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Coaching no longer the ‘key’ to wins

Contrary to conventional wisdom — as well as untold hours of sports-radio rants — managers and coaches have very little impact on player performance or team victories.

According to a careful statistical analysis by economist John Bradbury, there is some chance that a few baseball managers are associated with better hitting and a few with better pitching, but not one has even a slight positive impact on both pitching and hitting. A few, like the Yankees’ Ralph Houk and the Mariners’ Chuck Cottier, seem to create slightly better hitters and slightly worse pitchers. But managers don’t produce winning teams.

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Another economist, David Berri, and his colleagues found NBA coaches were statistically indistinguishable from one another, holding differences in player quality and other environmental factors constant. Even the very best coaches, like Phil Jackson, could only be distinguished from the very worst, not from their “average” colleagues.

These findings should come as no surprise. An earlier study of baseball managers found player quality explained 67 percent of the variance in team success, managers just 1 percent. NFL teams that fired their coaches after suffering early season slumps had the same recovery pattern as those with similar slumps that kept their coach. Across the Atlantic, English football teams did less well after changing managers. 

Interesting, you say, but those who know me are perplexed: “Why the sudden obsession with sports and why, for heaven’s sake, in The Hill?”

Those who listened to post-election commentary on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will recognize the echoes. Most of her detractors laced their criticism with sports analogies. “If a manager loses, you change managers. If a coach has a losing season, fire the coach.”

That may be exactly what sports teams do, but there is precious little evidence that it works, that new leadership improves results. Indeed, some studies suggest even worse outcomes with new leaders.

In this case, critics argued the Speaker was the “face of defeat,” though being its cause and being its face are very different things. Republicans attacked her as a symbol of what’s wrong with Washington in 161,203 ads, costing $65 million. But anyone who occupied the Speaker’s chair in these difficult circumstances would have become the object of opposition derision, just as Newt Gingrich and Tip O’Neill were in earlier Congresses. Moreover, if there were not real problems, caused mostly by the economy, there would be less “wrong” to symbolize.

Indeed, before Democrats started getting blamed for our economic straits, when she first became Speaker, twice as many Americans had favorable opinions of Pelosi as harbored unfavorable views. On the natural, Speaker Pelosi is an appealing figure.

If players really win and lose games, why do teams (and sometimes caucuses) bring on new managers, coaches and leaders? Professor Bradbury’s work yields a hint. Teams that fired managers didn’t win more games, but they did sell more tickets as fans (wrongly) presumed the change foreshadowed more victories—improving owners’ bottom lines, but not the teams’ standings.

Fans are seduced by what psychologists call fundamental attribution error — the natural tendency to overweight the personal and underweight the situational in attributing causality. This psychological bias leads fans to believe the problem is the manager, just as experimental subjects believed a model train operator was unskilled when cars kept jumping the track, even after they were told the derailments resulted from a systemic cause — abrupt, random changes in the electrical current to the engine.

Changing managers (or leaders) may make some people feel better because they misunderstand the underlying dynamics, but it won’t cure the problems plaguing the Carolina Panthers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the L.A. Clippers, the Wolverhampton Wanderers or House Democrats.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.