There’s a statistical term that most experienced professional coaches innately understand. It’s the mean, which is a midpoint between two extremes. For coaches, they typically view statistical mean through the prism of regression to the mean, which defines the typical reality of sports performance.
It’s also something that parents should understand about their kids when watching them play. As parents, we all want to see our children succeed. We feel for them with every up and down in their on-ice performance. It can be especially frustrating when we see them have a couple of good games in a row and then we watch them play what we know is well below the level we have seen previously.
The reality is, based upon a player’s current level of mental and physical skills, they have an average performance level of which they are capable. This means that 50 percent of the time, they will perform above their current performance level and 50 percent of the time they will perform below their level. This is going to happen shift-to-shift and game-to-game. There are many factors that go into determining performance, but if we charted performance, it would take the shape of a very nice bell curve, with the number of playing occurrences on one axis and performance level on the other. Younger players will show a much greater standard deviation, while our older professional NHL players will tend to be more consistent in their play. However, every player will ultimately follow this bell curve pattern (see chart at upper right).
The point for parents is to understand that your kids are going to have some good days, some bad days, and a few that are at both extremes, based upon their own current level of capability.
Remember that 50 percent of the time they will be playing or practicing below their average. So be happy when they are doing well and don’t think that they weren’t trying when they somehow underperform. It’s probably not a question of effort. They were probably just having another day that fits somewhere along their bell curve. The good news is that, after a very poor performance, the next game out they will tend to play back toward their average without you or the coach saying or doing anything.
The goal is for the coach and player to, over time, slide that mean performance line to the right through practice, and narrow the curve with more consistency. However this isn’t going to eliminate all the highs and lows in performance. Those peaks and valleys will happen regardless of age, ability, and every other factor. With sports performance we always regress to our mean.
Thank you to John Kessel at USA Volleyball for inspiration on this topic.