Lacrosse and the Dunning-Kruger effect

From 2011 to 2019, I wrote roughly an article a week for NLL Chatter. This past season, I posted a couple of prediction articles before the season, a couple after, and only a handful of articles during the season itself. It was related to a lack of confidence on my part though until recently, I couldn’t explain why. It came down to “I won’t bother writing about last night’s game because nobody will care what I think about it”.

I have since decided that the cause is what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a psychological effect which many interpret as “the dumber you are, the smarter you think you are”, though this is not quite right. Everyone overestimates their knowledge or ability about various things. For example, everyone thinks they’re an above average driver but by definition, half of drivers are below average. Dunning-Kruger says that the less you know about a subject, the more you overestimate your knowledge or abilities. This is simply because you lack the knowledge about the subject to know what you don’t know. This is why you see people with no medical training whatsoever boasting about how they know more than doctors because they’ve done a google search or two.

Note that this applies to everyone, not just “stupid people”. You can be unimaginably brilliant, a world-renowned expert in some field, but there are still fields that you are not an expert in, and you likely overestimate your knowledge in those.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

I never played lacrosse growing up. I had never even seen a lacrosse game until I was 30. I knew nothing about lacrosse until that day in the spring of 2000 when I went to my first NLL game in Buffalo and fell in love with the sport. Over the next twenty years, I watched lacrosse more and more and started writing about it more and more. Eventually my writing started being seen by more and more people until I was doing analysis for one of the top lacrosse web sites and running a twitter account with thousands of followers. While I have never referred to myself or even thought of myself as a lacrosse expert (other than jokingly, and then always in quotes), this may have led me to the cocky belief that I know more about lacrosse than I actually do.

Over the last couple of years, however, I have spoken on the phone to a number of prominent lacrosse people including Stephen Stamp, Glenn Clark, Kiel Matisz, Johnny Mouradian, Dan Carey, Chad Culp, and Marty O’Neill. Every one of those guys was professional, friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, and fun to talk to. But each conversation made it a little clearer to me that whatever knowledge level I might be at or even think I was at was nothing compared to any of them. At one point Marty O’Neill asked me “You know how when you’re on D and the other guy <does some specific thing> you need to <some other thing> or they’ll just <yet another thing>?” I quickly realized that if I said “I have no idea what you’re talking about” it would take him half an hour to explain what that all meant, so I just said “yeah”.

I think that was the moment that the Dunning-Kruger realization kicked in. I didn’t know that when the other guy does x you need to do y, but that wasn’t the problem. It was that I didn’t understand what x or y even meant. I had learned a lot about lacrosse in the previous twenty years but the more I learned about it, the more I realized that there was so much more that I didn’t know. Once that hit me, I suddenly felt like I knew nothing. And why would anyone want to read analysis by someone who knows nothing?

There are still a ton of things I don’t know and will probably never know about lacrosse. But I don’t write about lacrosse because I think I know more than you. I write mainly because I like to write. Sometimes I express my opinions about stuff – sometimes they’re informed opinions, sometimes less so. I’ve also done a lot of work over the years writing software to compile and analyze NLL stats in a database. I’ve been a software engineer working in the database industry for over twenty years so when it comes to database software, and I say this with all humility, I am an expert. When I write about stats, I’ve done the work so you don’t have to.

But let’s be realistic: being hard on yourself because you don’t know as much about lacrosse as Marty O’Neill is a little harsh. Many lacrosse experts (even those not in quotes) don’t know as much about lacrosse as Marty O’Neill.

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