The best at what they do

by on January 28, 2013 at 7:47 am in Games, Sports | Permalink

From Jeff:

When you look at a competition where one of the inputs of the production function is an exogenously distributed characteristic, players with a high endowment on that dimension have a head start. This has two effects on the distribution of the (partially) acquired characteristics that enter the production function. First, there is the pure statistical effect I alluded to above. If success requires some minimum height then the pool of competitors excludes a large component of the population.

There is a second effect on endogenous acquisition of skills. Competition is less intense and they have less incentive to acquire skills in order to be competitive. So even current NBA players are less talented than they would be if competition was less exclusive. So what are the sports whose athletes are the best at what they do?

My ranking

1. Table Tennis
2. Soccer
3. Tennis
4. Golf
5. Chess

How would such a ranking look for the social sciences?  Among a broader list of activities, where would blogging fall on the scale?

Jeff January 28, 2013 at 7:51 am

Funny that’s exactly what I was thinking after I wrote that. Honestly I believe that economics is the most level playing field since it is the most universal of the social sciences. Political science maybe second. I would put anthropology last for reasons that are hard to articulate.

Claudia January 28, 2013 at 8:45 am

“economics is the most level playing field since it is the most universal of the social sciences” … hmm. Why then are old white men so over-represented in top level economics? Also barriers to entry are not only physical attributes. Along those line, I might contest chess in your list above, you need to be a 7 foot equivalent in certain mental skills to succeed there. But I agree more competition from a deeper (and wider) pool should improve the quality of the participants at all levels.

Rahul January 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

Old men are over-represented at the top levels of most professions. Nothing to do with unequal playing fields.

Claudia January 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Um, you realize that’s an odd statement, right? I am not suggesting discrimination, but barriers to entry there are. See 1. in today’s Assorted Links as an example of how a profession changes when the work structure changes. As an aside, I looked around at one of our formal meetings this morning and saw lots of non-old, non-white and non-male economists. But some of things that were mentioned in the pharmacy article like part-time/flex-time options and interchangeability in tasks, plus a lot of new hiring make us different than most departments.

Rahul January 28, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Ah! I should have written “Old persons”. I didn’t mean gender; I meant age.

Claudia January 28, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Makes more sense. In that vein, imagine the NBA if it had tenure … ‘barriers’ to exit can occur too.

Miley Cyrax January 28, 2013 at 9:47 am

The more quantitative and/or g-loaded a field, the greater the male-female ratio. It’s a function of the right-tail.

A better question is: why are Asian men seemingly underrepresented vis a vis white men in the more quantitative sciences? We also shouldn’t lump both Jews and gentile whites together. Perhaps it’s just Jews we see.

Rahul January 28, 2013 at 9:56 am

Not everywhere. e.g. At my University the Statistics Dept. looks like Chinatown.

Wondering if that correlation (Stat + Asian) is at other universities too?

Andrew' January 28, 2013 at 10:28 am

I guess an Asian advantage in math is real but I have my doubts. As I’ve related my (Chinese) advisor told me that I wouldn’t be able to compete with the (Chinese) Asians in math. Of course, after getting the only A in the most mathematical course in our department I realized that meant he just wouldn’t really support me in trying. I figured it meant the that the Chinese had to be good at something and they couldn’t do some of the things I could do but they could sit alone and focus on math and talk to other Chinese about math. How this relates to sports is that the best athletes in America might do football instead of Soccer.

Matt Flipago January 30, 2013 at 3:07 pm

IDK where your getting that Asians are underrepresented. Maybe as professors, but all my math classes are filed with Asians. 5% of our school is Asian, yet I bet 25% or more are Asian, maybe more, and like 8 grad students with the last name Zhang. Are you looking at quantitative science majors and graduate programs, or just current professors?

Cicero January 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm

I’m guessing most representatives of each of the social sciences would want to claim that theirs is the most universal. This would certainly be true in the cases of psychology and sociology. I was attracted to economics as an undergrad precisely because it was presented as not just theoretical business but rather the imperial social science with the most vigorous methodology for examining any issue involving human choice. After more study of the other social sciences as well as the philosophy of social science I have come to the conclusion that economics should indeed stick to examining issues defined as economic in the narrow sense and is very lacking when trying to tackle other questions of human behavior – at least as compared to other social sciences such as psychology and sociology.

Having said that, I would hazard to say that the IQ of the average economist is higher than that of professionals of any other social science (unless you lump neuroscience in that bucket). I believe economics is the most demanding of the social sciences even if it is far from being the most universal.

