Earlier this week The Guardian’s Craig Little had an article which basically argued that Hawthorn’s current position on top of the AFL ladder was an illustration that ‘culture’ is more important to success than statistical analysis.
“At the risk of being crucified by gangs of statistical leviathans … ,” Little wrote, “Hawthorn’s greatest achievement this year may be reducing the reams of data to the mootest of points … There is not a category in which they are ranked ahead of the rest of the competition – notwithstanding of course, what ultimately matters: wins.” Little then went on to ascribe the Hawks success this season to having the competition’s strongest ‘culture’, whatever that is.
Little’s article is well-written, but I disagree with most of it. Hawthorn is no doubt the greatest club of the past three seasons. The Hawks are more than a small chance of winning their fourth premiership in a row. They are also 5-0 in matches this season decided by less than 10 points. If they lose even two of those matches they are in seventh place, and does the article even get written?
Ah … but isn’t their ability to always win those close matches a testament to their battle-hardiness, their ‘culture’ of success, allowing them to frequently get over the line when the pressure is on? Utter codswallop. If the Hawks are so much better than other clubs at winning when matches are close why did they go 1-4 in matches decided by 10 points or less last season? That team had already won two premierships; what changed so much after a third other than this season they have been luckier? Alas for the purpose of my post they beat Sydney in another close match this week, perpetuating the myth for some that the Hawks ‘just know how to win the close ones’.
And if I hear one more time (which unfortunately I will) a club’s ‘culture’ being used as the main explanation for its success or lack of … What even does that mean? No really, when someone appeals to a club’s ‘culture’ they should be immediately asked how that ‘culture’ is specifically manifesting itself in anything that is happening on the ground. (Little at least links the Hawks’ ‘culture’ to their capacity for innovation and their willingness to spend on their football department.)
I often hear that my club Richmond has a ‘culture problem’ compared to a club like Hawthorn. I see that, among other things, the Tigers do not hit their targets when kicking the ball around the ground as much as the Hawks do. So what does that point to then: a ‘culture’ of bad kicking? More likely Hawthorn built a game plan and recruited and developed players to help them execute that plan than those ubiquitous ‘culture differences’ are the culprit.
Perhaps what some people mean they talk about a ‘cultural problem’ are players not performing to the best of their abilities. But if so then how exactly? Are they turning the ball over more often than you would expect? Are they not as good at winning contested possessions? I don’t see how ‘culture’ is an explanation for much at all really.
I guess I must be one of those ‘statistical leviathans’ the article is talking about … But then, given that I run a weekly ‘Power Rankings’ system based purely on a statistical formula, you probably already knew that …
[P.S. When discussing this post with my wife she said that a good ‘culture’ could help in recruiting and retaining players. Good point, my wiser-and-better-half (she asked to be referred to as that). I concede that one. Perhaps I’ll accept that reports of a ‘good culture’ had some part in the Hawks recruiting Shaun Burgoyne, Josh Gibson, Jack Gunston, James Frawley, and Ben McEvoy from other clubs. On the other hand it didn’t keep Buddy Franklin there.]