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Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Wisdom of Crowds

Late last year, on the recommendation of Allen St. John, I read James Surowiecki’s fascinating book The Wisdom of Crowds, and thought it might have some application for player talent identification and development at the USTA. During a rainy day at the Orange Bowl, Paul Roetert agreed to meet with me at his Key Biscayne office. I explained my version of the books insights and he said he would read it, and also referred me to the Sports Science arm of High Performance.

My perhaps naïve suggestion was that parents of junior players could be used as a resource in helping bring overlooked, yet promising players to the forefront. I know the sheer numbers of parents watching tennis at junior tournaments far exceeds that of USTA coaches and employees, and many of these parents have vast amounts of experience in and knowledge of the sport. Those that don’t could still bring useful perspectives about other areas that matter---financial background, attitude, ethics. One of the book’s most powerful arguments is that an expert is not able to observe and absorb enough to make better decisions than a crowd with its multiple perspectives, diversity and knowledge. A simple example is the percentage of times polling the audience is superior to phoning a friend in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

I thought perhaps a simple questionnaire asking the parents of nationally ranked players whom they thought could benefit from the support of the USTA (not just financial, but with camp invitations, etc.) might provide useful data. If not, I didn’t see much of a downside—asking your customers what they think isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept.

At the first round Davis Cup tie in La Jolla, I learned that Sports Science was decidedly less enthusiastic about the book and my idea, although I did appreciate that they took the time to read the book and debate some of its ideas with me.

It is interesting that reading The Wisdom of Crowds inspired me to formulate a concrete proposal, while Blink, another fascinating book, and in many ways the antithesis of Crowds, did not.

In a future post I’ll review the bestseller I just finished, one that was suggested to me by several people in USTA High Performance, Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.


Anonymous said...

I find it very interesting that USTA High Performance recommended the book Moneyball. Moneyball is an outstanding book and it supports the convenient theory for them that what matters most is "results" demonstrated by statistics, not "potential" which may never come to fruition. This way the USTA can just make their decisions on which player to support based upon his/her record and ranking and will not have to get creative on predicting the future.

The only question I have is whether they are actually following this advice spelled out in the book. A great example is James "Bo" Seal. Seal's record proves that he deserves to be treated by USTA High Performance as one of the elite players born in 1991, and yet they seem to exclude him from their training camps and the only explanation I can think of is that they don't think he's going to be that tall. If you look at the most recent 1991 training camp photo which you reported on, it looks like a basketball camp for the "over 6 ft. crowd." Just look at the picture: JT Sundling, Austin Krajeck, Rhyne Williams, Chase Buchanon, etc. And yet, James Seal has a better record than Krajeck and Britton but I guess there is no room for a guy who is only 5 ft. 6 in. and who isn't likely to reach 5 ft. 10 in. I would love to hear their explanation of why Seal never seems to get invited to these camps. According to the lessons spelled out in Moneyball, James Seal would get invited, just like the stockily-built baseball player in the book who may not "look" like what a great baseball player is "supposed" to look like, but who can hit better than the tall, good looking, "athletically-built" guys who just "look" the part.

As Oakland A's Manager Billy Beane points out in the book: "we're not going to hire this guy to sell jeans; we're going to hire him to play baseball."