(Editorial note: Sorry for the lack of updates lately. I have been suffering a bout of Writing Fatigue attempting to keep up with my podcast schedule, freelance work, book project, and more. Once I adjust and get accustomed to the new routine I will be back closer to normal)

A fun survey puts a numerical value to male overconfidence, as apparently 1 in 8 men in this sample believe that they could score a point against Serena Williams in a tennis match. Because, you know, she’s a woman. I guess Mr. Plays Tennis at the Y Occasionally thinks that simply being a guy holding a tennis racket immediately puts him in a position to have some level of success against a woman, any woman, including one who dominated her sport in a way few athletes ever have.

In fairness, “score a point” is a low bar. It’s quite a bit different from saying you could win. Nevertheless, I don’t know if these people are more sexist or more delusional. I’ve known plenty of men who in complete seriousness believed they could compete, or at least survive, on some level in an athletic competition with professionals. “If you gave me the ball once, I bet I could run for a couple yards” or whatever.

This is, of course, idiotic. The 350 pounders in the NFL – guys who can bench press 500 pounds and also run faster than any normal person could ever run if his life depended on it. Remember the commercial with Don Cheadle running against then-star NFLer Dante Hall? Cheadle breaks into a sprint, then Hall begins to run and passes him as though he is literally standing still. “And I’m pretty fast…” Cheadle wheezes.

Trust me, you can’t. Whatever you think you could do, you can’t. Having been at an NFL training camp with a press pass, on the field up close and personal, even the bad players who don’t make the team are an order of magnitude better than your “I’m pretty athletic” member of the normal population.

An interesting caveat, though, takes me back to a thought experiment I participated in during grad school. Here’s a more interesting question: If any recreational tennis player played Serena Williams an infinite, or at least a very large, number of times, would he or she eventually score a point?

Repeated to infinity, yes. Repeated a large number of times, probably. The odds are extremely low but, unless one happens to be physically incapable of holding and swinging the tennis racket or seeing the ball, non-zero.

I’m going to switch to baseball simply because I don’t understand tennis. It’s the same principle.

I blow at baseball. I couldn’t even play tee ball well. But I can swing a bat. Could I get a hit off a major league pitcher? On the surface the answer is “Absolutely not.” But what if, hypothetically and nonsensically, a Major League team decided to start me every game for a full season? What if I used 700-750 plate appearances (attempts) and swung the bat at every pitch that came anywhere near the plate?

There’s still a very good chance I would bat .000 for the season. But the thing is, the combined act of the pitcher throwing at the plate and me swinging over the plate means that simply by chance the bat and ball will meet some small percentage of the time. Purely by accident. He happened to throw it in the exact spot I managed to maneuver the bat into. No “skill” involved on my part at all.

Now we have to consider the odds that if the ball and bat are hitting one another, will the ball ever land in a place that would get me a hit? Again, it’s a question of randomness and the law of large samples. If I bat enough times, I *will* eventually get a hit. It’s going to happen, even if it takes a million times at bat.

So on that note, I suppose it is *possible* that a person could score a point off of Serena Williams given an unlimited number of opportunities to do so. You might have to stand there playing game after game for several years, but your racket will accidentally hit her serve a couple times and one of those, eventually, will score you a point. But as for doing it in a single game? You quite literally have better odds of winning Powerball or of being struck by lightning during your match.

Leonard Mlodinow covers some of this in his infinitely interesting book about probability in ordinary life, The Drunkard’s Walk. Even if the probability of something happening is infinitesimally small – me getting a hit, ever – that is different than the probability being zero. Very few things are, strictly speaking, impossible. They are only impossible in practice because their odds are so incredibly low that you cannot achieve the number of attempts it would take you to succeed.

Given infinite time and infinite typewriters, monkeys would eventually write Macbeth. That is a far cry, however, from saying that the monkeys can probably write Macbeth if you give them a chance – a statement that implies something well short of billions of years’ worth of repeated attempts.

