Track Coach

TC243 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS


When I was in my early 20’s I had five interviews in one day for work with the New York State government. They were bureaucratic jobs that paid about double what I was making as a teacher/coach. They offered job security, benefits and the opportunity to spend the rest of my life in a 4×6 cubicle.

The last interview of the day was for a computer science position. This was the mid-seventies and the nerdy were just beginning to trade their slide rules for pocket calculators. All the interviews asked the same questions for the first 10 minutes. By #5 I was tired so I decided to ask and answer the standard questions in my initial statement on “Why I wanted this job.”

It was late in the afternoon and I could see my interviewers were taken aback by this, like, “How does he know what we were going to ask?” When they asked, “But why computers?” I told them, “Computers are the next link in the evolutionary chain.”

I went from wiseguy to Wise Guy in one sentence. I had read that tidbit somewhere and thought it would be an appropriate response. This became the focal point of the remainder of the interview. I scrambled to support the thought, referencing Isaac Asimov’s I,
smart machines and how science fiction has often forecast the future. I think I went 2-for-5 for the jobs but in the end stuck with teaching.

Today, calling computers ubiquitous is an understatement. Our cell phones contain more technology than NASA had when they sent Neil Armstrong to the moon. The quantity of information, literally at our fingertips, is staggering. The quality of information can be equally mystifying.

Various predictions have postulated that cell phones will be smarter than humans as soon as 2025, certainly by 2035. Hmmm, politicians, maybe 2010? Computerized algorithms already have the ability to predict our needs, wants and desires. Our personal calendars remind us what we have to do – is it such a stretch to think our little buddy will soon start to tell us simply what to do?

Analytics are all the rage in professional sport. Moneyball details how the use of statistics and projections were used to revolutionize baseball. But this revolution (or evolution?) has reduced the game to home runs, strikeouts and the pull hitter’s shift. The more we rely on data, hard cold facts to drive decisions, the further and further we get away from the human element. 

I always laugh when I remember the story an older football/track coach, in the league where I got started, frequently told. His team was on the 10 yard line, 4th quarter, five points down and only enough time for one more play. As he walked to the huddle for his last timeout, he decided to use a trick play, with players running this way and that, using illusion and confusion to get the final score. 

His star tight end jogged up to him and said, “Throw me the ball.” The coach walked to the huddle and proceeded to diagram his trick play. The tight end interrupted again, “Throw me the ball.” Angered and ready to erupt he looked the kid in the eyes and once again the kid said, “Throw me the ball.” For an eternal second the coach stood there, then turned to his quarterback and said, “Throw him the ball.” The kid caught the ball.

Joe Paterno said that great athletes make great plays. Sometimes you have to trust the person. Algorithms, tendencies and artificial intelligence are all well and good but greatness is not a “central tendency,” it is the act of an outlier. 

What does all this mean for coaching? The scientifically generated data of analytics can be helpful but also can be very rigid. If the plan calls for the athlete to run 10 quarters and they show up with a sore foot, better to change the plan than to ruin the foot. The reality of the real world is that things that don’t bend, break. Flexibility is one of the biomotor skills for a reason, and it is also an important part of the art. 

No doubt the day will come when robots can run, jump and throw better than humans. I have no doubt these competitions will be entertaining and exciting showcasing the abilities of the gifted engineers who created these technological marvels. And no doubt one day the technological marvels will probably create the selfsame technological marvels. Will that spectacle supersede the competitions of human models? I guess it depends on who is making the decisions. Is it us, or is it the “next link?”