Thursday, January 21, 2010

How much faster   posted by Razib @ 1/21/2010 01:29:00 AM

Athlete Atypicity on the Edge of Human Achievement: Performances Stagnate after the Last Peak, in 1988:
The growth law for the development of top athletes performances remains unknown in quantifiable sport events. Here we present a growth model for 41351 best performers from 70 track and field (T&F) and swimming events and detail their characteristics over the modern Olympic era. We show that 64% of T&F events no longer improved since 1993, while 47% of swimming events stagnated after 1990, prior to a second progression step starting in 2000. Since then, 100% of swimming events continued to progress.

We also provide a measurement of the atypicity for the 3919 best performances (BP) of each year in every event. The secular evolution of this parameter for T&F reveals four peaks; the most recent (1988) followed by a major stagnation. This last peak may correspond to the most recent successful attempt to push forward human physiological limits. No atypicity trend is detected in swimming. The upcoming rarefaction of new records in sport may be delayed by technological innovations, themselves depending upon economical constraints.


Monday, September 07, 2009

The Pittsburgh Steelers as an organism   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2009 11:39:00 AM

There's a strange post over at The New York Times titled Steelers Are a Highly Evolved N.F.L. Species. The author goes into Richard Dawkins' The Self Gene to draw some analogies, but I don't feel the characterization of Dawkins' ideas are clear enough that the analogy even has a chance. But, there is a real set of facts to be observed. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins of any team, despite being consistently outgunned in terms of money due to the structural nature of the their local television market. The author above wants to suggest there is a particular organizational genius which the Rooney family presides over. I'm skeptical of this. I suspect that the "genius" is simply institutional stability. Before 1970 the Steelers sucked, and everyone felt sorry for the late Art Rooney. Since 1970 not only have the Steelers captured the most championships, but they have the best win to loss ratio of any professional football team. And it is since 1970 that the Steelers have been characterized by an incredible stability of coaches, only two between 1969 and 2007 (with Mike Tomlin being the third in the post-1970 period). If life is an expectations game then it is likely that individuals employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers might exhibit a longer time horizon simply because of the overall stability of the personnel. Not only might this result in more judicious decisions in terms of the long term health of the team (as their interests are more closely tied to those long term outcomes), but the stability in personnel may also generate and esprit de corps which may serve to substitute for the lost income that entails from remaining with the Steelers organization (naturally, the very reality of consistent winning may also mean that the Steelers can pay less for more since high quality talent does want to win by and large).

Of course, the random things do happen in sports. I always say sports writing is like political writing, way too many specific facts, but no real robust theoretical framework. It's meant to entertain like historical fiction, not illuminate like a textbook (this is very evident in SportsCenter, where the reporting of facts are supplemented by a lot of entertainment). So there will always be people looking for "causes" for trends which may just be flukes. Consider the peculiar alternation between the ascendancy of the AFC and NFC since 1970.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Breeding a better athlete   posted by Razib @ 8/17/2009 02:43:00 PM

Taller, heavier: the speedy evolution of the fastest people on the planet:
While the average person has gained about five centimetres since 1900, the height of champion runners has increased 16.2 centimetres, say Duke University researchers, Jordan Charles and Adrian Bejan, who studied the heights and weights of 100-metre world record holders.

''The trends revealed by our analysis suggest that speed records will continue to be dominated by heavier and taller athletes,'' said Mr Charles, whose study was published last month in The Journal of Experimental Biology .


While Dr Norton dismissed those predictions, he believed that the laws of genetics, thanks to the habit of athletes marrying athletes - and possibly even the creation of athlete sperm banks - meant runners would continue growing taller, more powerful and faster.

Remember the "Little Hercules" with the myostatin mutation? His mother was very muscular, and reportedly there was a family history of mesomorphicity. One way population level quantitative trait mean value can shift through selection beyond the most extreme values of the original population without new mutation being necessary is simply to change the underlying allele frequencies enough so that originally unlikely combinations become common. Assortative mating is another variant of this dynamic, if people several sigmas from the mean mate, then new combinations are likely to emerge.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gladwell, too easy....   posted by Razib @ 5/14/2009 05:46:00 PM

Gladwell is always fun to read, but he invariably commits one of the sins we English teachers most warn against when we're teaching freshman writing: he loves to make vast generalizations from one or two particular cases.

One obvious point is that a style of play which is effective at one level of athletics may not be as effect at another level, particularly a higher level. Consider the Option or Run & Shoot offenses in football. The Run & Shoot in particular was tried out widely in the early 1990s at the professional level, but most teams gave up on it. Quarterbacks who were statistical monsters in colleges which utilized the Run & Shoot were total busts at the professional level (most famously, Andre Ware and David Klingler from the University of Houston). It turns out that cornerbacks and safeties in the NFL are very fast and athletic, and many college Run & Shoot quarterbacks weren't precise enough in their passing to get the job done.

Note: And yes, I'm not even taking into account the reality that professional quarterbacks are enormous economic investments, so there is going to be skepticism about risking such a valuable asset by running options all the time.