What counts is what we count: Why high school statistics need to improve

June 12, 2013 - 4:56am
A page from a typical high school scorebook -- and this is usually all the coach and players have to learn from.

A page from a typical high school scorebook -- and this is usually all the coach and players have to learn from.

Not so very long ago, I used to dread the months of May and June. With the Final Four in the rearview mirror, and the WNBA season still laboring to pick up enough steam to make the competition interesting, where was I to get my daily fix of women’s basketball?

These days, though, I’ve come to look forward to the annual two-month basketball hiatus. The reason is simple: By this time of year, I’ve endured several months of really bad basketball, so much so that I need a break just to clear my palate and prepare to enjoy the professional season without undue cynicism.

When I speak of bad basketball I’m not talking about the David-vs.-Goliath mismatches that characterize most of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, though those can be pretty painful to watch. Nor am I referring to the even more lopsided mismatches that typify much of the preconference schedule in college ball, as coaches gild their RPIs – and presumably their teams’ self-confidence – by whupping up on opponents way beneath their weight class, a practice I view as nothing short of shameful.

No, the problem for me is high school basketball at the sub-prime level. I used to enjoy taking in the prep scene. That all of the players, however talented, still had a lot to learn didn’t bother me; a given at that stage of their development, the learning curve was part of the draw.  The opportunity to see the future of the game in the process of coming into their own, the chance of identifying that overlooked diamond in the rough, was well worth long hours spent in the bleachers of dimly lit and overheated high school gyms around the country, even if the experience left my back screaming for mercy.

The turnaround in my attitude began three years ago when my daughter went out for her high school’s junior varsity team. To put it as kindly as possible, her relatively small, California public school excels in water sports and tennis, not the “majors” like basketball and football, on either the girls’ or the boys’ side. The team reached a high point this year when, for the first time since my daughter began playing as a freshman, they actually won a game that wasn’t a forfeit. Moreover, hers wasn’t the worst team in the league. Indeed, it would take a miraculous infusion of fresh talent for any of the teams I’ve been watching compete while wearing my mom hat to earn a mention on this web site.

The pity of it all is two-fold. First, for the roughly 439,000 young women who, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Athletics Participation Survey, play basketball at nearly 17,800 high schools across the country, I daresay the caliber of play my daughter experiences is far more typical than that of the elite showcase events where I’d been spending most of my time in the past. Second, while the bulk of these players are not Division I scholarship material, the level of play doesn’t have to be as bad as it is.

I could offer a laundry list of adjustments that could quickly and dramatically raise the level of play, but one commitment I made to myself when my daughter went out for the team was to avoid being either a helicopter parent or the basketball equivalent of a Monday morning quarterback to my daughter’s coaches, who have changed every year.  At the beginning of each year, I volunteer to help the coach in whatever capacity he finds useful. One season, that entailed serving as an assistant coach, working on shooting fundamentals with the raw new recruits. But for the most part, it has meant little more than pumping up basketballs, providing snacks or ferrying kids to one activity or another. Throughout it all, I have – at times with great difficulty – maintained my resolve to keep my lip zipped and my opinions to myself unless asked for – which has happened exactly once.

That said, if I were named queen for a day, the first change I would institute would be to make the maintenance of a full box score the norm at the high school level. It amazes me that this is not already the case, but in my daughter’s league, scorers record only personal fouls, timeouts, made field goals and free throws made and missed. And that’s not unique to scoring in her league, or even in the California Interscholastic Federation. Years ago, I was astonished to find a similar absence of meaningful stat-keeping even at the pinnacle of girls’ basketball, the Nike Tournament of Champions.

Why this shoddy approach to scorekeeping was ever considered acceptable eludes me. Why it should continue to be tolerated in an age when a fix is an iPad app away is unfathomable. Many of these apps are free. Gamechanger, for example, not only provides free scorekeeping and stat software for teams, but for a fee also enables live updates and recaps for the fans. Why would any coach or team fail to take advantage of this, or an equivalent, stat-keeping solution? True, someone (preferably several someones) – parent volunteers or injured players -- will have to be trained on how to operate the software, but this is neither difficult nor time-consuming and the process generates the side benefit of cultivating players and fans with a more sophisticated appreciation of the game.

The first thing most professional and college coaches reach for once the final buzzer has sounded is the box score. Most will not speak to the media until they have the final box in hand; many will not even speak with their own teams in the locker room until they’ve had a chance to go over the box. They’re not trying to learn the final score, which is prominently displayed on the scoreboard. Instead they go straight to exactly the kinds of stats not being kept in many high school programs – stats such as field-goal percentages, the proportion of assisted field-goals, rebounding margins, turnovers, points in the paint – to analyze why their team won or lost, how effectively they adhered to the game plan and whether or not they are improving, individually and as a team, from quarter to quarter, half to half or game to game. Butler University coach Brad Stevens has used statistical analysis to guide his mid-major men's team to two NCAA finals; asked what he'd add to the program if money were no object, he responded: "I'd probably create a statistics division."

Some might argue that maintaining a box score is mere paperwork; it simply records a team’s performance in a given game, but doesn’t do anything to improve it. And, of course, it’s true that both coaches and players must learn to use the information provided in the box. Coaches at some of the most successful high school programs in the country have seen the value of this information and assigned parents or coaching assistants to track it themselves, whether or not the leagues or events in which they are competing provide a full box score. However, many high school players and coaches are unable to do so simply because no one has bothered to record the most elementary information measuring individual and team performance in the game.

No matter how much coaches might extol the importance of defense and rebounding or exhort their players to pass the ball and play team ball, what counts to players is what we count. And in many high schools, all we count are points and fouls. Ask most players on my daughter’s team – and others like it – who is their best player, and they’ll immediately point to the player who puts the most points on the board. And, if time on the floor is any measure, the coach often shares a similar opinion. “Sally scored 12 points in last week’s game, and we still lost by 20. We need our best player on the floor the entire game tonight.”

