Practical Concerns: Fixed vs. growth mindsets in hockey analytics

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The vast majority of scientific research has indicated that people with growth mindsets tend to be higher-achieving than those with fixed mindsets. Growth-oriented people are the ones who are more interested in furthering their education, or picking up a new hobby, or getting out of their comfort zones to experience new things.

So I find it somewhat strange that people who are into hockey analytics (a group of people which, in my experience, are usually well-educated and open-minded) tend to adopt “fixed” perspectives when it comes to analyzing the game.

I know this to be true, because it happens to me all the time. My spreadsheets may tell me some very uncomfortable things about a player, but when I bring up the subject with their coaches, the response I often get is “he’s been better lately,” or “she’s really made progress since last year.”

I have a hard time with setting future expectations when past track records don’t justify them, so when I first started hearing these replies, my gut feeling is “this person is overly optimistic, somewhat biased, or maybe even a little bit delusional.” But then I think of my grandfather.

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My grandfather turned 86 a few days ago. He was an elementary school teacher for about 35 years, and was the first person I met who made me appreciate the importance about thinking about what you’re doing, so that you can do it better the next time around (which is how I would explain analytics to a seven year old)

Elementary and high-school teachers need to possess a strong growth mindset. You’re essentially taking a bunch of young kids who don’t know much about anything, and molding them into (nearly) fully-functional human beings, capable of critical thinking and exercising sound judgment. Good teachers make the best of who they get. And going by the fact that some of my grandfather’s former students (now in their 50s and 60s) are still paying him a visit on his birthday, he was probably a good teacher.

From birth to age six, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. It’s been over two decades, so I really can’t remember what he did exactly, but all I know is that by the time I was five, I was reading at a fifth-grade level. I definitely did not come out of the womb like that, so his guidance and influence had a lot to do with me being “gifted” in that way.

So in life, it really matters to have teachers who possess a growth mindset. And the same is true in sports. Most of the great coaches I know have some of those same characteristics. It wouldn’t be a massive stretch to think that players such as Patrice Bergeron, Anton Stralman and Jake Muzzin unconsciously picked up their possession abilities somewhere, from someone, too.

But that’s not always the thought process that many stats-oriented hockey people go through. When you fully internalize the message that “players are who they are” and “pro sports isn’t real good at reinventing someone,” you’ll be quick to jump to conclusions about a person’s athletic destiny. Often you’ll be right, but you’ll also be quicker to give up on a few players who have more to give.

As an example, making a trade for a (hopefully) better player should really be a last resort for a team with a certain need. For one thing, it’s not always an option. Re-deploying existing talent can plug some holes, but ultimately, you want to have a good teaching process so that you can make every single player continuously expand his/her hockey abilities.

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Numbers are good for cutting through the fog, finding what drives results and what’s repeatable (or not), but you’d have to look beyond the numbers to improve a process. By averaging out the career arcs of 500 NHLers over the past 7 seasons, you get a very sobering perspective on the level of performance one can typically expect in different circumstances.

But by painting with so wide a brush, you also lose sight of learning opportunities – the players who break the mold one way or the other. Why did Dany Heatley, Michael Ryder or Devin Setoguchi age so poorly? And why are Radim Vrbata, Jaromir Jagr or Brad Boyes still contributing at ages where many of their cohorts are already out of the game? It could be a function of who they are (genetics, innate talent, etc.), but it could also be a function of what they do. Discover that, and you’ll be able to apply it to others – which is the point of teaching, or coaching.

This is not to say that there should be fewer numbers in hockey – in most cases, I’d say there could be more. The more we learn about analytics and the more evolved we are in their applications to coaching (moving from shot-based stats to zone entry/exits tracking and beyond), the better we can make the pro game, and the better we can teach it to young players.

That’s the endgame for those looking to use the power of data for things beyond just winning a game. It’s about growing the sport of hockey, from the pro ranks down to house league, the right way.

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Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.

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