32 thoughts on “NPF: REPEATED PLAY”

  • During a time of lay-off from my job a few years back, I worked minimum-wage day-labor next to a guy who, apparently, played football in High School. "Look at who made it in the NFL." he said to me, "I mean, Jerry Rice???? All I'm saying is that some people who did well had a lot less talent than I." I sympathized appropriately. After all, his High School basketball team only lost to LeBron James' team by one point when Lebron was a freshman.

  • ministerprime says:

    Why indulge them further in with the fantasy of 1 million tries? Indulgence is what caused them to think they could in the first place. No. You will be crushed. But thanks for the 1 million YouTube hits of you trying.

  • Interesting. Straying from your discussion of probabilities for a moment…and focusing on the range of athleticism out there and people's delusions about their place in it….

    I ran D III track in college.
    Not like my teammate J. J was perennially top 5, nationally, in the 800m. So, when we went to a crowded invitational meet, he ended up in the same lane as Joachuim Cruz for one heat. He starts a couple of yards behind a world class guy, goes *all out*, and world class guy jogs and beats him easily. And J was one of the best D III runners in the country. [I think, in fact, that he may be a nationals Masters medalist…]

    By contrast, when I ran against UC San Diego (they used to be D III), in the 10,000m, their lead runner lapped me. Twice. And I set my personal record that day.

    So after I graduated, I entered a local fun run…a 4 miler that was all hills. I literally finished the race walking backwards wondering how I had gotten beaten so badly. I set the course record, and took first.

    So there are tremendous drops from world-class to nationals-class D III, and from nationals-class D III to "made the team D III", and from "made the team D III" to "weekend warriors who never competed in college". Tremendous.

    I can imagine that people who are accustomed to competing well in the middle of the bell curve among the general populace are delusional about what happens at the top tail, and just how far they are from it.

    [On a side note, I still lettered in college, and I *did* compete well in local road races. My son used to introduce me to his friends as "this is my Dad. He's not athletic." This tells you he was a punk. But also, it was accurate, from his perspective. It's not yet clear whether he's nationals-class D III or world-class, but I guess we'll find out in a few years.

  • TheOtherHank says:

    I met a guy who liked to tell a story about the time he beat Michael Phelps in a race. The crucial detail being that the story teller was a Division 1 swimmer at the time and Michael Phelps was 13. Oh, and Phelps was only a body length behind him at the end.

  • Landon Schurtz says:

    I went to a religious high school and had to take a class called "Apologetics," which was basically just a whole semester of ways to justify being religious. And because they were CONSERVATIVE Christians, they were anti evolution. So, anyway, when trying to explain why evolution "couldn't" be true, the teacher quoted some absurdly low chance of life arising by accident in primordial conditions, and then followed it up by saying, "and an event with [quoted chance of this happening] will never happen."

    Everyone else wrote this down. I sat there blinking for a few seconds, trying to process that, then raised my hand. When he called on me, I tried to explain that "will never happen" given an infinite span of time just wasn't the same thing as "highly improbable."

    The teacher did not appear to understand and I got demerits.

    I got a lot of demerits at that school.

  • Point taken (hah!) overall, in general terms, but the Serena Williams hypo is a poor one. It’s actually quite likely that she would double fault at least once, and put at least one in the net, or long, even if primarily out of comparative indifference or lack of intensity. And that’s against Plays At The Y Guy. Against high school boys in a typical state tournament, Serena would be lucky to win a set. She’d be lucky to win a game at the men’s NCAAs. And that was true ten years ago. Nor would she herself gainsay that. The Cup champion women’s soccer team is an even worse vehicle for combating “male overconfidence”, though it’s all the vogue right now in that connection among folks who don’t know much about competitive athletics. The “Macbeth” example is a rather stupid non sequitur.

  • Statistically, you have a pretty good chance of winning the Lotto if you buy 230 million tickets, each with different numbers on them.

    Assuming the odds are similar, Johnny Football will need to play Serena Williams nonstop 24 hours a day for about seven and a half years before he has a reasonable chance of scoring a point.


  • Patrick McIntire says:

    So I'm wondering about golf. I know, it's not the same as tennis or track or swimming, but the best golfers are indeed top athletes. Could a random weekend duffer beat a really good amateur or even a pro? Certainly he/she could win one hole but not many over 18 of them. Interesting. More coffee.

