Athletes' winning streaks may not be all in our -- or their -- heads

Oct 05, 2011

When an athlete consistently does well, sports commentators may describe them as being "hot" or "on fire." Scientists have debunked these streaks as being in the eye of the beholder, but a new study by Yale School of Medicine researchers supports the "hot hand" phenomenon: that a streak of positive outcomes is likely to continue.

Published online today in the journal , the study analyzed five years of NBA free throws that support the "hot hand" phenomenon. Gur Yaari, postdoctoral associate in the Department of Pathology at Yale School of Medicine, and colleague Shmuel Eisenmann, investigated the common belief among and fans that players' probabilities of hitting a shot are greater following a hit than following a miss on the previous shot. Past studies found that the data does not support this phenomenon and concluded that human subjects misperceive random sequences and tend to attribute non-random patterns to completely random data.

Yaari and Eisenmann used a large data set of more than 300,000 free throws to show strong support for the "hot hand" phenomenon at the individual level. They analyzed all free throws taken during five regular seasons NBA seasons from 2005 to 2010. They found that there was a significant increase in players' of hitting the second shot in a two-shot series compared to the first one. They also found that in a set of two consecutive shots, the probability of hitting the second shot is greater following a hit than following a miss on the previous one.

According to Yaari, the presence of the "hot hand" phenomenon in basketball data is due to better and worse periods of the players. These periods are possibly determined by other factors rather than a causal connection between the result of the previous shot and the result of the current one. Yaari said that since the number of free throws taken by one player in one game is low, in order to decide between these two options, further research from other setups is needed.

"Our results set the stage for further physiological and psychological investigations of the origin of this phenomenon," said Yaari. "While the example we studied came from the sporting world, the implications are much more far reaching."

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More information: PLoS ONE

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3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 05, 2011
Anyone who has felt "in the zone" knows that this is a real phenomenon. Perhaps implicit cognitive bias tends to cause the basketball shooter to feel more in the zone after a successful shot, subtly increasing his chances for a second successful shot. (I'm not saying this is the case, but it's possible.)
5 / 5 (3) Oct 05, 2011
This was always a point of contention in middle school and high school math classes. The teacher would always tell us there was no such thing as hot streaks, and we would always disagree. I could understand it intellectually; that the law of averages means that even a 50% shooter will sometimes hit five or six in a row, but as JRDarby said, athletes know that there is such a thing as being in the zone.

Perhaps a form of short term muscle memory could also be in play, especially on free throws where you are replicating the exact same shot multiple times in a short period, as seems to be the focus of this study.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 05, 2011
Anyone who has felt "in the zone" knows that this is a real phenomenon. Perhaps implicit cognitive bias tends to cause the basketball shooter to feel more in the zone after a successful shot, subtly increasing his chances for a second successful shot. (I'm not saying this is the case, but it's possible.)

I agree and further just how would one quantify the players mental attitude toward repeating a success other than the fact that they just kept on makin' the shots!
Hypothetically: Certainly there may be other factors for each situation as the story so says, but; what if, there were a drug, a substance one could take to mimick this same degree/condition of success-perception. The drug could not 'teach' how to make 'the shot'. Further, if such a drug or outside influence could do it, you KNOW pro-athletes and musicians would have found that sucker by now! We'd have people batting 750 all season for decades!The 'zone' is real baby...

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