Sebastian January 29, 2013 at 1:38 am

I agree that “most universal” is an unlikely label for econ. I think that one pretty clearly goes to Sociology, both in terms of substance and in terms of methodological breadth. Also agree that econ, as the most math heavy, likely has the highest avg. IQ – but at generally high IQ levels I don’t think that necessarily means economists are “better” at what they do. E.g. the ability of a good qualitative sociologist or anthropologist to interview people likely doesn’t increase much beyond an IQ of 120 or 130, but it’s still definitely a skill.

Andrew' January 28, 2013 at 8:11 am

NBA guards and swing men would be pretty high up. There are a lot more 6’7′ people than there are NBA slots, many if not most play in high school and college and the money is great. We also call the Decathlon the best athelete.

David January 28, 2013 at 8:23 am

Yeah, I think it’s pretty hard to claim that the competition to be a world-class tennis, or table tennis, player is fiercer than to be in the NBA or the Premier League. So many people play basketball and soccer.

Urso January 28, 2013 at 10:30 am

Yes. I read a stat that, of the 6’5″ men in America, only a thousandth of a percent had ever played in the NBA. Of the 7′ men, it was something ridiculous like 10% were current or former NBA players.

Also who decided that being really big and tall isn’t a skill in and of itself?

Urso January 28, 2013 at 2:20 pm
Bill January 28, 2013 at 8:41 am

So, people who don’t play these sports or games get to opine about the endowment characteristics or skills of those who do, how much is work or endowment

And, the ignorant and those who never played get to speak,

I get it.

There should be a category for blogging.

Cthulhu January 28, 2013 at 8:44 am

This seems like a false distinction. In many sports/activities with a supposed explicit cutoff (major league baseball, the NBA, golf, etc), there is constant upward pressure from minor leagues, college, amateurs, etc. Thus, it’s entirely possible for a moderately endowed player to reach the majors via extensive practice (Michael Jordan is actually a good example, if my memory is right). The more important question is what social/economic barriers would prevent someone from being able to practice/develop moderate talent so as to threaten entry; exogenous talent only becomes a prime determinant when developing endogenous training is specifically contingent on a level of exogenous talent (think sports scholarship, academia, etc). I would list Tennis and Golf as very expensive, very class/culture-biased sports that are most likely to depend on exogenous talent and most likely to exclude entry. In contrast, I would list Running (cross country, hurdles, sprinting, etc), Chess, and Go as the cheapest, least culturally -biased activities that are most open to outside competition and endogenous skill training. In essence, anyone can run 10 miles and play a few games of chess every day; not everyone can afford a carbon-fiber tennis racket, country club membership, the latest trend in golf clubs, and… the list goes on….

Then again, I could be misinterpreting the “minimum height” example…

albert magnus January 28, 2013 at 8:54 am

Running, chess and go are incredibly boring for most children, while soccer, baseball, football, basketball are fun.

They are also low cost in their neighborhood variants (i.e ghost runners, shirts for goals, no-pads, etc.) Basically all you need is one kid to have a ball and a field. That’s cheaper than a chess set.

Cthulhu January 28, 2013 at 9:02 am

Hmmm… very true – however, I would toss out the trying to evaluate the subjective happiness/utility of various sports/activities is unlikely to go anywhere but down a rabbit hole. The corollary of this argument is that perhaps Economics is more “fun” or “easier” than Political Science, and that economists should therefore envy the ceteris paribus implied greater talent of political scientists. Maybe basketball is more “fun” than football. Can you imagine putting an economist and a political scientist or a NBA center and a NFL lineman in a room and getting them to have an intelligent discussion about absolute levels of enjoyment? How would you measure/compare/evaluate activities by “fun”?

Magnus Carlsen channeled by Ray Lopez January 28, 2013 at 10:08 am

I disagree with TK who thinks chess is endogenous (meaning anybody in the population can do it). I think it’s exogenous at the very top–the top players like me (M. Carsen) have skills the rest can only dream of (the ability to make dozens of deep calculations without sight of the board) But I do think that incentives matter for getting the very best out of people. Imagine a world where there was no money in playing basketball: would the very tall athletic people play b-ball for free, or would they say run for US President? Same with talented inventors: how many are working for Goldman Sachs doing derivatives rather than inventing the flying car?

RV January 28, 2013 at 9:02 am

This discussion is ignoring incentives, or at least holding them constant. The pool of men 6’5″ or taller is certainly smaller than the pool of potential table tennis professionals, which is pretty much every able-bodied male. But I think the incentives to make it in the NBA are so much greater than those to aspire towards becoming an international ping pong champion. Hence competition within that relatively small pool of potential NBA players is very, very intense, and this leads to amazingly skilled players.

