One player runs a 4.5/40. Another player throws a 94mph fastball. And a third player is the #17 running back in the country. In all three of these examples athletes have been reduced to a number/ranking/measurement, and while this might help better discriminate talent, are there times where we over-rely on numbers and stats at the expense of the overall impact and talents when appraising student athletes? Some student athletes I work with have told me about the pressure they experience trying to improve upon their ranking, as well as their frustrations that their value seems to be reduced down to a simple number rather than their overall worth to a team. All this begs the big question: Are we helping, or hurting, student athletes by quantifying their value down to simple numbers?
What numbers tell us…
Numbers, rankings, and statistics certainly provide value, and in many cases they help us with efficiency, time management, organization, and hopefully better overall decision-making. Statistical experts will tell you, however, that numbers don’t always paint the complete picture, and sometimes numbers and rankings can be misleading. Furthermore, stats can sometimes lead to self-fulfilling prophecies (positive and negative) for student athletes — what this means is that it’s possible a student athlete with a high ranking tries even harder in the future (a good thing), but another student athlete with a lower ranking might falsely assume he’s not very good because of the ranking, and consequently not try much in the future.
What numbers don’t tell us…
While numbers can be helpful, they don’t provide the full picture, and sometimes numbers can omit important information. For example, a batting average tells us how many hits per at bats for a baseball player, but it doesn’t tell us about the player’s motivation, focus, resiliency, or ability to play well in the clutch. A batting average also doesn’t tell us the quality of pitchers the batter faced, the types of fields he played on, the quality of the fielders playing defense, or whether any unusual personal problems (i.e. trouble with grades) contributed to his average. The point is that statistics can certainly be an important tool to consider when evaluating talent, but many human characteristics, playing conditions, and other outside factors may not be easily quantified.
Student athletes these days are constantly being measured, whether it’s grades in the classroom or rankings in sports. While it is important to use measurements to help kids develop and grow, it’s also important to recognize that many important skills are missed by statistics. Additionally, rankings can contribute to self-fulfilling prophecies, where otherwise talented kids might put forth less effort simply because they see that their ranking isn’t very high (coincidentally, this effect can also work in reverse if a kid plays harder because he or she is measured at a high level).