Malcolm Gladwell-moderated panel on building the modern athlete at MIT Sports Analytics Conference

By Dan Peterson

Embedded below is the keynote panel discussion from the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT, which just recently wrapped up in Boston and brings together a lot of the people doing the most forward-thinking research in sports. The conference began in 2007, small and basically a total geekfest, but has doubled in size every year since and now gets a fair amount of attention in more mainstream media outlets.

(Note: The first 16:30 of the video is full of introductory talking about the conference and is boring, and for some reason the video doesn’t let you jump forward.  But if you start the video and then pause it, it loads up pretty quickly, so consider doing that now if you’re interested in watching.)

The panel brings together an interesting mix of people. On one end you have Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets, whose very advanced, highly analytical approach to basketball was profiled in this well known New York Times article, and Mark Verstegen, one of the most respected, science-minded performance trainers around. On the other end, you have the very gut-based, intuitive and anecdotal understanding of the game and its psychology expressed by Jeff Van Gundy and the New York Giants’ Justin Tuck. But each brings a number of interesting points to the table.

The title of the panel discussion is “Birth to Stardom: Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours”. The whole 10,000 hours debate* really does provide a nice platform to talk about a lot of complex and multi-layered issues around skill acquisition, expertise, psychology, talent identification, and the future of sports in general.

*While the 10,000 hour rule is an oversimplification, and there isn’t anything magic about the number, it is a useful shorthand.

We know that at a neural, even molecular level, those years and years and thousands of hours of specialized training cause visible, structural changes in the brain. But viewing things through this lens and this lens only leaves out a great deal, because it is obvious to anyone who has ever coached or spent time around athletes that it takes a certain psychological makeup–the currently fashionable term for this being grit–for an athlete to be willing to put in those years of training. Even further, the training must be structured in a way such that it is reinforcing desired skills, movements and traits, and doing it in the most efficient way possible. At an even higher level, and Van Gundy does a nice job of talking about this at around the 37:00 mark, team chemistry and the ways that players influence each others’ work habits and attitudes is important as well.

The discussion is very interesting throughout the hour or so that it runs, but maybe even more valuable is being able to observe where and how the viewpoints and experiences of each of the different participants mesh on some topics and diverge on others, as well as the different languages and vocabularies each person uses, sometimes even when talking about the same things.

In a sense, the panel mirrors the big changes that are happening and will continue happening in the world of sports as a whole: analytics and a more rigorously scientific approach are quickly becoming an irreplaceable part of the sporting world, but in order for acceptance and adoption to ever occur in a way that affects how athletes train and prepare, those ideas have to make sense in the language of athletes and coaches. Discussions like the one in this panel will probably begin to become more and more frequent, at venues like the Sports Analytics conference, on television, and in the front offices of professional teams around the country.

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