Soccer guesses by Simmons and Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons talked about the 2016 Olympics and one part at the end caught my attention.

Simmons says,”it’s incredible to me that the US women’s soccer didn’t make the final four in the Olympics,” and  “there’s a whole strategy conversation that’s probably super nerdy for this.”

I’ve got some super nerdy theories that fit within the things we’ve looked at on this blog.

  1. Talent gardens have to be seeded (players) and weeded (coaches).
  2. Certain things happen when the best people play.
  3. Soccer outcomes are a lot about luck.


1/ Talent gardens. It’s fun to think of natural talent in the same fairy tale terms as overnight success. Neither exists. Talent, like flowers, requires a garden to grow. Dan Coyle pointed out that you need to have the right setting (even if it’s just a “penniless Russian tennis club”) and you need role models who “fill the windshield.”

Gladwell put it this way a few years ago:

“So why are the Jamaicans so good? There are many reasons, but the simplest is that the effect of peers on high performance are REALLY strong. In Jamaica, EVERYONE sprints. There are 20 heats in the 100-meter regional championships. And because everyone sprints, and the average quality of sprinting is so high, everyone’s expectations are raised accordingly. The psychological ceiling on elite performance if you are a high school sprinter in Kingston is, like, a foot higher than if you are a high school sprinter in America.”

In the podcast he told Simmons, “they (Jamaicans) are finding 100% of their sprinting talent.” In our garden metaphor; they have good seeds (psychological ceiling), good dirt (lots of focus on it), and good weeding (coaches who’ve seen and done a lot).

This isn’t easy. Gladwell’s recent Revisionist History podcast (episode #4)shined a light on how poorly the education system does this. If you are a really smart, but also really poor kid, the chances of someone finding your for an academic scholarship are low. Especially compared to a similar percentile kid that plays football.


You are what you measure. You are what you grow.

For all the focus on the athletes, we may be focusing not enough on the coaches. Gladwell says:

“There’s two separate things we’re talking about here. One necessary revolution has to be in the numbers of people who are playing a sport. And the second necessary revolution has to be in the sophistication of the coaching and preparation…I wonder if we underestimate the coaching preparation contribution and overestimate the pool.”

We have great seeds, but don’t weed the garden. That’s not to say we don’t cull it correctly, but maximize the growth.

Part of having great seeds is having a lot to choose from. It’s like a choice of restaurants in New York versus Yorktown. This is not the problem US Women’s Soccer has. “For men the best athletes are playing basketball,” Simmons says, “from a female standpoint it would seem like soccer is where the best athletes are.”

Soccer  gets the best American female athletes. That’s good, but certain things happen when the best participants get a chance to play.

2/ What happens when the best play? Simmons – a soccer dad – guesses that part of the problem for the US Olympic team was that they don’t play the right style. He sees youth soccer as chip and chase soccer. Teams are so focused on winning at all levels they prioritize it above everything else.  “At some point that catches up to you because everybody is fast, everybody is good,” Simmons says.

When the number of people drawn to something explained Stephen Jay Gould, the results begin to push against “a wall.”


Walls mean we go from Fat Tails to a (more) Normal Distribution.

When baseball allowed more players, the batting average distribution became more narrow, though the mean didn’t really change.

It wasn’t because of some mythical mathematical principle that rules the world, but because of “a right wall.” There is a physical limit to how fast a human can swing a baseball bat, react to a pitch, and build strength. Those limits form a wall and force the distribution to condense.

If women’s soccer participation has increased we should expect to see similar trends as in baseball. The more players, the more good players, the closer we get to the “right wall” of human performance.

Image from Five Thirty Eight Data Lab

Soccer participation has gone up, and so we can expect the pattern to continue. Not only in the US, but globally.

When you get more people playing a ZERO SUM GAME it gets more difficult to win. (1)

Nate Silver played online poker, until it converged at right wall.

Burton Malkiel said “The problem is, as the market as the market gets more and more professional, when people are better trained, when people have better sources of information…it’s then harder and harder to actually beat the market.”

Michael Mauboussin coined the term “paradox of skill” which applies here. When skill goes up, to have success, you need luck to go up too.

Imagine the World Series of Poker. Eight thousand people qualify, the top one thousand get something back.  In the 2010 tournament, researchers found that the better the player, the bigger the payout.

Players classified as high skill are 12 percent more likely to make the money than the average player, and 19 percent more likely to make the final table.

At the final table you need some luck. Annie Duke told Charles Duhigg, “all we can do is learn how to make the best decisions that are in front of us, and trust, over time, the odds will be in our favor.”

To rephrase it, all we can do is make the best decisions and know we’ll have some bad luck. When lots of people participate the skill needed to win improves. At that stage – whether it’s the World Series of Poker or Olympics – you need to get lucky.

3/ Luck.  Soccer, like most things in life, comes down to some degree of luck. Chris Anderson wrote, “Soccer is basically a 50/50 game. Half of it is luck and half of it is skill.” Bad bounces, late reactions, and one half second too late all have a sort of butterfly effect on the game. You need some luck to succeed.


After the US Women lost, goalkeeper Hope Solo said,  “The better team did not win.” There’s a decent chance she was right. If the ‘better’ team gets less ‘lucky’ in a game that’s 50% skill and 50% luck to begin with, then the better team will not win quite often.

Her comments seemed so out of line because EVERYTHING IN LIFE IS LIKE THIS.  Like Al Pacino says in the clip, “in life and football…one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it.”

The same week Neil Strauss released a book and began his big media circuit Hurricane Katrina struck. How’s that for luck.

Phil Knight wrote, “Luck plays a big role…Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome.” For someone who wore the Nike jersey, Solo missed this.

We tend to forget the good luck says Jack Schwager “I’ll have good luck too. The bad ones you really notice. The good ones you’re smart on the bad ones are bad luck.” We have hindsight bias.

Good luck and bad luck is in every bit of our lives.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. If you liked this post about podcasts, you can check out my podcast

(1) One area this has not been true is basketball. Zach Lowe and Marc Stein talked about it (~31:00)

Stein mentions that he’s confused about why Argentina hasn’t gotten better and he says “I know they’re a soccer nation” but then cites the Golden Generation (Ginobili, Scola, Nocioni). Why hasn’t Argentina basketball approached the right wall domestically, and reached a certain level at worldwide play? They were there, but now they are not.

Because Argentina is a soccer nation that got lucky Manu Ginobili played basketball. He just happened to have the right set of genes and be born into the right family along with a few other good players.

Argentina is 31st in population so the odds were good that someone could succeed.  Take any of those pretty good players off the Argentine teams and you likely don’t have the period of success. Argentina capitalized on good luck rather than a right wall. It makes sense they would revert to the mean.

To summarize:

  • Countries reward things differently. In America, basketball is more rewarded than soccer which is more rewarded than intelligence.
  • Rewards attract more people.
  • More people means more competition and shifts the standard deviation of outcomes until they approach some kind of limit.
  • Once at that limit competition within or between groups leans more heavily on luck.

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