daniher’s shift to the ruck (one each from the Age and the Hun) posing questions about whether it will ‘spark’ the key forward. Neither article provided any insight for the reader as to how the change might affect the Bombers structure. For example, has he ever been any good in the ruck? Is his start to the season in the forward line any different to previous years? I’m sure AFL Supercoach players found it useful but for anyone who wanted to read about what the positional change might mean on game day, well, go kick rocks. (Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself though, maybe we need to go back to basics and understand what ‘good in the ruck’ even means!?)

 

Part of the issue is that the people who are most prominent in the AFL media have come through the same channels. Journalists rarely study statistics at university, ex-players may understand preparation and training but too often their insights are limited by their own experience and a stubborn unwillingness to look beyond what they see in front of their faces. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for ex-players providing commentary on the sport, or that journalists are unable to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the statistical trends in the game, simply that anything that allows us to understand the game more fully, or to see it from a different perspective, is beneficial for the game.

 

Tell me about trends in the game compared with previous seasons, tell me about the effectiveness of tactics using something at least approximating evidence, explore areas of the game that haven’t been uncovered for public consumption yet. Despite China closing the doors on our rubbish, there seems no end to the recycling efforts of AFL pundits when it comes to high tackle interpretation, bumps or that time-honoured column filler: the coaching carousel!

 

Let’s come back to our elephant. I’m not suggesting that all pundits, or the public generally, are fumbling blindly around the beast that is Aussie Rules attempting to understand it. And I’m not suggesting that the best way to experience and understand the game is through a framework of numbers and algorithms. We all watch footy, we see what takes place on the field (and off it) and we read articles and tune into panel shows and we attempt to piece together the many different elements of the sport. We can all, more or less, make out the elephant. The problem is that the elephant changes.

 

We don’t understand it all and we shouldn’t claim to. We don’t see the entirety of the game and as the game continues to evolve, we need to demand more from professional sports writers to provide us with information that we can’t access ourselves, to enable us to enhance our understanding both on and off the field. Aussie rules football is complex;. thirty-six constantly moving human beings throws up endless possibilities. Yet perhaps instead of focusing on the elephant’s shit, or who is leading the thing around at any point in time, a more in-depth explanation about how the component parts work and how they fit together could be provided. Attempting to understand the game is hard and if the number of unsuccessful coaches is anything to go by, people who dedicate their working lives to do so often end with little to show for it.

 

But the complexity of the game shouldn’t stop professional journalists from attempting to inform us. The elephant parable infers the fallibility of humans; that we can never really, truly understand the entirety of the beast, God, our lives, Aussie Rules football etc.

 

On that front I turn to Werner Heisenberg, pioneer of quantum physics, who said:

 

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

 

We should never stop asking questions, exploring, and uncovering new ways of understanding footy. I just wish that the AFL and more mainstream media outlets would up their own game, for the greater good, and the good of the game itself.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Jarrod_L says:

    Terrific piece, Brin. It’s a real shame the Campbell Browns of the world sit in rareified air as cardinals of the commentariat; BT’s shrieking crusade against “sports scientists” and “fitness staff” does my head in. The question is, how can the circuit be broken?

    I’d also like to chuck Max Barry’s name into the mix – fine author and fine (Richmond supporting) footy fan responsible for The Squiggle.

  2. William Westerman says:

    Thanks for the piece, Brin – totally agree. I’d love to know more about the way the game is played at a tactical level. I sometimes wonder whether the game has too many moving pieces and is just too unpredictable and too unstructured to comprehend (unlike soccer, where tactical designs are readily evident to those who are interested in that side of the game).

