Futurism and coaching

It’s the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2042 NBA Finals. Earth still exists, and what’s more, so does professional basketball. The coach of the Seattle Lakers calls timeout and the players bound over for instruction from their bench. Their coach, an affable, motivator type, consults his holographic computer tablet and says “OK, we’re down 4 but there’s plenty of time left. We need a bucket, and HAL Jackson here says we need to run Thumbs Down three times in the next seven possessions for optimal half court scoring opportunities. Break!”

This scenario sounds somewhat ridiculous now, but Tarek Kamil, who presented a talk at the Sloan Conference entitled, “2061: A Sports Odyssey- How Technology Will Redefine Competition in Sports,” expects computers to replace much of the strategy work done by coaches in the not too distant future. The implications of futurism loom large on the sports horizon.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Kamil’s thesis is based on his belief that human coaches are “not optimally designed” to handle the tremendous amount of data they must process to make the correct decisions. He expects (as do many other very smart people) that computers will surpass human intelligence’s capacity for complex and abstract problem solving by 2040. Today, NBA team coaching staffs have become almost as large as the player roster in an effort to corral this data and feed decision making information to the head coach. No one person can completely keep track of the duties ascribed to NBA coaches. Managing substitutions, match-up strengths and weaknesses, player fatigue, opposition tendencies, play calling, etc. takes a village, and even then coaches make decisions that are easy to second guess in retrospect.

However Kamil predicts that in twenty five years or so, a properly programmed computer could process all the thousands of variables impacting an NBA game and spit out the optimal strategy or next maneuver. In this future, Kamil imagines coaches taking on more of a teacher role, rather than an in-game general. Coaches would have more time to devote to player development, mentoring, and other elements of the profession while leaving much of the strategic leg work to a computer optimally designed to make such decisions. In game, the human coach would be the motivator and leader, though it is difficult to imagine a coach holding his players’ respect if a computer was telling him what to do.

To begin his presentation, Kamil noted that in the last 50 years, professional sports have, by and large, changed very little. The size of the playing fields are largely the same, and Kamil offered that 95% of the rules in today’s professional sports are the same as in 1961.

However the things surrounding the sport: the players, media coverage, money, ownership barriers have all changed dramatically. These changes have been brought on primarily by the evolution of sports from a hobby for millionaires to a mega entertainment business.

With that in mind, one wonders if the entertainment value of professional sports would be enhanced by computer assisted coaching. To some degree, viewers and fans tune in not to see perfectly called plays, but botched decisions and the drama that ensues when a coach seems to be making the wrong call. Would forfeiting the human drama of competition be worth better strategy? Would there even be an advantage if every team had such a computer? One imagines an arms race to produce the best play-calling program.

Perhaps the real question is whether professional leagues would allow computers on the sidelines in the first place. If the history of professional sports is any guide, that decision will depend not on the spirit of competition or tradition, but whether computer coaching can allow leagues to make more money.