  • Dave Bearse says:

    One need not even hold a racket. Given a large number of attempts, Serena at some point with double fault.

  • Bobby Riggs was a pro, and he went 1-1 against female opponents.

    Given a large number of attempts, Serena may double fault. But will the hypothetical male opponent have had enough attempts to score first? Ed's point is that a non-pro male would need nearly infinite attempts to score.

  • True story: I REGULARLY struck out in t-ball as a kid. This is before my parents figured out I needed glasses, but still goddamned embarrassing.

  • Something like running is pretty different from tennis. Tennis all you need is one fuck-up. With running, I'm a pretty solid marathon runner but to actually WIN a competitive marathon I'd have to run the whole thing at my flat out sprint pace which is… yeah…

    For Serena Williams I think she'd compete on par with about the 800th ranked male world tennis player. Which is still enough to crush most anyone.

  • Rugosa—

    Tennis is not like volleyball. Serena and the male duffer would each have a few dozen serves at a minimum.

    The real proof of “Battle of the Sexes” fatuity in pro tennis from anti-“sexism” blowhards is not Riggs-King, but the much less well-publicized (for predictable reasons) Connors-Navratilova. Navratilova was at her peak of dominance; Connors well past his prime at 40. He got one serve per service point, she the normal two. She even got to hit into the doubles alleys as well as the normal singles court. Connors crushed her quickly in two sets.

  • Given that as close to sports as I've gotten is an amateur bicycle race 45 years ago, ms Williams would have to be sedated before i could score a point…

  • I came here to make a point similar to the one Landon Schurz makes above: maybe about fifteen years ago, a Christian club at the college I taught at brought in a speaker who was apparently one of the top speakers in the country about Intelligent Design, wrote a bunch of books, etc, etc. All a-curious, I went to the talk, thinking maybe I'd get some perspective on the baffling thinking. And I did!

    It dawned on me about halfway through the talk that the real issue here is that he just had no comprehension, as most people don't, of just how much larger "billion" is than "million" is than "thousand". He was not a Young Earth believer (or at least, that wasn't part of his argument), but he just kept referring to how unlikely various mutations would be and how improbable it would be that traits could arise and be selected for, but the arguments were presented based on trying to extend our personal observations and intuitions (based on years and, maybe, decades) out many orders of magnitude, without understanding just how big those orders of magnitude really really were.

    Basically, probability is hard and our intuitions about it are terrible.

  • Back in the age before dirt was invented, I took my Intro to Statistics class in the Electrical Engineering building at University of Illinois in Urbana – the professor, a slight Chinese man whose name I have now forgotten, was explaining to we pimply-faced sophomores how infinitely improbable things (ie, with probability ~= 0) are not actually impossible. For instance!
    – "What, I ask you, is the probability that Richard Nixon is walking the hallways in the Electrical Engineering building RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT! Searching for a place to learn about probability?"
    – "Can't happen.", we muttered in not very good unison.
    – "I'll go check.", quoth the prof, who ran out, and ran back in a moment later wearing a rubber Nixon mask and both hands raised in v-for-victory signs.
    – "So you see: Not Impossible".
    The example, though silly, has in fact stuck with me. So here's to you, Professor, whatever your name was; you taught me something.

  • Robert V Walker-Smith says:

    Collegiate sportsball teams are full of hale young men who were the best anyone from their home towns had seen in years.

    Professional teams are full of slightly older young men who were the best anyone from their college had seen in years.

    There are roughly 330 million people living in the United States. Fewer than three thousand of them are playing professional football.

    The term that comes to my mind is 'winnowing'. It's like the Curies and their mountain of pitchblende yielding a gram of radium.

  • @ Robert V Walker-Smith:

    Not a bad analogy but the Curies didn't subvert the aims of higher education by doing so.

    NCAA collegiate athletes are the fractionally remunerated participants in the U.S. professional sports "farm system".

    Don't get me wrong, a lot of money flows into the NCAA's coffers but damned little of it ever goes to the guys who are getting their asses handed to them by the elite college sports programs.

