Practical Concerns: My analytics pot roast

Credit: Stuart West

Credit: Stuart West

Despite spending a lot of time at the rink watching hockey, most of my talents lie outside of the game. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to cook. And my favorite thing to make is pot roast – a big portion of the cheapest cut of meat from the butcher shop, cooked on low heat for seven hours in bottom-shelf red wine with some onions, carrots and a secret spice mix.

Making good food is a nifty ability to have on its own, but having more or less grown up in the kitchen, I can also appreciate how the process behind cooking has practical applications in sports. Ingredients, technique and (just as importantly) timing is everything when you’re cooking, and those three things matter just as much when you are trying to improve a hockey team.

Conversations with coaches, analysts and an article I read in the past week provided interesting insights on how cutting-edge teams in various leagues are using data to drive decision-making (by coaches and managers) and influence behavior (from players). The main question which came to mind, when listening and reading, however, is: “The ingredients are there, the technique is adequate, but does the timing work?” What I mean by that is whether the new information is being applied at the correct moment.

Pouring a cup of red wine over your roast right after you brown it sets you up for seven hours of precious interaction between alcohol, sugars and meat proteins. Pouring that same wine over a hunk of meat that’s already fully cooked, and you’ve got an inedible mess. The ingredients and the technique is plain to see, but the timing is intangible, but very much crucial.

For me, stats and video clips are like that red wine and beef combination – the numbers tell me what kind of on-ice actions drive results, and video demonstrates what kind of behavior we should promote. Instead of serving them raw to our players, we need to take the time to transform those insights into palatable morsels – short “representative” clips during a pre-game video session which illustrate good habits leading to a desirable outcome.

Growing up, I’ve always been more on the deep thinker/rational side of things on the teams I’ve been a part of. Having an interesting in thinking the game has certainly motivated me to develop strengths and work on weaknesses in my game, but perhaps it also contributed to the warts in my game – such as a distaste for corner puck battles or a tendency to stop trying when down more than three goals. Thinking too much of the fly and being overly sensitive to risk is probably not a good quality to have for an athlete.

As the use of analytics become more widespread across sports and levels of play, we will see more managers and coaches incorporate quantitative facts into their work process at an early stage, which is a good thing. But I think they should try to be open-minded about how receptive their own players are to the statistical representation and quantification of their work.

Ultimately, coaching is trying to influence snap decisions through visual (video) or kinesthetic (on-ice drills) cues. Our players don’t see their advanced stats, because I don’t think it’s tremendously important for them to know. Unlike what their professors are trying to do in the classroom, my intention is not for them to refine and expand their thought process on the ice, because at the CIS level and beyond, you don’t have time to think. There’s a Minimum Effective Dose in training a forward to carry the puck in instead of dumping it, or in teaching a defenseman to find the middle on the breakout instead of shooting it off the glass.

Digging into data has enhanced my love and appreciation for hockey, and had I made it farther in hockey, I certainly drawn confidence in knowing how I was contributing to the team beyond my goals and assists. But not everyone is like that, and that’s A-okay. No player should be forced to consume heatmaps and stats printouts on a weekly basis, just as no dinner guest of mine should taste the red wine in their pot roast.
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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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