As a sports fan, handling expectations is tough. It’s natural to be optimistic, but if you’re optimistic, you’re probably going to find your team(s) not meeting your expectations more often than not.
A friend of mine passed along a column by Mike Wise that ran over the weekend in the Washington Post. Wise—in light of the Nationals’ fall from trendy preseason World Series pick to playoff onlooker, the Redskins’ poor start to the season after a surprise playoff appearance a season ago, and the Capitals’ regular early playoff exit—argues that we should keep low expectations, because then, our teams will pleasantly surprise us more often than they disappoint.
Last year, we had high hopes for men’s basketball, but they came up short. This year, we had hopes that football would take another step forward, but thanks to several factors (notably, a weak offensive line and injuries), they appear to be taking two steps back. Meanwhile, my beat, men’s soccer, after a lackluster 2012, has won its last five and actually looks poised to legitimately challenge for the Ivy title.
Like many sports fans, I came across the expectations problem a long time ago. In 2008, the Capitals made a miracle run to the playoffs, winning 11 of their final 12 games to squeak into the postseason. The offense was scoring consistently and the goalie was having an excellent run. They were the hottest team in the NHL over the final month. Yet, somehow, they almost got swept in the first round by a team who lacked any star power whatsoever.
It’s amazing how people who get paid to analyze sports constantly get things wrong. They hoodwinked me into believing that the team’s hot streak was somehow representative of how the Capitals would play moving forward. In hockey, things like wins and goals are subject to a lot of randomness, and at the end of the 2008 season, the Capitals were on the good side of that randomness. Then, the good luck vanished. That’s all there is to it.
As you understand better and better how to separate the signal from the noise, you learn how to keep reasonable expectations. You know what’s likely and what isn’t, and you know how subject those changes are to flukes. You never pin all your hopes on a single outcome, because there’s a really good chance that outcome won’t come to pass.
That being said, this analytics-style mindset still suffers from the same problem. You can pin your hopes on the 99.6 percent chance your team makes the playoffs, only to be heartbroken when it shockingly misses the cut. Why take that chance of disappointment at all?
Well, let’s ask another more fundamental question: Is it even possible to care while maintaining perpetually low expectations?
Intuitively, it seems difficult.
It’s one thing to care about yourself but have low expectations—many people would argue that life isn’t about being better than everyone else. But sports at the highest levels are, in fact, about being better than everyone else. That’s how you win or lose—by comparing yourself to others. Save the truly unbiased, pure fans of sport—as opposed to fans of a team—it’s hard to enjoy a sport and overlook that competitive aspect. Why would you commit so much time and money to what you perceive as a failure?
Instead, what we have to do is learn to manage expectations. That’s partly why I’ve become so interested in sports analytics. You have to learn to watch out for patterns that don’t reflect anything important—just randomness. It’s the mindset I’ve found works the best. It’s hard and sometimes painful to adopt , but necessary.
Unless, of course, you’re fine with experiencing the highest highs and the lowest lows, and drinking your money away.
Muneeb Alam is a Columbia College junior majoring in astrophysics and economics. He is the sports columnist deputy for Spectator. Picked Apart runs biweekly.