Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why Underdogs Teams Are So Gritty

I've thought for a long time that many hockey observers are far too quick to invoke effort as a major reason for the results of a particular hockey game. A lot of the time I don't think there is too much behind it at all, it just becomes a post hoc explanation for why one team's shots went in and the other team's shots did not. It turns out there could be an additional factor influencing this as well, a bias against the favoured team. Here's a quote from an interesting Slate article about why we love underdogs:

"Why is an underdog so attractive? It may have something do with how hard he tries. Vandello showed subjects a video clip of a basketball game between two international teams said to be playing for a championship. One side was described as the 9-to-1 favorite, having won each of 15 previous playoff matches. After viewing the footage, which showed a close game, students were asked to rate the players according to their ability and effort.

As a rule, the underdogs were characterized as having less "talent" and "intelligence" than the favorites but more "hustle" and "heart." That was true even when subjects viewed the same video clip with the labels reversed. It didn't matter what was actually on the screen—which players jumped higher or who dived for the loose balls. The test subjects attributed more effort to whichever team had the underdog label."

I'm sure these results would be no different in hockey, and often explains why teams like the Colorado Avalanche are considered a plucky, gritty, group of warriors while teams like the San Jose Sharks are often described as lazy bunch of wimps. The problem is that the evidence from the games they played against each other showed San Jose heavily outshoting Colorado. When the underdog that is supposedly trying to so hard and giving it their all can't even get the puck away from a team that is allegedly made up entirely of soft players that don't even care, it either indicates the first team is really, really terrible or that the subjective observation is wrong.

It's possible that an underdog team actually does outwork a favourite, but we need to be careful to ensure that it was not just a convenient narrative but something that actually happened. If you are going to insult the professionalism of a group of players, coaches and managers by implying they don't care about winning or that they weren't prepared to play, you need a lot more evidence to support your point than the fact that the goalie on the other team made a lot of saves.

(P.S. What do you think the results would be if a similar video study was done on a group of Canadian hockey fans, where the viewers were told that one team was Russian and the other team was Canadian? Something tells me that would have a pretty significant impact on which team was showing more "hustle".)


Jonathan said...

CG: Dismantling the Fundamental Attribution Error, one post at a time.

Derick said...

You are my hero.

Vicendum said...

While I don't discount the value of work ethic, I think it gets far too much play in the hockey media. Far too often, "work ethic" is used to raise the profile of players whose statistics are not that complimentary, often on the basis that when viewing said player your convictions tell you he's better than what the record shows. The same thing can be said to denigrate the players you don't like- if their stats aren't where you think they should be then all you need to do is tell yourself "he's not working hard enough" and you have your explanation. This isn't to say that there aren't players who do actually work harder than other players, just that the amount of hard workers is greater than it's made out to be (c'mon, they're *NHLers*...do you think they got to where they are by being lazy?) and that some players receive more praise than they deserve.

As for the underdog effect...I think it's easy to "jump to conclusions" and say that the underdog defeats the favourite because they "worked harder"...the visuals will likely show the underdog winning loose puck battles because, chances are, the winning team likely did win the puck in key situations as what usually happens with the winner of a hockey game. However, simply falling for that kind of an analysis is a cop-out, since it allows the analyst not to "dig deeper" and come up with other reasons why the winning team did end up on the right side of the ledger. Usually, when there's a win and a loss a lot of elements go into the result and oftentimes, there's a reason other than "work ethic" that made the winning team win the key battles when they did.

I look at the Montreal-Washington series as an example. Most of the analysis of the Canadiens' victory was simply the fact that they "worked harder" than the Capitals did. That explanation may be simple, but it ignores many of the strengths Montreal had over Washington in the series. Before the playoffs began, I picked the Canadiens to defeat the Capitals, citing the Canadiens' strengths in defence and in goal as the reasons. I hate to brag, but that was precisely the reason why Montreal emerged victorious- Jaroslav Halak played far better than whomever the Capitals threw in net and the Canadiens played far better defensively than the Capitals did, keeping the Washington shooters in front of them and preventing them from getting inside. I also believe the Montreal coaching staff vastly outperformed Washington's, because the Canadiens made key adjustments whereas the Capitals didn't. After getting burned on the rush from Games 2 to 4, Montreal decided they'd let the Capitals come to them and attack from the outside, since the Capitals are typically unwilling to go to the inside and score on the counterattack. This was no secret either- I mean, Hal Gill even openly talked about Alexander Ovechkin's "signature move" (drive the wing, cut to the inside and shoot). How did Ovie and the Capitals respond? By continuing to try the same moves, and playing into Montreal's hands. I have no idea why Mike Knuble didn't park himself in front of the net more often, or why Ovie or Nicklas Backstrom didn't drive to the net themselves, when they're capable enough stickhandlers. How come we didn't see any "set plays" either? Simply trivializing Montreal's victory to "work ethic" ignores all the other reasons why Montreal came out ahead, reasons that show the Canadiens won on merit, not on "dumb luck".


