Big score for the hot hand

Volleyball players’ scoring streaks get statistically fired up

Volleyball players have taken a stand — make that a leap — for the existence of that statistically elusive feat known as the hot hand.

Not only do top volleyball strikers go on scoring runs that can’t be chalked up to chance, but players and coaches notice when a player is on a hot streak and funnel the ball his or her way, say psychologist Markus Raab of German Sport University Cologne and his colleagues, who studied the hot-hand phenomenon by analyzing playoff game data from a German volleyball league.

That strategy usually works, because players who on average score on a high percentage of shots tend to get hot hands. So getting them the ball during a scoring streak boosts a team’s score, the researchers will report in an upcoming Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. This tactic backfires if a player with a low scoring average develops a hot hand and draws shots away from better scorers, the scientists hold.

Debate about whether hot hands are real or illusory has raged since a 1985 report that professional basketball players’ shooting and free throw records contain no chance-defying streaks.

“Volleyball is a good test-bed for the hot hand, as the defense cannot directly block ball allocations to a hot player because a net separates opposing teams,” Raab says.

Finding that hot handedness not only exists but affects game decisions fits with evidence that people expect to encounter food and other desired items in patches, says psychologist Andreas Wilke of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. (SN: 2/12/11, p. 26). “Belief in the hot-hand phenomenon can be seen as part of humanity’s evolutionary heritage of trying to detect streaks in the locations of key resources,” he says.

Raab’s team thoroughly analyzed patterns of successful and failed shots in volleyball, but further work should examine players’ neutral shots kept alive by the defense for evidence of streaks that may alter game strategy, says psychologist Alan Reifman of Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

In the new study, 86 of 94 sport science students, all experienced athletes, believed in a volleyball hot hand — defined as a higher probability of scoring after two or more hits compared with two or more misses.

An analysis of playoff data from the 1999/2000 season for 26 top scorers in Germany’s first-division volleyball league identified 12 players as having had scoring runs that could not be chalked up to chance. Hot-handed players’ shots contained fewer sequences of consecutive scores than expected by chance, the result of a small number of especially long scoring runs.

When shown videos of volleyball matches edited so that one player on each side took all shots, 16 German volleyball coaches accurately monitored each man’s scoring rate as matches progressed. Coaches believed in the hot hand and said that their players created scoring opportunities for hot-handed teammates.

When questioned during similar volleyball videos, 21 volleyball-playing students accurately tracked two players’ scoring averages and said that they would give the ball more often to a player on a scoring streak who fell just short of having a statistical hot hand. Even if one player deemed to be hot had a much lower scoring average than the other, hot-handedness prevailed in deciding who got the ball.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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