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Analytics & Intuition in Hockey

August 3, 2017

Let me begin by saying I am a proponent of analytics in hockey. I am not here to denounce the use of fancy stats to aid in decision making. The brilliant minds that create measurement points, look for scenarios to apply measurement and analyze trends are improving the depth, range and quality of data that is available to coaches and managers. Some teams embrace this knowledge and have robust analytics departments, while other teams prefer to take a more traditional approach. What is certain though, is the amount of friction that exists between proponents of the use of analytics and, what is seen as, the old guard, staunch hockey minds.


Who is correct in this battle? Ultimately, both sides. Hockey analytics provides data, important data, that can help guide decision making. Zone entries, possession etc... are all great stats to know and reference when making decisions. That being said, in a game of emotion, decisions cannot be made on numbers alone. Here is where intuition comes in. Hockey purists will argue that experience trumps all. Proponents of analytics will laugh and point to the notion that intuition is nothing more than guesswork. What if intuition was scientific and could be measured?


You have to look no further than the study of behavioral science to understand that intuition is, in fact, scientific. What happens when we rule with intuition? Our brain analyzes the scenario and makes a decision based on: the current state, similarities with previous scenarios, outcome of decisions in previous scenarios, current state of emotions, player trends during the game, match-ups and potential current outcome. The more experience you have, the quicker your mind will process and recognize the scenario and the faster you will make your decision. A lot is happening when you begin to make a decision with "your gut."


If you have had a good track record with your decision making you (likely still have a job) and you have had good success in past scenarios. Can you be wrong? Absolutely. Do numbers alone tell the full story of any scenario? No, they do not. What is the best option here? Start measuring and analyzing decisions made on intuition. Record and analyze when coaches and managers make decisions with their gut. Over time you will begin to see a pattern. When faced with scenario A and factors X, Y, Z, this coach will make the following player decision. You will begin to predict how decisions will be made as points of the game evolve. This is an area of hockey analytics that needs to be explored.


Intuition pops in a number of everyday hockey decisions. During game situations coaches have to read the emotion of their team during game flow. Is a certain player off? Has a player been triggered by a big hit or dirty play and is not thinking correctly? Are you under the skin of the other team? How is the energy on the bench? Are in game stats helpful during any of these scenarios? They might be, but, when dealing with emotional cues a coaches judgement call is going to reign supreme. If we move the conversation over to a management discussion, similar factors will come into play when dealing with negotiations. A GM has to read emotions when negotiating a trade with another GM or when dealing with an agent during contract negotiations. 


 Hockey, or any professional sport is emotional and decisions based on emotions and intuition are not going to be leaving the game. We can analyze, measure and predict performance based on emotional markers. Likewise hockey analytics can predict performance based on the outcome of situational data. It would seem that the perfect scenario for astute hockey decisions will be a combination of both fields. Hockey analytics professionals can mock the "old School" use of intuition all they want but it is more scientific and important than they think.



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