Anonymous said...

Have to agree with the post and comments so far. Terms like "work ethic", "heart" and "grit" are usually applied to players on winning teams who don't happen to be stars as a way of attributing the teams success with the players individual skills. It is the forward equivalent of "he always makes the timely saves" aka. "playing behind a potent offense".

All these people grew up wanting to play in the NHL with a chance to win the cup. Do people honestly believe Jumbo Joe just "doesn't want it" as much as the other star players. Or that the OV doesn't want to put in the effort in the playoffs, despite clearly out working almost every player on the ice on a regular basis during the regular season?

Underdog teams tend to win not because they "want it more", but because they come up with a good game plan (Montreal defensive play) and/or they catch some good breaks (Halak/Anderson catching fire, Boyle's own goal, Semin and the caps PP going ice cold, etc).

The real problem is that as mentioned often on this blog, analysts and reporters always want to somehow equate the way people play a sport with their inner character and personality, hence they try to paint a picture where the winners have "heart" and "never give up", while the losers didn't lose because of their skills, but because they didn't have the inner fortitude necessary to overcome the difficulties. Fact is that no matter how these playoffs turn out, Ovechkin will still be one of the top 2 players in the league, and Fleury will still be one of the bottom half of league starters.

Vicendum said...

I think what bears mentioning is that a lot of analysts were former athletes themselves, and they often think the way they did during their playing days. When they played, they were often told- and knew it themselves- that the difference between winning and losing was how hard you were willing to work. So it's natural that many of them bring that mindset with them to the booth, because it's the easiest concept that they know and, with millions of viewers being hard workers themselves, it's the easiest concept they know as well.

Of course, judging work ethic is subjective (because, really, only the player can really know how hard they're working) and, stated before, it ignores the deeper reasons why a team or a player didn't come through. Some analysts are able to dig deeper and get to those reasons why a result did or didn't happen but most do not. I'm really just speculating here, but I hazard a guess that the reason for this is that many athletes- for good reason- are not trained in the art of analysis (like a broadcast journalist would) and the trend seeing more and more former athletes in the broadcast booth has precipitated in this proliferation of "work ethic analysis" and the decline of quality analysis.

This wouldn't be the first time ex-athletes have faced this kind of criticism. Perhaps the best known example is Howard Cosell in "I Never Played The Game" railing what he termed "jockocracy", in that these former pros didn't "earn" the jobs like a more traditional analyst would. Bill James also wrote against this practice when he updated the Baseball Historical Abstract. This isn't to say that all former athletes are unqualified for the booth because some have proven that they are, but rather that I think sports broadcasters need to dig a little deeper before hiring an ex-athlete so that they're hiring the right person for the job and not hiring someone simply because they laced up their skates at one point in their lives.


Derick said...

I think a lot of this sort of cliche nonsense has to do with the fact that reasonable sports analysis and their target audience don't mix.

There's so much luck, game to game variation, etc. in sports, especially hockey, that analyzing it is really a matter of probability above all. Theories of math and probability and the sort of long term, conceptual analysis it takes to come to any substantial conclusions about sports aren't the sort of thing the jocks sports media panders to are interesting.

So instead of boring them by giving concrete, thought out conclusions they've created a bunch of cliches, tautologies, etc. that mean nothing. Doing well in October through March is talent. Doing well in April through June is heart. Clutch goalies steal games. Defense first.

R O said...

"DG", is it?

It's funny that you would post on a subject like this, about seeing shit that flat out never happens on the ice.

Because this ...

the Canadiens played far better defensively than the Capitals did, keeping the Washington shooters in front of them and preventing them from getting inside.

... and this ...

the Montreal coaching staff vastly outperformed Washington's, because the Canadiens made key adjustments whereas the Capitals didn't.

... is just a doubly steaming fucking pile of noxious bullshit that just flat out never fucking happened in this universe or any other.

So really, you have nothing on the mainstream media, because judging by your opinions you could blend in with one of them.