  3. Thoughtful commentary Brin. At the popular media level I guess emotion sells while analysis doesn’t. The inherent complexity of a 360 game on a big field with so many moving parts and options is also part of it. After 50+ years of watching the game I can only think of tactics and game style as some sort of constantly evolving rock/paper/scissors where every dog has his day at some point in time.
    How else to explain the Hawthorn skill/possession game giving way to the Bulldogs/Tigers rolling maul which in time will be pulled apart by the (insert here)? Maybe the game is just too hard to keep playing at a high level for 120 minutes week on week. Maybe the equalised talent makes everything so randomised. How else to explain the flips in form and results? Biorhythms?
    Footy is like a box of chocolates, you never know which one you gonna get.
    Thanks for the heads up on analytic forums to look to for explanations. Be the change you want to see in the world Brin. I look forward to your explanations of the latest trends; anti-trends; and anti-anti-trends.

  4. Kasey Symons says:

    Great piece Brin – excellent points raised and that parable is so apt. Well done.

  5. Bob utber says:

    Cannot disagreed rede at all Brin. Personally I only watch the Marngrook Fs and Offsiders for my sports analysis. Don’t listen or watch any coaches press conference. Same old, same old. As or the players I could name them on one hand who can articulate the game.
    I work out the game for myself and am more than satisfied and that is not being egotistical.

  6. Bob utber says:

    What players articulate the game to your satisfaction?

  7. Thanks Brin. Much to consider.

    Max Barry has a piece in one of our Almanacs – a while back. We should invite him back.

  8. Surely, with betting, fantasy leagues, and universities wanting to re-popularise or expand STEM studies, your mooted forums may attracted unexpected popularity.

  9. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Brin.
    I agree with much of what you say.
    For all of the analysis on our game, why – like a rolling maul – do they focus on an “issue of the week” before rolling on to the next issue the following week? It is all as predictable as it is ridiculous.

  10. E.regnans says:

    Well played, Brin.
    A lot of interesting points.

    I’m unconvinced that anyone really knows what’s going on in a game of Australian (rules) football. Or rather, why it’s occuring.
    There are undoubtedly team “rules” that must be followed. Or philosophies.
    And a few set play scenarios.
    But chaos plays such a large part in things that no game can ever be totally controlled.

    My brain shuts down whenever footy stats are mentioned. It’s helpful.

    I agree that a huge opportunity exists for someone to present differently. And well.

  11. Dave Brown says:

    Yeah, really interesting, Brin, thanks. It has also been interesting to see a couple of the AFL number cruncher types actually get jobs at footy clubs in the last 12 months; value is starting to be placed on the ability to analyse and visualise footy data.

    I wonder with the elephant analogy whether the issue may be not even understanding the elephant in its entirety but understanding which part/s of it are particularly important. At its most basic level, footy (like baseball) is a very simple game – mastery of five key skills (kicking, handpassing, picking the ball off the ground, chest mark and overhead mark) will explain 95% of football when viewed at the global scale (i.e. all footy played at all levels, not just the AFL).

    But when it comes to the AFL we are really splitting the finest of hairs when it comes to determining what constitutes success and failure. This is further confused in the public mind because we only consider one team out of 18 successful and we are, for the most part, unwilling to accept that a substantial component of the outcome of a match comes down to pure chance. This is where many of the people you mention are so fascinating – pulling at all of those hairs. Why does the media seem unwilling or unable to engage with that? Dunno, maybe nerds aren’t welcome in the boys’ club. Maybe they think we’re stupid and are, for the most part, right.

  12. Michael Pola says:

    The continuous search for intelligence and originality within football commentary especially oral continues to bring up dross and unoriginal drivel. The use of “obviously” by virtually every commentator remains staggering. Even the normally astute Paul Roos sometimes lapses. “Good kick off the Boot” -where else would a kick come from? Do we hear “good hand pass from the hand'” ? Its coming. Where is the demand for improvement and intelligence coming from? Interviews by players and coaches result in the same management speak and safe statement each and every time. Where is the improvement coming from I ask again and I get no reply. The ocaisonal gem of real insight or originality beams out every now and again but I really wonder why they bother. Where is Peter Hanlon when you need him? The best sports journalist of the last ten years a victim of Fairfax culling. And the
    best live commentator- the late Dick Mason of the ABC. Bruce who?
    commentator the late Dick Mason of the ABC. Years ago i’m afraid

