A couple of weeks ago, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors went crazy (yes, that’s the correct psychological term) and hit 11 of 13 three pointers on his way to scoring 54 points against the Knicks. A week later, Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets, went absolutely nuts (yup, fine) and hit 7 from 7 three pointers in the 1st quarter (9-11 by half time) and finished with 42 points.
Yesterday, Boston College freshman, Olivier Hanlan, hit 12 shots in a row (14-18 overall, including 8-10 three pointers) on his way to 41 points against Georgia Tech. All examples of spectacular shooting, and all examples that got me thinking about what basketball players, fans, and commentators describe as “the hot hand”.
The hot hand is described as “a belief that the performance of a player during a particular period is significantly better than expected on the basis of the player’s overall record”.¹ In other words, if a player hits a couple of shots in a row, people tend to think that he’ll make his next shot too. But in actual fact, it seems as though there’s no such thing as the hot hand.
Back in the 1980s, Thomas Gilovitch and colleagues¹ carried out a comprehensive study, using the shooting records of the Philadelphia 76ers. Their study showed that while fans believed in the hot hand or “streak shooting”, 8 out of 9 of the 76ers’ principal players were actually more likely to score after missing a shot than they were after making one (Dr J being the exception!).
The previous shot had no bearing whatsoever on whether the next shot would be a make or a miss. So why do we believe in the idea of the hot streak so strongly?
Humans like to take short cuts. We don’t really have time to think fully about everything that’s put in front of us, so we use rules of thumb or “heuristics” to make quick judgements about the world around us. I won’t go into too much detail here, but while they can sometimes be useful, following these rules of thumb can also lead to systematic and fairly predictable mistakes being made.
One such mistake is the tendency to see patterns in random events. Let’s say we flip a coin 5 times (1 game). How likely is it that we’ll get a sequence of HHHHH? Pretty unlikely right?
Wrong! We think it’s unlikely because it that’s not what we think random looks like. We would expect random to look more like HTHHT, so when we get 5 heads in a row, we think we’ve found a streak where actually there isn’t one (cognitive bias).
If we flipped the same coin 100 times (20 games), 5 heads in a row maybe wouldn’t stand out as much. Furthermore, when we do see a streak of 5 heads in a row, we tend to remember it more clearly than a streak of say THTHH (memory bias). Because we remember these “streaks” more clearly, we tend to think they happen more often than they actually do.
So how does this apply in sport?
While the basketball shot isn’t a random event like flipping a coin, we still make the same cognitive mistakes when interpreting patterns. You should be surprised if a reasonably skilled player didn’t make 3 or 4 shots in a row every now and then, but when it happens, we insist that they’re on fire!
Players and fans will suggest that the player who is “hot” is motivated to take more shots, is highly confident and relaxed after making a couple, is spurred on by the crowd, and therefore more likely to make their next shot for those reasons.
Well actually, since 1985, there have been hundreds of studies into the hot hand phenomenon and the general consensus seems to be that there’s just no such thing, even after taking into account skill level, shot type, sport situation, etc, etc, etc.² Making a shot or two simply has no impact on whether a player will make his next shot.
However, being a basketball player, I too am trying desperately to hang on to a belief in the hot hand, even though I know it’s nonsense (honestly, I know you don’t believe me, but it really, truly doesn’t exist!). So I wonder if there’s something else going on.
The Steph Curry and Deron Williams examples from the past couple of weeks, and Olivier Hanlan’s outburst from yesterday, may go beyond what we think of as hot streaks. Players often talk about being “in the zone”, which I think is different to having “the hot hand”.
There are times in sports when everything seems to be going right. I’ve had experiences myself, when I’ve felt like I just can’t miss, even to the point where the basket has literally looked twice the size it should be.
For truly exceptional performances, there’s a strong possibility that players are experiencing “flow”. Flow is described by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Oddly, he was doing an interview about website design at the time, but that’s neither here nor there. That description of flow will, I’m sure, ring bells with many athletes, even more so when we consider some of the factors that are part of the experience³:
- Clear, challenging yet attainable goals.
- Immediate feedback is available (we know straight away if we’ve made or missed a shot!).
- A balance between skill level and the challenge faced.
- Attention totally invested in the activity.
- No feelings of self-consciousness / anxiety.
- Sense of time becomes distorted as you are so focused on the present.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
- Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
Now, experiencing flow in sport doesn’t necessarily mean that we will also deliver a peak performance, but, on occasion, the two can occur together. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that Steph Curry would identify with some of the factors above when thinking about his 54 points against the Knicks (not all are needed to experience flow). Or maybe I just want to think of it as a hot streak when in reality it’s not actually statistically noteworthy when a whole career, a whole season, or even just a whole month is considered.
Anyway, if NBA Jam Tournament Edition taught me one thing, it was that hitting 3 shots in a row meant I was “on fire”. The problem is that some fairly extensive research tells us that there’s actually no such thing as the hot hand. However, what I do know, is that if I’ve just made 3 shots in a row, I want the damn ball back.
- ¹Gilovich, T., Vallone, R., & Tversky, A. (1985). The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences. Cognitive Psychology, 17, 295-314.
- ²Avugos, S., Köppen, J., Czienkowski, U., Raab, M., & Bar-Eli, M. (2013). The “hot hand” reconsidered: A meta-analytic approach. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 14, 21-27.
- ³Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books