Jack Uldrich
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If You Want to Win: Practice Your Unlearning Game

Posted in Algorithms, Analogy, Culture, Games, History, Sports, Stories

On December 30, 1936, over 17,000 fans packed into the old Madison Square Garden to watch Long Island University, the country’s top-ranked basketball team, take on Stanford. It was slated to be a great game. Long Island was putting up its 43-game winning streak up against the reigning Pacific Coast Conference champions.

More than that, though, people were there to watch Hank Luisetti, Stanford’s 6 foot 2 inch star sophomore. He was the only player known for shooting the ball with one hand while jumping up in the air. At the time, every other player shot with two-hands or took hook shots.

Luisetti’s “jump-shot” was so radical that it caused Nat Holman, the legendary coach of City College of New York—and a man known as “Mr. Basketball” – to remark, “That’s not basketball! If my boys ever shot one-handed, I’d quit coaching.”

Stanford went on to crush Long Island University and, two years, later, Luisetti became the first college player ever to score 50 points in a game. Today, it is impossible to find a single player at either the collegiate or professional level who shoots two-handed.

It took a long time for basketball players to unlearn the two-handed shot, but the story serves as a good reminder that unlearning is not easy and that—like most sports—it is something which must be practiced continuously.

In fact, the sporting world is an excellent place to study the practice of unlearning. On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister unlearned the “four-minute mile” barrier when he circled the track at Oxford in a then record of 3:59.6. Dick Fosbury similarly unlearned the traditional straddle method of high-jumping when he invented the now famous “Fosbury Flop.”

Alas, unlearning is not so easy. In the insightful book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, recounted a study conducted by David Romer, an economist at Berkeley. In the study, Romer reviewed 1,100 first-quarter fourth-down plays where the teams would have been better off going for it. Instead, they kicked the ball 992 times. In blunter terms this means that in 90% of the cases, the team’s coaches were actively working against their team’s prospects of winning.

Is such insanity limited to the gridiron? No. In the book, Moneyball, Michael Lewis demonstrated how the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane unlearned his reliance on crusty old baseball scouts and instead turned to young, Ivy League educated “number crunchers” to help him spot the top prospects to draft. The book was published in 1999. To date, and in spite of the A’s consistently fielding one of the best teams with the lowest payroll, only one other team has adopted the strategy in a widespread manner—the Boston Red Sox.

Perhaps it is a coincidence—and a healthy payroll—but in case you haven’t been paying attention the Red Sox have won two of the past four World Series. It is also, however, possible that Boston has been practicing its unlearning skills. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. The Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate—doing so only in 1957. During that time it won no American League pennants and, of course, no World Series.

Bottom-line: If you to want to win, practice unlearning.



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