Few would argue with the statement that Joe DiMaggio was a phenomenal baseball player, especially in light of his 56 game hitting streak in 1941. But is it possible that one of the pinnacle achievements in all of sports history was no more unusual than flipping heads 56 times in a row? Or are there some moments in time when an athlete leaves the realm of statistics to play at a phenomenal level, commonly known as having a "hot hand"? Because of the strong feelings on both sides of the argument, the "hot hand" debate is the source of a fire all its own.
Robert Wardrop, sports enthusiast and professor of statistics at UW-Madison, helps to shed some light on this issue.
"One school of thought, the one that's dominant, is that everything's just random. And the other school of thought, which I believe, is that perhaps for much of the time in the world things are random but occasionally players become either very, very good or very, very bad."
For most people who believe in the hot hand, the phenomenon is more adequately expressed on the than with paper and pencil.
"We [past or present athletes] all believe in the hot hand," Wardrop says, reflecting on his own high school basketball experience. "We know because we experienced it. We've had days where you just throw up anything and it goes in. And other days you can't hit the rim from six feet away. That is not random; that is something happening."
Indeed, some psychologists have found evidence that player thoughts and actions are influenced by streaks. In other words, players that have been playing "above their normal potential" tend to recognize the shift and adjust their actions despite the fact that the odds of scoring a basket or hitting a pitch remain the same. According to this research, recognition of the "hot hand" is a product of cognitive interpretation rather than enhanced physical ability.
"Recent fMRI evidence has found that specific areas of the brain have increased activation when people experience events producing a streak of the same outcome," Bruce Burns, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, writes on his website. "This is consistent with what has long been observed that people's future choices can be influenced by a streak of events."
Those opposing the "hot hand" theory suggest that every event has some discrete and completely independent probability of occurring. For example, opponents of the "hot hand" theory might suggest that every time Michael Jordan stepped up to the free throw line, he may have had an 83% chance of making the basket, regardless of the game situation.
Similarly, many psychologists and statisticians argue that a streak is merely a reflection of unusual statistics. To determine whether streaks in sports can be attributed to luck or to changes in a player's psyche, player performance has been analyzed from a physiological and statistical perspective.
In the case of basketball, statisticians have found little to no correlation between a given shot and the results of the prior attempt. This evidence gives support to the notion that events such as shooting a basket or hitting a baseball are independent of previous successes or failures. To these researchers, the "hot hand" is little more than a vague interpretation of an extremely unusual statistical phenomenon.
To illustrate this belief, Alan Reifman, professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University, writes on his website, "Even random processes with inanimate objects, such as coin-flipping, can yield occasional long steaks."
Supporters of the hot hand, however question the comparison between a human player and an inanimate object.
"That's an unfair argument," claims Wardrop. "Roulette [wheels] are mechanical, dice are mechanical. And few people would argue there's much skill in throwing dice. And the thought of comparing dice with shooting baskets is silly."
Regardless of whether athletic performance is driven by pure statistical probability or by external forces unexplained by science, the fact remains that extraordinary streaks and efforts do occur in sports. In the face of statistical reasoning and probability estimates, athletes continue to reach beyond their normal potential. The "hot hand" may or may not exist from a scientific standpoint. What makes sports so interesting, however, is the fact that on any given night, in any given location, a seemingly "hot hand" may develop.
"I think it's obvious, even as a statistician, that players occasionally become a whole lot better than they would be otherwise. And that can be the joy of watching sports. But Michael Jordan goes out with the flu and he wins the game. That's incredible, not just random," Wardrop says.
Emily Niebuhr is a junior in the atmospheric and oceanic sciences department.