Analytics, Intangibles, and Psychology

Every so often, I debate a on-line friend on the issue of “intangibles” in hockey. The latest debate was inspired by Jonathan Willis’s article. I agreed with Willis’s argument that intangibles shouldn’t be used to explain things, or explain away things, that can otherwise be objectively measured. Willis wrote:

“I think intangibles matter. It’s just that all too often they’re used as a catch-all explanation for anything that happens on the ice even when a tangible explanation exists. Too often the false narratives arising from them lead to poor conclusions, like the idea that Nurse’s fight led the Oilers to a great first period. Too often they’ve been used as supports for ineffective players, and cudgels with which to club effective ones, as tools to further the predetermined opinion of a pundit.”

My friend challenged me with the question: “Surely to a certain degree you agree intangibles exist?”

[In response, I wrote:] It’s not that I don’t believe intangibles don’t exist; but they don’t exist in the way Willis argues that some people use them: As explanations for why something happened when there are more observable reasons for why it happened.

True, we cannot see into a player’s head to know what is motivating him at one time or another; his mood; his restfulness; whether he feels confident or not before the game; how the coach’s feedback is impacting him; how scoring or not scoring is affecting his confidence; and so forth. Yet, these “intangibles” are not intangible at all in psychology: We measure them all the time. It’s just that we don’t measure them in hockey.

Come think to think of it, I guess I’m saying intangibles–as they pertain to psychological explanations–don’t exist. Everything about a player or team is measurable; it’s just not practical or possible to measure everything in the context of a game.

[I then recalled some comments McLellan made after the recent Los Angeles game, in which he made psychological observations of his players.]

Observant and motivating coaches try to be sensitive to the psychology of his players. For instance, McLellan noted some slouched shoulders after LA scored 3 goals. He said he saw their play deteriorate after that happened, but then they recovered in the 3rd period. This kind of observation can be checked by looking at shot metrics.


After the 3rd goal, LA kept pressing until they took a penalty. Then the Oilers recovered a little and scored, but then LA took over again, leading to the 4th goal, then kept on rolling to the end of the period. So McLellan’s observation was spot on.

The Oilers came out gangbusters to start the 3rd, although LA was keeping pace. Still, the Oil scored. So McLellan noted that too, but he may have glossed over the rest of the period in his memory. After this initial push and goal, penalties happened. Then Edmonton was flat until the last few minutes, at which point it was too late.

So in this case, even an intangible–a coach’s observation of player confidence and effort–can be indirectly measured by the shot attempt battle.

It’s not always a happy marriage between analytics, intangibles, and psychology, but there are occasions–as above–when a psychological motivation (a supposed intangible) can be observed via the players’s disposition and then indirectly tested by the events on the ice.

Walter Foddis Written by: