(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.