Ultimate Goal Line Stands
As usual, the term ‘Monday morning quarterback’ is apropos this week after the Seahawks’ decision to throw the ball on the goal line at the end of Super Bowl 49. Understandably so I guess, though most people only second guess calls that don’t pan out. I found this article (“Game Theory Says Pete Carroll’s Call At Goal Line Is Defensible”) in the New York Times today to be more interesting than some of the repetitive droning about how dumb a call it was. However, the article leaves out an important caveat to the situation at hand. With each possible choice for Pete Carroll on the goal line, what was the worst thing that could happen?
If you look at human decision making, you’ll find many examples where failure to take into account the ‘worst case scenario’ resulted in relative misfortune (this played a role in New Coke and the Challenger Disaster to name a few). Even if throwing was a defensible choice from a standpoint of generating a touchdown, it had some high risk drawbacks associated with it (obviously, this also depends on the type of pass being considered). As an ultimate coach, captain, or player; you must guard against focusing solely on maximizing a positive outcome. You must also anticipate worst case scenarios.
Due to the nature of our sport, there is one obvious example that jumps to mind when trying to show the importance of worst case scenarios. It is strategy that coaches and captains are very used to thinking about. Let’s simplify things and say our team has two offensive strategies for a given game. One is to huck it and have lower rates of completion, but we take fewer passes each time we have the disc. The other strategy is to execute only shorter, high percentage passes, but we will end up needing to complete a lot of passes to score. As any intro stats class will tell us, the chance of scoring by completing many high percentage passes in a row is not necessarily a high percentage (it depends on the number of passes and the chance of completing each of them). If it were to take us 7 passes to score and those passes had a 90 percent chance of completion each, our chance of scoring would actually be less then 50 percent.
We may well do the math for the two strategies above and choose the strategy with the highest chance of converting a possession into a goal. However, this leaves out a crucial part of ultimate, and one that relates to analyzing worst case scenarios. If our offense turns the disc over (in our simplified game, this is the worst case for the offense), what are the outcomes? This question becomes extremely important if our opponent is unable to score regularly when they have to go the full length of the field, but scores with a high percentage when they are closer. Now we have two worst case scenarios to think through:
- We choose the hucking offensive strategy and we turn it over! But they can’t move the disc the full field, and we get to try our hucking strategy again after they turn it. This ‘worst case scenario’ isn’t that bad at all, obviously.
- We try to complete lots of small passes, and often we turn the disc over before we get near their goal line. This drastically improves our hypothetical opponent’s scoring chances.
Having done this analysis, we may be better off choosing a strategy that doesn’t maximize the chance for us scoring per disc possession! We want the strategy that improves our chances of scoring each point, leading to a better chance of victory.
The ‘worst case scenario’ tactic for decision making applies to more than just on field examples. To name two:
- Roster decisions – Can your team manage one or more “rulebreakers” and still be successful in your goals for the season?
- Playing time – If you keep playing only the best players to maximize your chance of winning, will some of your teammates quit and leave you without enough players to practice? This could potentially leave you with less of a chance of season long success.
It is also worth keeping in mind Nassim Taleb’s work. Positive and negative outcomes will not necessarily have similar value. Even if a worst case isn’t likely to happen, it could have dire consequences (“Black Swans“). Pushing everyone on your team hard at practice may maximize your team’s chances to win nationals; but the worst case scenario could be a string of bad injuries…and those could be bad enough injuries to keep your team from even qualifying for nationals (a pseudo black swan). A more balanced practice schedule may give you less of a chance of winning nationals, but may guarantee you at least qualify. Both scenarios are defensible depending on a team’s goals, but understanding there is more to decision making than just maximizing positive outcomes is crucial.
While I’ve brought up goal line situations in football, there are some very interesting parallels between football goal line decision making and double game points in ultimate. Obviously, game theory, predictability, and worse case scenarios can all play a role in both situations (Should we go with our bread and butter offensive play to win the game, or take the Seahawks’ route in the Super Bowl and try something less predictable?). Another interesting parallel is that decision makers have to decide how much they trust personnel packages. If it is fourth down on the goal line and I go for it, I’m basically saying I trust my offense to convert and/or trust my defense to not let the other team go 99 yards for a touchdown if we fail to convert. On double game point in ultimate, do you mix hybrid lines or trust your standard offensive or defensive line to get the job done? There are lots of interesting considerations that come out of comparing these two sports situations.
To sum, while “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” (Soren Kierkegaard). We can mitigate some second guessing if we do our best to try and consider worst case scenarios.