  13. Stainless says:

    Plenty of interesting issues raised, Brin, but I’m not sure what your ultimate point is. If it’s as simple as “the footy media needs to lift its standard of analysis”, I’d argue that it well and truly has. It’s by no means perfect but there are reams of statistical and tactical analysis these days compared with the incredibly simplistic commentary of yesteryear which really only called the play (admittedly the game was tactically very simple back then). If your point is that there are statistical and related indicators about footy that the media haven’t clued into, again I’d say it’s a work in progress. But I’d also question what further analytical measures you could unearth to unlock the secrets of, say, Richmond’s defensive dominance, beyond the obvious points about quality of players and their outstanding organisation and understanding. Finally, if your point is that there is a lack of really insightful journalism, reporting or analysis about the game in the mainstream media, then yes, you probably have a point. But even here, what are journos and commentators supposed to do? Ignore the latest headline issue in favour of a D and M pieces that attempt to explain the mysteries of what is still a pretty random chaotic sport? They’re in the business of selling papers and attracting ratings, and unfortunately that means appealing to folks who aren’t as thoughtful as you.

  14. Brin Paulsen says:

    Thanks all for reading and commenting, as with most things in the world there certainly isn’t a simple solution. I’ll try and address a few of the commenters more specifically below:

    As a few of you have pointed out, and I agree, Aussie Rules must be one of the most difficult sports in the world to attempt to understand. I tend to agree with Peter B that the equalisation of talent/ skill/ athleticism in teams probably increases the chances of randomisation within the game. By that I mean that team tactics and the bounce of the ball matters more when players have nearly symmetrical beep test results. It’s also hard for me to disagree that the game is often played in such a reactionary way, with so many moving parts, that perhaps chaos is the underlying starting point to it all. With that being said, there are schools of thought based around chaos theory!

    Bob Utber, I don’t think you’re wrong. Sometimes it’s as easy as just watching the game to get a pretty fair understanding of it but I’d argue that it’s getting more difficult – perhaps due to the aforementioned athletic equalisation. I saw a tweet today that gave a stat from a Geelong v Bombers game played in 1993 where Ablett kicked 14.7 and Paul Salmon kicked 10.6. There’s no need for any sort of individual player ‘advanced metric’ to work out who was playing well that day. But it seems now if a player kicks 6 they’ve had a bloody good day, and what constitutes good performance from other position players on the ground seems even more difficult to assess.

    One complicating factor to the layman’s attempts at match analysis that I’m aware of is access to full-ground match day footage and more granular statistics than disposals, marks, etc.

    The following is from an article from Jack Howes on the Guardian from September 2017 which gives a good summary of the state of things:

    Frustratingly, little work like this has emerged in the AFL – at least not in the public view. This is largely down to the ring fencing of data, where Champion Data (49% owned by the AFL) have the licence to collect and corral the data from all AFL games – at which point they can charge clubs and media organisations a non-disclosed, but exorbitant, fee to access the vast databases they possess, effectively locking prospective analysts out of the loop and holding back valuable work that could be done to advance our understanding of the game. It’s an irritating situation for would-be independent analysts, especially when they see the data their contemporaries covering sports like baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and American football have access to.

    Where American sports have embraced unofficial communities who want to develop their own theories on games, the AFL have restricted access to match day footage that would allow for more in-depth analysis and interpretation. I believe it costs something like $5k a year for the ChampionData package… Given the importance of constant players movement and off-ball positioning, limiting access to this footage limits the ability for people outside of football clubs to explore and test new theories of understanding while the season is in action, and therefore when people care most.

    Thanks again for your comments, sorry if this post is a bit chaotic. In that respect perhaps it mirrors the game itself. I might’ve just seen too much of Campbell Brown’s head for one week and needed to bash on the keyboard.

    What I can say with certainty, (especially as a Lions fan!) is that there’s always next week…

  15. John Butler says:

    A really valid topic for discussion, Brin.

    And a great parable. :)

    Cheers

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