And, to really rub salt in it, Montreal has gotten lucky, continues to get lucky, deserved to lose against Washington, deserves to lose against Pittsburgh, and hasn't played good enough hockey to get into the playoffs on merit for about three years running now.

Vicendum said...


Colorado defeating San Jose in Game 3 was luck.

Belarus defeating Sweden at the 2002 Olympics was luck.

The Cincinatti Bengals defeating the Denver Broncos last season was luck.

Montreal defeating Washington over seven games is not luck.

You don't win a seven game series- and certainly not one where you win the last three games as the Habs did- on a series of lucky bounces and freak plays. "Luck" is really a matter of random chance, and over the long term- such as a playoff series- it should even out. In a single game, or even a more traditional seven game set (i.e. when the teams essentially "trade victories), "luck" may decide the series because in that deciding game, the two teams could be so evenly matched that the only way to separate them is a bounce or a minor error that would otherwise be insignificant. However, the likelihood of "unlucky breaks" occurring for just one side over several games (or even just over the course of a single game) is so improbable as to render it unlikely. I know it can *feel* like a certain team was unlucky but that's only because we remember the "unlucky" moments that were key. Sticks break and pucks hop all the time, but those plays don't register unless it ends up in the back of the net.

Therefore, if a team wins consecutive games- as the Habs did- they must have done something right. Maybe you should review the Habs' last three wins over the Capitals, because the video should show you how little traffic Washington generated in front of Jaroslav Halak and how little the Canadiens made forays up ice. I'm not the only one who noticed this- Don Cherry, the TSN guys, Barry Melrose...they all noticed it too. They can't all be blind, can they? I know the shot totals suggests a Capital domination, but to follow that is to fall to the folly of blindly trusting the stats and ignoring what actually happened on the ice. The Habs routinely set up shop in their defensive zone in a box, closed off the passing and shooting lanes (not allowing them to penetrate) and let the Capitals hammer away from the point or the half-wall. I don't know how that's not good fundamental defensive zone coverage. The Canadiens also prevented the rushes by not pressing themselves and only moving on a counter-attack, thereby preventing Washington from having the two-on-ones they love to have. That all came after Montreal kept on getting burned in Games 2 through 4, all through rushes by the Capitals' shooters, so the Canadiens' coaching staff had to have made an adjustment to their gameplan. Meanwhile, Washington didn't change a thing after Game 5, continuing to move into the Canadiens' zone and shoot from the perimeter, sending no one in front of Halak. If that's not being outcoached, I don't know what is. This of course says nothing of Halak, who was spectacular for the Canadiens and vastly outperformed whomever Washington had in net. So as you can see, a lot more than "luck" came to play for the Montreal Canadiens in their victory over the Washington Capitals.


I disagree. There are a few sportscasters who are capable of deep, insightful analysis without losing their accessibility. Troy Aikman and Craig Simpson are the first ones to come to mind- they're smart and insightful, and do it in such a way that they're not talking "over" the audience. Sports are not such complex entities where only a "rocket scientist" could understand it- they can be broken down in such a way that Joe Fan can understand it and learn from it. Analysts who are spouting cliches are frankly not doing their jobs.


nightfly said...

Analysts who spout cliches are doing their jobs quite well - they are generating argument and thus interest in watching them blather or reading their columns.

If I look up a bunch of numbers and present them as evidence that a particular player has outperformed another, there's still an argument but somehow you have to get around actual evidence. If I just say stuff like "he never comes through in the clutch" and "he hasn't shown the heart to succeed in the playoffs" then we can argue endlessly. There is no way to prove OR disprove the statement. Thus I never have to worry about whether I'm right.

Not everyone prefers the first style of analysis - evidence and debate. A lot of people prefer the second style, because they can just watch and enjoy. And I'm fully convinced that a few of these talking heads do it on purpose, because so many people like to watch them beclown themselves (FJM to the blue courtesy phone). It's their public persona. It builds an audience.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

DG: I'll give you Craig Simpson, as long as he's not talking about goaltending. Every time he breaks into his well-rehearsed "it's not how many saves you make, it's when you make them" routine it makes me want to throw stuff at the TV.

Jonathan said...


Luck is sort of a dirty word, but if both teams were to repeat game 5-7, let's just say that I'd put my money on Washington to take at lest two of those games if they were played with the same tactics from both teams. I'm looking at the game 7 shot chart right now, and I'm counting at least 26 shots that were both inside the top of the circles and between the two faceoff dots. Roughly 11 of those shots were point blank--between the circles and inside the inner hashmarks. Montreal did a better job in games 5 and 6, but not by a lot, and the defense should expect to give up 2+ goals when giving up that many opportunities. That's not great defense, that's unsustainably great goaltending.