RZ0 January 28, 2013 at 9:59 am

+1. Incentives are crucial here, as is the availability of resources to develop the skill. The person with the most God-given swimming talent, for example, will never be a great swimmer if he never jumps in the water.
This discussion also assumes that all of the ‘natural’ advantages to any sport – or any activity – are known and measured.
It’s very possible that there is an inherent skill to becoming, say, a table tennis player that we have not measured. It’s not height, of course, but it could be some sophisticated eye-hand coordination combined with quickness.
Extending the conversation to blogging is beyond silly, since individual preferences come into play.

TJ January 28, 2013 at 9:23 am

Wouldn’t it have more to do with the market conditions for those products and whether those markets encourage competition or not? Rather than the distribution/exclusivity of endowments?

As for the list, while some sports require a certain height, many other sports require, for an example, good natural hand-eye coordination, which is less apparent but nonetheless existent, and while everyone can play chess, not everyone can play chess professionally.

I won’t start to pretend I know what the distribution of natural endowments for those skills are, but I suppose you could assume revealed “preferences” by looking at the proportion of people playing high level sports, of course that ignores all those potential basketball stars that became mediocre accountants instead because they grew up somewhere where people didn’t play basketball.

NK January 28, 2013 at 9:34 am

I don’t disagree with the table-tennis or soccer rankings, but you have to look at other selectors like wealth when talking about basketball and golf. Basketball is a sport that is extremely accessible to kids from a very young age. People reach their 10,000 hours all around the world an in all walks of life at very young ages. Golf and, to a lesser extent, tennis, are much more capital/equipment intensive, and requires quite a bit more private coaching generally. The initial crop of players is very very small compared to the people playing basketball. Furthermore, because basketball is a sport accessible to those who are less wealthy, practicing and pursuing it may carry lower opportunity costs for a great number of the people who initially play it, causing fewer talents to drain out.

Charlie January 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

That’s what I thought of too. There are many more top soccer players from poor countries than there are those in tennis or golf. Wealth (opportunity) and geography are big factors; it’s not just individual physical characteristics.

Miley Cyrax January 28, 2013 at 9:40 am

A lot of you are over-homogenizing basketball. The pool of prospective players shrinks as you move from PG to C. The pool at PG is still large. That’s why, for instance, Dave Berri’s wins produced methods include a position adjustment.

It’s not like soccer where the physical attributes needed are more uniform across positions, spare for GK.

There are also more barriers to entry than physical attributes that limit the pool of prospective players for a given sport.

Miley Cyrax January 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

For example, the boringness of chess compared to other “sports” for most people shrinks its potential pool.

Brian January 28, 2013 at 9:46 am

Table Tennis? The pool here is….large? Yes, every child on the planet plays. Come on.
Sprinting (like 50 or 100 meter dash) IS something that all children at some point do. Worlds Fastest Man and Woman is meaningful because all kids on the schoolyard knows who is fast or not. This is the biggest pool there is.
Table tennis. Really?

PKSully January 28, 2013 at 9:53 am

Muggsy Bogues is 5’3″ and had a very successful NBA career. There is no minimum height for point guard in the NBA and they come from all over the world (Slovenia, France, Canada, Mexico, Spain and Brazil, off the top of my head). The pool to draw from is huge. I think the mistake your making is chess, table tennis, golf and tennis don’t have positions. Basketball rosters at the higher levels have some spots reserved for the super-tall but 40-70 spots in the NBA are open to those with unspectacular height. The best in the world in those other sports/ games are all “point guards.”

Thor January 28, 2013 at 11:29 am

It only worked because he was the only short man. No one to guard him!

Josh January 28, 2013 at 10:00 am

This does not seem to be a well-defined question. How is height for basketball players not analogous to intelligence/logic abilities for chess players? In both cases, if player A possesses more of the exogenously distributed characteristic than player B, then it will appear that player A is more “skillful” even if players A and B have the same level of underlying “skill” (whatever that is).

Millian January 28, 2013 at 11:34 am

I agree, it’s very complicated. What is even more complicated is that the endowments which help in chess also help in basketball (such as logical ability), whereas the reverse (such as height) isn’t as true.

Shane January 28, 2013 at 10:32 am

Exactly – and consider shorter players: shooting guards and points. Even in the NBA you can have very good players at this position 6-3 or shorter, which is not so rare in the population. Combined with the gross popularity of the sport and the fiscal rewards from playing it well, I’d say NBA guards ought to be very highly ranked in this hierarchy.

