The Secret Statistic
What do sport teams look for when selecting players? In baseball, general managers
and coaches rely on endless statistics in categories such as batting, base running,
and fielding. Altogether, Major League Baseball teams measure the performance of
players in 119 separate statistics (42 for hitting alone). Now, this might be pushing
it a bit when selecting which professional to play with the coming polo season.
Of course, the nature of baseball (or cricket for that matter), where players
have separate field positions and tasks, makes performance easier to measure. The
flow of polo with players bunched up and often performing multiple tasks
simultaneously — such as riding-off while also playing the ball — makes measuring
performance hard, if not impossible. Hence, the only official indication of players’
individual skill is their HPA-handicap.
In the high- and mid-goal, with well-mounted and fewer professionals,
players with the same handicap are evenly matched (with the exception of Adolfo
Cambiaso and Facundo Pieres, who play well above their 10-goals). So, let’s
concentrate on the low-goal — good for 95 percent of polo played in the UK. With
more players in each handicap category— 2, 3 or 4-goals — there simply is bound to
be a bigger difference between those with the same handicap. So, apart from a
professional being “good for his/her handicap” and bringing the best possible
horses, what else do we look for in selecting a professional? What is that secret
There is only one factor that can make a professional — who already is
having the best day and best horses — play even better: team play. It is called
playing a positive-sum game: does that pro, by adding his skills to the team, make
teammates play at the top of their handicap or above, too? Which means: constantly
engaging and leading them in plays, passing or even leaving the ball and riding off
the opposition when a teammate has a better opportunity — no matter that he or
she has a lower handicap. Or is the pro playing alone (zero-sum)? Perhaps, by doing
so, even having a negative effect on the team’s performance (minus-sum)?
Statistically, this is impractical if not impossible to quantify. However, ask
people who played with a professional not only if they won but if they actually liked
playing with him. Likeability is a very good indicator for effective team-play when
selecting a professional who can help your team win.