Pointing, shouting, scanning

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Mark Thompson

Apr 21 2022

5 mins read

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There's a version of this newsletter that I could write in about three paragraphs. I'll try that, and it'll save you a lot of time.

The tl;dr

Pointing and shouting are skills - or 'skills' - that are often treated like a parody by some people. If a pundit of a certain vintage says that a team needs someone to shout a bit, an audience of a certain vintage rolls their eyes.

The eye-rolling audience are probably quite keen on scanning though: the act of looking around the pitch, basically. Geir Jordet - one of the men driving scanning into public conversation and, importantly, actually researching it - quite often produces Twitter threads which get, to use the technical term, #numbers. (An example of Jordet's work on Twitter is here)

The thing is, they're both very similar things. A player scanning the pitch is probably one who processes the game better; and without processing the information they get from turning their head, the act of turning their head is useless. A player shouting and pointing is probably one who processes the game better; and without previously processing information around them, the shouting and pointing is useless (and potentially harmful).

That doesn't seem too controversial, does it?

LET'S BE FAIRER ABOUT SHOUTING, OK?

Like medical experts re-examining folk cures and painkillers, this post could be said to be the latest in a line of analytics-minded types re-examining punditry clichés. We've already done a reassessment of long shots: a paper at last year's Sloan analytics conference argued that teams are leaving (a small amount of) goals on the table. Now we're doing pointing.

There is a reason, beyond English notions of masculinity, why old-school pundits and commentators associate shouting and pointing with quality and/or leadership. Generally speaking, it signals spare mental capacity. A player has not just absorbed the information that they need to know, they've absorbed what teammates need to know, and done so in enough time to communicate it.

Somewhere along the way, though, it became a bit of a Goodhart's law (to use Marilyn Strathern's quote on Goodhart's law: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure"). Shouting and pointing became the good thing, rather than a sign of intelligence and collaboration.

Similarly, if a team wasn't performing well, "someone should be shouting" became an answer. To try and get in the mind of a Proper Football Pundit, this seems to be because people aren't trying and need to be told to try harder.

However, if you think about shouting as a sign of processing the game, silence might be a sign that everyone's a little out of their depth. From there, you do need some leadership, but that leadership needs to take the form of working out what's going wrong and trying to help people process the game better. There's a place for on-pitch leaders in this, but being able to do so requires some serious in-game intelligence.

Unlike with scanning, personality then comes into play. Some players will be louder in personality, but some will also have higher or lower thresholds for when they feel it's worth communicating. A player with more self-doubt would probably need to feel much more sure about a perception of theirs before yelling at a teammate about it than a player bursting with confidence.

Circularity

Personality might not play as much a role in scanning as pointing and shouting, but there's something else that I think is a shared feature between them.

If a player's perception is low, they're probably going to have to spend longer focusing on individual things before they properly process it. For example, not being able to read the pace of a ball very well will mean they'll have to spend more time watching a pass as it makes its way towards them.

This then means they have less time to scan around for extra information. Now, if their perception is low then they might not have gained much from that scanning anyway, but, to paraphrase a cliché about goalscoring, you miss 100% of the scans you don't take.

Assuming that all of that seems plausible to you, that means that better perception and scanning is a compounding benefit, rather than just a linear one. Better football processing makes more time for scanning, which gives more opportunity for processing information.

For pointing and shouting, this compounding benefit happens on a team level. A player which processes information so quickly and accurately that they can communicate it to teammates would free up processing power in the brains of those teammates. That means they're more likely to have room to process and communicate information to other teammates. It also probably makes them feel more confident and secure, which has all sorts of benefits to their play.

Perhaps this is a reason why 'point and shout' leaders became so lionised. If you have a player who processes the game so well that they can shout and point even when everything is going badly (in-play, anyone can shout walking back to position after concededing), they're probably pretty good. And they might be starting that compounding process, the network effect of a couple of people getting a little better helping improve the collective a whole lot.

It amuses me that point-and-shout is treated with the air of a relic and scanning is treated with the air of enlightenment. They're cousins.

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