I understand that you don't want to rely only on stats, and that you (like most people) will also go with the eyeball tests. Just understand that I'm naturally skeptical about whether anyone can actually tell how badly a goalie is being screened while they themselves are watching on a 2-dimensional TV, while the camera angle is predominantly shown from the side of the ice and not behind the net. I know I can't administer an eyeball test to save my life.

As far as the analysts saying that the Habs are clogging the lanes and such, they may be right, but I suspect that may just be the scoreboard talking. "Montreal is LEADING?! No way!! There must be some logical reason for this! And we can't just tell the public that Montreal is getting lucky."

It is quite possible for an inferior team to win three games in a row, and in a playoff season with fifteen different series, it is probably going to happen at least once. The teams are close enough that an inferior team should expect to win a particular game at least 25% of the in the playoffs, which corresponds to a 64-to-1 shot at a three game run. Very long odds indeed, but it can easily happen over the span of 75-90 playoff games.

Vicendum said...


I suppose it's just a matter of taste, though I think there's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. If the analyst spouts a cliche but backs it up then they're still doing their job. If their entire repetoire is to spout a cliche because they're fishing for things to say, that's simply being lazy.


I'm not discounting how well Jaroslav Halak played. I think it was key to the Canadiens' victory over the Capitals; but that wasn't *all* of it. Montreal did block a ton of shots, and I hardly saw them press for the last three games of the series. Setting up shop in their defensive zone was premeditated. I'd also like to remind you that things like the shot map on ESPN don't show the quality of those shots. I'm also looking at it now and I'm seeing a lot of shots from the outside or high in the slot; and of course, this says nothing about how well the Canadiens executed their game plan against how well the Capitals did. Since Montreal won the game it's safe to say their game plan was the one that worked and that their execution was far better than Washington's. Maybe the defending wasn't "picture perfect" but Montreal didn't make their goaltender's job harder than it had to be.

I agree that Halak had to be brilliant for the Canadiens to win; but this wasn't luck by any stretch of the imagination.


nightfly said...

DG - oh, my tastes coincide far more with yours. I hate cliches for cliche's sake. You're right, it's lazy; taking and defending a position is work and a lot of analysts can't be bothered. I do not endorse, I merely describe.

Jonathan said...

Well yes, Montreal was obviously packing it in, and they were clearly playing to the score. The point is that, even accounting for all of Montreal's tactics, they still gave up 26 shots from somewhere inside the perimeter. A team may get 26 shots on net over the course of a normal game, but to eliminate all low percentage shots and still have 26? That's a sieve-like performance by Montreal's defense, no matter how many additional shots came from the outside. The 26 shots all by themselves should have yielded 3+ goals.

"Since Montreal won the game it's safe to say their game plan was the one that worked and that their execution was far better than Washington's."
It's not remotely safe to say that!! Just because something works doesn't mean it's a good idea, or that it was executed well. Lots of bad ideas end up working out, especially in an environment that runs on probability.

If their game plan was to limit the number of shots the other team took, they did a bad job of that.

If they were trying to keep the opponent from getting shot inside the perimeter, they did a terrible job of that also.

If they were just trying to prevent shots from their own crease area, they did a goodness-awful job of that.

If they were intentionally allowing Washington to get a ton of shots just to keep Halak sharp, then they would have been better off playing some defense and then letting Hal Gill fire shots at his own goalie.

You mentioned that the shot quality wasn't reflected in the shot chart. I guess...but it's impossible to prove whether Washington's shot quality was good or bad. Anyways, I doubt Montreal's game plan was to hope that Washington hit Halak in the CH logo 40 times.

Jessa said...

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R O said...

My God, this after-it-happened bullshit rationalization coming from that one Habs fan poster is just noxious.

Scoring chances, straight from a rational Habs fan:


All this, recorded while the fucking game was happening, right there on the goddamn ice. Pretty clear and irrefutable that Washington had way more opportunities than Montreal to score.

Your eyes, because you wanted to believe that the Habs are more than they are, deceived you. That's all there is, you can put away all the rope-a-dope, good-defense no-traffic shots-to-the-outside rhetoric away.

The Montreal skaters are flat out playing bad hockey, terrible in just about every sense of the word, and we'd be better off if you just accepted that and moved on.

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