Ricardo January 28, 2013 at 10:49 am

But even the 6-3 players are still endowed with plenty of exogenous skills: lots of fast-twitch muscle, the right torso-to-leg length ratio, an ability to process information extremely rapidly, excellent spatial intelligence, an ability to perform under pressure with little to no loss of precision.

Andrew' January 28, 2013 at 10:58 am

But the 6-3 guard is just beating out the 6-2 guard. There aren’t many reasons you wouldn’t prefer a 6-8 guard except that the 6-2 guy is so much better.

Willitts January 28, 2013 at 10:59 am

The thesis is flawed because it focuses on the mean rather than the maximal order statistic.

It appears the author sees competition as meritocratic with at least some part ofte measure of merit endowed by random selection and the remainder acquired by skill. The author begs the question by simultaneously presuming and concluding that there is a lower incentive of the well endowed to acquire skill.

Consider the NBA. The number of available job positions is sufficiently small relative to the population of players such that the well endowed, e.g. tall, people still must play incredibly well in order to be selected. It is not at all infeasible for a short, quick, and skilled player to earn an NBA spot. It is just highly unlikely because there is nothing about being tall that precludes someone from being fast and a skilled shooter, and there are few advantages in the game for being short. Tall people have the edge, but they must still outperform thousands of tall and short people to be there. Competition is robust.

j r January 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm

He would have made a much better case if he had been more precise. Take centers, for instance. If you were to name the best best centers of all time, the only present player in that conversation would be Dwight Howard. The idea that point guards, wings and even power forwards aren’t skilled, but just good players who happen to be tall, is really absurd.

Ryan January 28, 2013 at 11:19 am

No one has mentioned hockey? You have to be able to stick handle, check, take or dodge a check, skate, forwards and backwards, and as part of a group. The competition is high. People of all sizes play it.

observor January 28, 2013 at 11:59 am

punishing mental exercise as economists go off on a subjective tangent where tantalizing, empirical, touchstones, carom into statistics and probabilities.

Eric Auld January 28, 2013 at 12:13 pm

I’m guessing math is very low on the list

Bill January 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Im guesing speling and gramar is low, to

j r January 28, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I do not understand this conception of separating innate characteristics from acquired skills as if they don’t exist in a reinforcing relationship.

I sort of understand it, but it seems like it’s being applied quite arbitrarily. This list is suspicious. For instance, why is height considered endogenous to basketball skills, but not IQ to chess skills or family income to golf?

Why isn’t track on this list? Are there some high barriers to running of which I am not aware?

Willitts January 29, 2013 at 12:24 am

Of course you are correct. Endowments and the opportunity cost of skill acquisition are related. Economists analyze at the margin. In this case, they are conducting an experiment holding endowments constant and predicting the effect on skill acquisition. The process is straightforward, but the presumptions are preposterous. If the entire world played basketball, there might be some truth to it. But I think the NBA is an exclusive enough club to almost certainly ensure that the best players with no preferred options are selected.

Of course there is an effect of team dynamics too. The best player isn’t necessarily the best complement to the other guys on the court. Examples were provided in the movies Moneyball and Miracle.

If you view a team as a group voluntarily contributing to a public good, with exogenously determined endowments, complementarities in skills and effort, and some degree of unobservable free riding, they’d have a better model.

As you might guess, I think the list is ridiculous.

I recall seeing a TV show on the science of running. A takeaway was that there was not only an optimum height but optimum leg length to height. I imagine foot length matters too. At the pinnacle of performance, hundredths of a second matter, so the type and weight of shoes can make a difference. To swimmers, the friction of body hair matters. These humans might be near perfect for their sports. Self selection matters, but the competitions weed out the weak very fast.

Evolution may be getting close to physical limitations on the ability of humans to perform certain tasks. There is stronger evidence for race horses – Secretariat’s records still stand after decades of selective breeding and improved diet, medicine and training.
There was an old myth that women were better than men in staying concious with high G forces. After thorough research, scientists determined that the primary determinant for withstanding G force was the head to heart distance followed by muscular strength. A shorter head to heart distance favored shorter people, and women are, on average, shorter than men. But comparing men and women with an equal head to heart distance, men outperformed women because of superior muscular strength. Pilots use techniques of muscle contractions in their arms, legs, and abdomen to keep blood flowing to the brain. Controlling for height, men were better on average. Of course a short, strong woman could make a formidable pilot, but not merely by virtue of gender. Testosterone contributes to greater average muscular size and strength of men. So they should be overrepresented in fighter jet cockpits.

brian January 28, 2013 at 12:50 pm

The list of sports is wrong. In both tennis and golf taller players have a significant advantage. I would add any gun sport, like skeet shooting, to the list.