    It would be fun (for a certain definition of the word, "fun") for some forensic accountant or economist to look at the expenditures for U.S. intercollegiate athletics over the last 100 years or so and see how much more was spent on that than on beneficial programmatic educational upgrades or aid to deserving but poor students.

    Someone who has far more time than I do might even be able to determine how many Nobel laureates have passed through the NCAA's "student athlete" portal.

  • When playing idly with these hypothetical scenarios and thought experiments, given an infinite universe (or worse, a multiverse), the remotest possibility of some exceedingly narrow outcome is offered as a certainty. A common one is that with a rather large number of monkeys or chimps typing away randomly at keyboards for eons, eventually one (or more) of them will reproduce a Shakespeare play letter perfect.

    Maybe the evolutionary development of the eye, the wing, or the human brain in all their complexity are the equivalents of the monkey typist, but there's an added element of directed outcome in the Shakespeare play not present in evolution. It might be worthwhile to specialists in statistics, probability, or evolution to puzzle over these things. To me, it's just irritating. The sports example is like matching up Ali with Tyson in their primes. Endless speculation leading leading basically nowhere.

  • "Endless speculation leading leading basically nowhere."

    Boy, I know what you mean!

    Enough of that nonsense.

    Can we pick up the argument, where it was interrupted in "Stand by Me", whether Superman or Mighty Mouse would win in a contest of strenght and other superness?

    Serioualy. I hear a lor of people say all sorts of things about what would happen if these two people or those went head to head. In most cases the chance of one or the other coming out on top is prolly larger than the chance that either of them would agree to do it.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    I have personal experience with this phenomenon, but in crossword puzzles and not sports. I once game in in the top 10% of contestants at the ACPT, the huge tournament in Connecticut run by Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times, but that was an exceptional year, and most years I struggled to stay in the top 20%. I'm a good, fast solver and can even do Saturdays, which are the hardest, without too much trouble. Tyler Hinman and Dan Feyer, who each won the tournament five years IN A ROW (that's 10 years in a row between them), can finish puzzle 1 (the easiest) of the tournament in under two minutes. I'm lucky if I can come in under four, so 1/7 of the way through the contest I'm almost certain to be seriously behind, and things only get worse from there. I'm not sure I could physically move the pencil fast enough to write the answers in the grid faster than Dan or Tyler can solve, even if I already knew all of them and were filling from memory.

    However, I must point out that the odds of scoring one point on Serena Williams, though astronomical, are roughly the same each time you try, which means it's just as likely (i.e., vanishingly unlikely) that you'll score on her on the very first point as on the millionth. Obviously tennis is not a series of independent trials like video poker or craps, because fatigue and other factors must be taken into account, but a phenomenal stroke of luck can come at any time.

  • @ Andrew Laurence:

    " Obviously tennis is not a series of independent trials like video poker or craps, because fatigue and other factors must be taken into account, but a phenomenal stroke of luck can come at any time."

    Dare I say that Ed has asked a question that wasn't quite precise enough.

    Scoring a point on Venus Williams would, in a question I might ask, not include unforced errors. IOW, her hypothetical opponent would have to actually return a serve–no double fault or other freebies. Then I think the "chances" of most folks would become vanishingly small.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    This reminds me of the advice someone once gave for batting against Walter Johnson:

    "As you see Johnson's arm descending, just swing. Your bat will get to the plate at the same time the ball does, and if you are lucky, you will hit the ball. Do not try to judge the height of the pitch…or whether it was a curve."

  • @ Bitter Scribe:

    Much known fact–even though it's been against the rules for years, "brushbacks"–especially those that result in serious facial or cranial injury– remain a feature in MLB, not a bug. It's like crashes in NASCAR; nobody wants to see it happen–except to the other team.

    I suspect, given his legendary prowess, that Mr. Johnson would have had to resort to such a thing far less often than his less skilled fellows.

  • Morley Bolero says:

    I tried hitting a softball being lobbed at me by a machine in one of those batting cages. Coming at me at around 35-40 mph I was 0 for 10.

  • For most professional athletes I think the only chance is a random one. Even the idea of managing to get onto the same court is pretty remote to start with. How would that even work in the real world? By beating someone no where near as good as Serena but still a thousand times batter than you!

Comments are closed.