“He’s On Fire!” The Truth of the Hot Hand

The game is on the line, Coach. You have time to draw up one final play…

Do you strategize to get the ball into the hands of your captain, one of the more consistent and dependable players? Or do you go with the “hot” hand, the player on the team who has been “on fire” this period?

One guy has been consistent all year, the other is having the night of his life and just sank three impressive shots in a row. What would you do?

Richard Thaler, in the book Nudge, cites a 2003 study by Koehler (Northwestern University) and Conley (Florida Atlantic University). In that study, NBA players playing in the All-Star game, after announcers had proclaimed them “on fire,” made 55.2% of subsequent shots, only slightly higher than the average shooting percentage of the contest. The hand, he suggests, is not quite as hot as it might seem.

Behavioral psychology and economics do not always align. There is more to this phenomenon than averages and trends.

There might not be a physiological reason why a made basket would lead to another made basket. Over the course of the game, the tissues of the body (muscle, ligament, bone) are no different than they were during previous moments. In fact, one could reasonably conclude that those tissues might experience fatigue as the game progresses. The Koehler and Conley study seems to support that logic.

Although the economic model says one thing, an understanding of psychology as it influences human behavior might say another.

The Confidence Effect

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has worked to understand the psychology of intrinsic motivation and ideal internal states since the 1960s. In creating his famed “flow” model of optimal experience, Csikszentmihalyi’s research unlocks a simple truth: success exists at the stable intersection of challenge and skill.

The truth of the hot hand, according to Csikszentmihalyi, requires an analysis of one’s optimal physical and psychological experience and the immediate ability to manage individual barriers.

For example, if an athlete is lacking confidence (in this case, concern about his ability to make a shot), then the perceived relationship of skill to challenge will be a complicating factor. A few successful shots might have the potential to lower an athlete’s perception of the challenge and increase his perceived ability to manage it. A few made shots would move him closer to “flow.”

When this is the case, we might consider another economic principle – one made famous by Daniel Kahneman – called anchoring. If an athlete is afraid of missing a shot, their psychological ‘anchor’ might be the imagined missed shot. Their fear, based on a prediction, will be a factor in their shooting. But when an athlete has made a few shots, the new psychological ‘anchor’ is a few made shots – a real-world, tangible success.

In the athlete’s mind, the perception of challenge relative to skill begins to balance out. Whether we call it flow, or straight up confidence, something positive has been achieved.

The psychological boost has actual, physical manifestations. A study by Ford & Collins linked self-esteem with important hormonal fluctuation. Participants with high self-esteem saw less of a cortisol jump (a well-documented stress-response) than their less confident counterparts. Confidence matters.  

It seems that a shot in the arm of confidence induced by a few made baskets would lend itself to future success. Staying in that flow state is the tricky part – one could simply become overconfident and neglect the strategy and technique that made the initial shots go in – which would explain why that “fire” ultimately fizzles out.

Though it is safe to assume that something is definitely happening after a player makes a few consecutive shots, we cannot decisively say for whom, and to what degree these sorts of impact are providing benefit. We do not know how long the effect will last. And we cannot truly know if there will be any measurable effect. Thaler suggests that if it is measurable at all, it is negligible.

Who Takes the Final Shot?

In other words, the “hot hand” might be real, or it might be nonsense. Or it might be real sometimes, nonsense others. The only truth of the matter is that we, the coaches, must be both economists and psychologists.

It would be wise to play the odds, to listen to the numbers: put the ball in the hands of your highest percentage shooter.

It would be wise to play the moment: put the ball in the hands of today’s top shooter.

Which of these wise decisions will lead to success? The answer isanything but clear… and that is the point. Coaches, parents, and leaders of all kinds too often search for the “right” answer. It’s not out there. There will be no quote, book, or podcast which could possibly offer a specific prescription for your uniquesituation. There is no quick fix.

As leaders, we must pay close attention to individual contexts, team trends, and athlete-specific situations. If a key concept for coaching success did exist, intentionality would be a leading candidate.

Decisions made with good and thoughtful intentions stand a chance of success. Intentional decisions also allow for the best sorts of feedback: Did the strategy work? What is the response from your players? What decisions will you make next time?

Those willing to do this work will be sitting in the absolute core of thoughtful leadership. In doing so, remember that you do not always have to be right. Foolish leaders are the ones who too often think that there is an absolute right and they are on the side of it. But you can always be thoughtful – that will give you a chance at success.

So who takes the shot at the end of the game? If you have spent your time being thoughtful, intentional, planting and nurturing seed* concepts for success in the culture of your team, then you are already a step ahead of the moment.

Whether you put the ball in the hands of your sure-handed captain, or the player who is “on fire,” your chance of success will ultimately depend on team culture.

No matter who the play is drawn up for, the other players on the court will have to do their jobs and do them well. Players and coaches will have to believe in their training, believe that they are prepared to succeed in the moment. They should not be afraid of failure, but be excited to play together, whether their role is to space out the court, set a screen, or take the final shot. The team will dictate the outcome.

The work begins now, Coach. Operate thoughtfully, have humility when the outcome is not what you planned, forgive yourself and those around you, and be willing to adapt.

If you create a culture in that image, then you won’t have to worry about the hot hand.

*more on seed concepts on all forms of social media @coach4kindness