Andrew' January 28, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Dwarf tossing then.

David C February 2, 2013 at 9:50 pm

This, about how height is a critical advantage – especially in tennis, is a critical point that should have been noted much higher up the thread. And yes, gun and archery sports are pretty good examples (as is curling). Basically, any sport in which being male doesn’t give you an advantage.

JKelly January 28, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Bowling?

George January 28, 2013 at 4:20 pm

If we are looking at “exogenously distributed characteristic, players with a high endowment on that dimension have a head start” – both tennis and gold are impacted by economic status and as a subset of that access to equipment and courts/courses.

Psychohistorian January 28, 2013 at 5:02 pm

This seems to look at a very narrow set of incentives. The difference in income and prestige from being the best and the worst NBA player is massive. The difference income and prestige between being the best and worst at most of those sports listed is relatively small.

It’s obviously true that if everyone met the basic minimum skill level required to play basketball, it would be more competitive to be an NBA star. But it doesn’t follow that table tennis is more competitive because almost everyone has the basic minimum skills. There are other, more important incentives in play.

Also, it’s unclear soccer, tennis, and chess really belong there. They may not have height requirements, but two have strong physical fitness requirements and one has a brainpower requirement, each of which likely excludes large swathes of the population. Probably most people couldn’t be great soccer or chess players even if they trained really, really hard for it.

Philo January 28, 2013 at 6:33 pm

The competition in major sports—soccer, tennis, and golf, and in America football and basketball—must be more intense than the competition in table tennis, because the financial payoff for success is so much greater.

NK usefully points to accessibility as a factor helping to determine the level of competition, though this will be affected by already-existing popularity: one reason basketball is so accessible to poor kids in America is that there are so many basketball courts in poor American neighborhoods.

Steve Sailer January 28, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Soccer is #1 by a country mile. Lionel Messi has been the best athlete for four years in a row in the world’s most popular sport. The other suggestions:

1. Table Tennis

Little money.

3. Tennis

#1 for women — it’s the only sport where women make a lot of money.

4. Golf

No. You pretty much have to have a father who belongs to a country club or has access to a military golf course to get in the amount of practice needed to be a great golfer. The demographic base of golf in the U.S. used to be bigger because lots of boys started out as caddies or course workers. For example, five African-Americans, all of whom started as caddies, won a total of 23 PGA tournaments between 1961 and 1986. Since the rise of the golf cart, however, only 1/4th black Tiger has won on Tour.

And, golf really is only quite popular in English-speaking countries.

5. Chess – Maybe, I’d doubt it, but it could be true.

OldCurmudgeon January 29, 2013 at 1:27 pm

If the question is “in what sports is a single, innate ability least dominate,” I’d nominate:

a) football (you can be great if you are either big or fast or quick or have superior eye-hand coordination or have superior eye-foot coordination) and

b) baseball (power pitchers, junk ball pitchers, sluggers, on-base-percentage hitters, and middle infielders all require different physical gifts)

Or basically, any complex sport where there are multiple ways to win.

JoeDog January 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm

I’m surprised to see tennis on the list because tall players have a big advantage over shorter ones. The taller you are, the flatter you can serve. At some point, height has a diminishing return because the game requires quick movement but if you can’t hit a somewhat flat serve, you’re starting with a huge disadvantage. Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic are all between 6’1″ and 6’3″ (in shoes). Agassi was considered “short” and he’s 5’11″. If you go back in time, you’ll most tennis greats were some where between 5’10″ and 6’3.

Nick January 28, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Every sport has a “minimum height.” Now that you mention it, every sport also has a maximum height. What you’re pointing to here is how different sports reward a narrower/broader band of acceptable values of an exogenously distributed characteristic, and how that limits/broadens the pool of competitors (and thus the intensity of competition).

Biology, however, is only one of many factors that determines how large a pool of competitors is.

Soccer is a tremendously popular sport – even if it only rewarded people with a height between 6’6″ and 6’7″, it would probably still command higher levels of skill acquisition than, say, competitive croquet.

Culture (popularity across demographics, geography) and economic barriers to entry (equipment costs for sports like hockey, golf, etc.) are two other factors that immediately come to mind – I’m sure there are more than that.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: