Sunday, 13 May 2018

Soccernomics: 2018 Edition by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

The first edition of Soccernomics, published in 2009, is a fantastic read showcasing what the social sciences can tell us about soccer and what soccer can tell us about the social sciences. It is fascinating and thoughtful and it should be thoroughly enjoyable to anyone with even a passing interest in the game. So if you haven't read any edition previously and this sounds like your bag, get on that, and pick up this version given it's the most recent.

The rest of this review will assume that you've already read Soccernomics but it was probably over 5 years ago or more and you're wondering whether to pick up this new edition. I'm happy to report that Soccernomis: 2018 World Cup Edition is not merely a cash grab attempting to capitalize on the hype surrounding everyone's favorite quadrennial international sporting spectacle (sorry Olympics) but a thorough revamp with plenty of new material, updated data and research, and reflections on predictions that didn't pan out and speculation as to why that was the case.

The major sections from the first edition appear to be largely present, but they all have been updated to some extent, and not just with lazy references to flavor-of-2018 teams and players, there is some fundamental reworking. Some of the theoretical sections are similar (e.g. the rationale for investing in assimilating foreign players, how a penalty kick is game theory masquerading as a high-stakes tie-match-deciding device, the countries punching the highest above their weight in the sport) but many of the examples are new and sometimes the theories are amended in light of recent findings and there is analysis of recent crazy happenings such as how Leicester City won the Premier League.

Essentially, if you enjoyed reading Soccernomics the first time, I definitely recommend picking up this book as it is basically more of the same. Yes, some material will be familiar, but the update is comprehensive enough to warrant another purchase/borrow.


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Advance Book Review: The Performance Cortex by Zach Schonbrun

Release Date: April 17, 2018

Over the last few decades the athletic world has seem arms races across various disciplines as teams attempt to gain an edge on their competition. Understanding the complex linkages between the mind and the body is one of the biggest new frontiers for sports teams, and in The Performance Cortex Zach Schonbrun of the New York Times explores the territory and provides a surprisingly science-heavy account of the connection between neuroscience and sports.

The Performance Cortex is effectively two books in one. It oscillates between chronicling the exploits of deCervo, a start-up founded by two Columbia neuroscientists designed to aid baseball players and explaining the science behind the motor system and examples of how athletes are leveraging neuroscience to improve performance. The Decervo sections were engaging and it was interesting to see how the product evolved and sold itself to teams. It also provided Schonbrun with the opportunity to share research around the remarkably complex action that is hitting a fastball. It takes approximately 400 milliseconds for a 95 mile-per-hour fastball to cross home plate from the pitcher's mound, and in that time a batter has to anticipate a pitch, identify it, decide whether to swing, and put bat to ball (should he decide that to be a sensible decision) all within that lilliputian time-frame. deCervo eventually evolved into a program that allowed baseball players to assess and improve their pitch recognition skills. The firm's founders discovered that there was considerable variation in players' abilities to quickly recognize pitches, and that recognition skills were a large driver of success. deCervo billed itself as a valuable talent-assessment tool for teams and after gaining traction with college teams the company met with over 25 MLB teams to tout their product.  The notion that baseball players are better at identifying pitches and faster isn't groundbreaking. But what was useful is it gave managers an objective measure that appeared to explain variations in performance in teams.The use of a similar program called Neuroscouting encouraged the Red Sox to take a risk on an obscure outfielder from Tennessee named Mookie Betts in 2011, which seems to have worked out pretty ok for the franchise.

The non-deCervo chapters explain the various ways the motor system impacts sports and the current scientific research on the topic. These are science-heavy and primarily rely on summarizing boatloads of research studies. Sometimes these can be interesting, such as the finding that increased touching through behaviors such as high-fiving and chest-bumping early in the season were correlated with team cohesion and future success later on in the campaign (though you would think that a better team would have more opportunities for such celebratory behavior than a bad one) and the theory that the prevalence of right handedness a result from mothers holding babies near their hearts because it helped them sleep. Shonbrun also does an excellent job distilling concepts into digestible prose for the lay reader, such as likening neurons sending signals to the spinal cord to tourists attempting to navigate Times Square. There is a lot for Schonbrun to cover (this is a far more popular research topic than the psychology of fandom I wrote about in my Superfans review) and readers will learn about the speed-accuracy trade-off,  great localization debate and other major areas of motor skills research. Schonbrun will sometimes link research findings to their practical application and how players such as Neymar utilize them to their benefit, but sometimes Schonbrun will go in-depth into research around theories such as lateralization that were eventually debunked. This was one of the most science-oriented "psych/neuroscience applied to popular subject" books I read and Schonbrun really did his research and delved into the literature. This led to some dry sections, but it also meant that I learned way more than the average pop psych book.

Schonbrun focuses solely on the motor system. There is nothing on genetics or concussions as those topics have already been covered in-depth in other books. I appreciated this decision as it made the book feel more focused and original. There are a few books touching upon somewhat similar subject matter, such as Brandon Sneed's Head in the Game, but none with at much scientific rigor. Sometimes this makes the book drag in parts, but overall The Performance Cortex is an illuminating book that greatly improved my understanding of and appreciation for the motor actions involved in sports.

7 / 10 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Advance Book Review: Superfans by George Dohrmann

Release Date: February 20, 2018

60% of Americans identify as sports fans, and if you're reading this review you probably count yourself among the ranks of athletic partisans. Originally inspired by his experiences fielding calls from irate readers while working the sports desk at The Los Angeles Times at the start of his journalistic career, sportswriter George Dohrmann explores the most extreme depths of fandom in his new book Superfans and details the psychology behind such behavior. It is not as gripping or powerful as his absolutely fantastic Play Their Hearts Out but Superfans is a breezy and enjoyable application of pop psychology to the sporting realm.

Dohrmann is currently a writer for The Athletic and previously served as an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated and won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles revealing academic fraud at the University of Minnesota while at the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. He is a tremendously gifted writer with a knack for deep and engaging character portraits. Superfans has a bit more an educational bent than some of his other work but he still excels at bringing to life and colorful and outrageous fans he meets such as Steven Nevets, the founder of the Portland Timbers' Timbers Army and the eccentric forefather of fan psychology Dr. Dan Wann.

Superfans bounces around the major aspects of fandom including illusions of control, affiliation and identification, and hatred or rivals. Each chapter has a mix of profiles and a little detail on relevant studies. Given the minutia researched across a variety of academic disciples, I was surprised to learn the marginalized position of fan psychology within academia. Most of the leading researchers are concentrated in pedestrian universities and for whatever reason cluster in the Midwest. Dohrmann usually mentions the conclusions of each article, but I wish he provided more detail at the psychological concepts hypothesized as causing such findings. The book might have benefited from a co-author from academia to give the book a little more scientific heft. I realize it is intended for sports fans more than psychologists, but if you are looking for some meaty psychological and neurological explanations you may find yourself wanting.

The majority of studies in the space seem to be quirky and along the lines of "The Impact of Team Identification on Biased Ratings of Odors." Some of these studies are legitimately fascinating and it is great for them to be shared with a broader audience. However, a good portion of the research papers lean heavily on self-reporting and I would imagine that the approach could cause some issues. It doesn't take a PhD to acknowledge that sometimes passionate sports fans can be a tad biased, especially when reflecting on their own behavior. Sometimes the conclusions are essentially reaffirmations of common sense, such as the notion that fathers are hugely influential in shaping rooting interests and that many fans are looking for social acceptance and a sense of camaraderie. Dohrmann also largely ignores sports fans beyond America's shores, and I would have appreciated expanding the book's geographical scope, especially when it comes to some of the more soccer-mad countries.

Gripes aside, Superfans was still quite a fun read. Dohrmann writes with a sense of compassion and empathy for the fan and he gives his superfan subjects a sense of humanity that can be lacking in some accounts. It's a nice mix of sociology and psychology applied to the sports fan, a topic that for some reason has largely been ignored by the brobdingnagian pop psychology publishing world to this point. Sure, I would have liked some more scientific rigor in some of its explanations (a psych professor co-author could have done wonders) but I still had a good time with Superfans and think it will appeal to any sports fan with at least a passing interest in the social sciences.

7.5 / 10