The traditional wire-bound scorebook used at the high school level will tell the coach that Sally earned two of her points at the free-throw line (where she is shooting less than 20 percent), four in the paint, and six from three-point range – which further reinforces everyone’s conclusion that Sally is the team’s best player, because, gee whiz, nobody else can knock down a three. But no one notices – because no one has bothered to record a box score, much less maintain a shot chart – that Sally has taken 23 field-goal attempts in the game with only four makes, or that all but six of those shots were taken from well beyond the arc. In other words, Sally shot 17.4 percent (4-23) from the field; 33.3 percent (2-6) from two-point range; and 11.8 percent (2-17) from beyond the arc, but nobody knows that, because nobody has been keeping track.

Neither has anyone noticed – again because no one is keeping track – that Sally’s teammate Nelly, who scored only six points in the  game, was shooting 66.6 percent on the night, having made both of her free throws and two of her three layup attempts. Moreover, because she was in position to rebound, Nelly also grabbed five boards, which Sally did not, because most of the time Sally was nearer to God than the backboard when she let one fly.

The case can be made that despite the disparity in point production, Nelly, not Sally, is the best player on the team. She is far and away the better shooter, largely because rather than falling in love with the three, she is shooting within her range. She is also contributing rebounds, adding to her team’s time in possession, and that’s before we even get to turnovers or assists, which once again have gone uncharted.

Indeed, if the coach were to look at Sally’s missed shots in the same way as turnovers – which for the most part would be an accurate assessment, since when Sally was heaving up bricks neither she nor any of her teammates was in position to rebound – he might well conclude that Sally’s current performance is actually a detriment to the team. If a player stood in the middle of the court and tossed the ball out of bounds 19 times in a single game, how long do you think she would stay on the floor? But Sally's 19 misses have had pretty much the same result.

The point here isn’t to bash Sally or to laud Nelly, who undoubtedly has her own set of lessons to learn. Rather, the question is how is the coach to help Sally and the rest of the team to improve with no accurate data on performance other than points scored? With the facts in hand, the coach can help Sally discover and gradually extend her effective shooting range. With the facts, and sufficient finesse, the coach might even be able to persuade Sally that she would be doing more to help her team win by working the ball in to Nelly in the paint than by trying to rack up treys on her own.  But without those facts, Sally is likely to continue the pattern of heaving up bricks from the perimeter, to the applause of teammates, parents and even the coach since inevitably one or two of them will find its way through the net no matter how bad the shooter, and all the while the team continues to lose. Worse, since Sally is the consensus team MVP, her teammates are apt to go and do likewise.

Meaningful stats not only help the coach identify and remediate what is going wrong, they also help both coach and player identify and reinforce what players are doing right. If we know, for example, that Mary, who didn’t score any points, handed out eight assists, we can affirm to both Mary and her teammates the importance of Mary’s role as a playmaker. Publicly recognizing the value of those assists not only raises Mary’s confidence, but also encourages the rest of the team to look for the open player. But if only points scored are acknowledged – because that is all we’re even bothering to count – why should we be surprised when we find ourselves with a team full of ball hogs?

The importance of measurement and evaluation is a fundamental premise in every other area of education. Why should athletic coaching, a form of education, be any different? Without measurement and evaluation, it is impossible to know whether a student – or a player – is improving, much less to articulate a coherent plan to help her improve.  An effective teaching/coaching process entails an ongoing feedback cycle: The coach sets clear, measurable goals and objectives and articulates a plan of action to reach them; then monitors and measures the player’s progress, provides feedback to the player, reassesses both the goals and the plan of action, and revises the goals and plan accordingly.

Ideally, both players and coaches will evaluate their success or failure based on individual and team performance, not merely on whether they won or lost. Maintaining and utilizing the data in a full box score can help both player and coach to accurately measure performance as well as to set goals that will help the player and team improve. But to be effective, one must have what have been called “S.M.A.R.T. Goals,” i.e., goals that are:

  • S –  Specific
  • M – Measurable
  • A – Attainable
  • R – Relevant
  • T – Time-oriented.

There’s a world of difference between telling a player, “I need you to improve your shooting,” and sitting them down with a stat sheet and shot chart and saying: “Over the past four games, you’ve been taking most of your shots from beyond the arc, and you’re making less than 12 percent of them. You’re a much more effective shooter in the paint, where you’re connecting on one out of every three shots you take, but you’re taking less than a quarter of your shots in the paint. So, for the next four games, I want you to flip that around. Your job is to make sure that three-quarters of your shots in our upcoming games are taken in the paint. If you don’t have that shot, I need you to pass out to someone who does.”

If the coach isn't using a full box score, then players should encourage parents and friends who are watching the game to keep one and use the information to work on their own game. The best players have adopted the habit of setting measurable goals for their game each season. Lisa Leslie, one of the best female centers to play the game, who was notorious both for her goal-setting and her work ethic, recently talked to Full Court about how she learned to use statistics to develop her individual game. “In 1996 Tara Vanderveer was our coach for that Olympics and we would take basically the [statistical performance index] of our team for each individual player, so I really got into it early in my career to focus on my field-goal percentage, based on how many makes and misses. It was the same thing with rebounding, offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding, and steals and blocked shots -- those were all positive numbers but they get subtracted from all the negative things such as fouls and foul shots missed and turnovers and even when you miss shots, those are considered negative ….”

Using the stat sheet to set goals for improvement empowers players and makes them accountable for their progress (or lack thereof). With the technology available today, there is simply no excuse for failing to make use of this valuable tool at the high school level.