Soccer Life Lessons

I am the least sports-minded person on Earth, but here’s a thing I can confidently say most soccer champs do wrong.

You’re about to take a penalty kick. The goalie is positioned center. You know they’ll almost always lunge left or right — because penalty kickers almost always aim for a corner. So your chances of guessing the correct corner are around 50-50. But your chance of scoring is lower because kicking to a corner risks missing the goal entirely. Not so if you kick to the center — where, again, the goalie rarely stays. So a kick to the center is more likely to score.

But soccer players almost never do that. Why?

This is discussed in Think Like a Freak, a 2014 book by Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner.

The answer is that if you kick to the center, in the rare case where the goalie stays there and hence easily blocks your kick, you’ll look ridiculous. That potential humiliation, however unlikely, outweighs the cheers you’d get by scoring. Better to accept lower odds of scoring than to risk embarrassment.

Keen sports analyst that I am, I’ve also written about something basketball players do wrong — with a similar dynamic operating. Statistics prove that free throws done underhand more likely score than overhead throws. But players never throw underhand. Because they think it looks sissy. I commented that Vince Lombardi was wrong: winning isn’t everything.

The authors use the soccer point as a lead-in to a larger one: people’s reluctance to ever say, “I don’t know.” We’d rather answer a question wrong than confess ignorance. Because we feel the latter would make us look worse.

Reading about this made me wince to recall a personal instance over 50 years ago. I was a new PSC lawyer assigned as sidekick to a senior guy on a big telephone company rate proceeding. Given little to do, I mostly slept through the arcane hearings. Then the case was slated for oral argument before the full commission. And who was handed that gig?

So I plunged into a crash course on the issues. I did manage to get through the grueling session — pretty well. Except at one point, a commissioner asked a yes-or-no question. I didn’t know the answer, but unwilling to say so, I simply guessed. Of course I guessed wrong.

This didn’t go unnoticed. Our staff experts, in the room, went into action. We duly produced a formal letter to the Commission correcting my blooper. Far more embarrassing than if I’d just said, “I don’t know, we’ll get back to you on that.”

So I learned a good lesson there. It wasn’t the only mistake I’ve ever made, but I do try to learn from them, and cumulatively improve. I figure I should have this thing called “life” down pat in about thirty more years.

But people do commonly pretend knowledge they don’t actually possess. The likelihood of being outed, with its attendant ego crusher, may seem smaller than for the hit confessing ignorance would entail. And reluctance to say “I don’t know” is not just shame avoidance. Often people actually don’t know they don’t know; ignorance would affront their own sense of themselves. So in lying about an answer, they’re lying to themselves. The Dunning-Kruger effect says deficient cognitive ability causes people to not realize their cognitive abilities are deficient.

2 Responses to “Soccer Life Lessons”

  1. Lee Says:

    Unfortunately there is also a demographic component to this. The more “privilege” a person has (white, male, cis-gender, not Muslim, well educated, reasonably well off, thin, good looking, etc.) the more likely they will be respected for their honesty in saying “I don’t know.” Those with less “privilege” too easily get labeled incompetent for that same “I don’t know.”

    If saying “I don’t know” has almost the same outcome as getting it wrong, the utilitarian can compute that it is better to guess.

  2. Lee Says:

    I spoke with my local soccer expert. They say that this depends upon a few things, especially whether the goalkeeper is an amateur or professional. An amateur goalkeeper may wait until the ball is kicked to choose what to do. Because they wait, they will typically fail to intercept a shot to the corner, but can more easily stop a shot to the middle of the net.

    A professional goalkeeper will typically choose left, right, or center before it can be clearly determined which way the ball is going. Even if they guess correctly, it is by no means assured that they can intercept a shot to the corner. On the other hand, guessing right about the center often pays off.

    So, I figure that this tilts the odds somewhat for where it is best to shoot and where it is best for the goalkeeper to go. As game theory / Nash equilibrium calculations will likely support, one should choose where to shoot and where to defend with an element of randomness: the probability for shooting or defending in the center should be reduced from one-third, though probably not to zero. Despite the assertion of Levitt and Dubner, I believe that this is in fact how players behave.

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