December 8, 2009

The Age of Sailer: A Quantitative Analysis

Reading about the lady (below) who decided to apply contemporary upper middle class methods of improvement to her marriage got me to wondering about whether all the private tutoring and summer skill-building camps that 21st Century upper middle class people subject their kids to actually work at all.

Compare the engulfing level of instruction that young tennis players, for example, are given these days to the casual upbringing of tennis players of the past. When Pancho Gonzales was 12 in 1940 in East LA, he wanted a bicycle for his birthday, but his parents couldn't afford one so they gave him a tennis racket instead. That, as far as I can tell, was the full extent of his parents' contribution to his tennis career. Little Pancho wandered over to the public courts next to the LA Coliseum and started playing tennis. He never took a lesson, but was the number one pro in the world in the second half of the 1950s and was a major force in tennis from the 1940s into the 1970s.

In contrast, the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, grew up in Compton, not far from East LA, but their hyperambitious father moved them to West Palm Beach so they could attend a famous tennis academy. (When the Williams sisters started on the pro circuit, their favorite music was Alternative Rock because that's what the rich white kids at their tennis academy listened to.)

But it's hard to tell how much better are today's star tennis players, who are largely raised at tennis academies, than Pancho Gonzales was. As 1920s golfer Bobby Jones told a fan in the 1940s who was raving to him about how Ben Hogan was the best golfer ever, "All you can be is the best of your time."

There are probably fewer Mexican-American star athletes today than in the days of Gonzales and Lee Trevino, which suggests that the contemporary white intensive parenting style is paying off, but that's awfully circumstantial evidence.

I have found one fairly objective metric: NFL field goal kicking percentages. Back in the old days, football coaches would ask for volunteers for placekicker, see who looked best, give him a few tips, and maybe lend him a couple of extra footballs to practice with.

Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, NFL teams hired soccer players from all over the world like Garo Yepremian (who, why am I surprised? has a motivational speaking business). But, since then, the job has almost 100% been monopolized by white middle class Americans, typically ones who played AYSO soccer. These days, ambitious parents send their sons to placekicking camps or hire prominent kicking tutors such as Chris Sailer to give their sons private instruction.

Are football kickers still getting better in the Age of Sailer (Chris, not Steve)? Does this modern parenting system of chauffeuring and expensive tutelage actually work?

Yes, at least in this case, it appears it does. Contemporary NFL field goal kickers are much better than old ones.

Here are field goal percentages in the NFL every tenth year from 1958 through 2008, according to

FG Made % Chg Missed % Chg
1958 46.9%
1968 55.6% 18.6% 44.4% -16.4%
1978 63.1% 13.5% 36.9% -16.9%
1988 71.7% 13.6% 28.3% -23.3%
1998 79.6% 11.0% 20.4% -27.9%
2008 84.5% 6.2% 15.5% -24.0%

At first glance, it looks like the rate of improvement is slowing down, but that's mostly because the field goal percentage was so high by 2008 (84.5%) that kickers were running into diminishing returns on improvement. If you flip the calculation upside down and focus on decrease in percentage missed, 1999-2008 was the second best decade ever in terms of relative improvement, behind only the previous decade.

From 50 yards or farther, 28 NFL teams made 28 out of 70 attempts in 1988. Two decades later, 32 NFL teams made 66 out of 104 fifty+ yard attempts. (Long field goals are dangerous to attempt because they can be run back, and the field goal kicking unit is heavier and slower than the kicking off unit, so a field goal that comes up short can turn into a back-breaking 109 yard field goal return for a touchdown.)

For a test of pure technique, not a test of strength, NFL kickers missed only 0.5% of Points-After-Touchdown (19 yard kicks) in 2008, versus 1.7% in 1998, and about 5% several decades ago.

So, yes, in this example, at least, the white middle class method of intensive/expensive childrearing seems to be resulting in better performance.

By the way, isn't it about time that the NFL made kicking a field goal more of an accomplishment? What these guys are doing 84.5% of the time is pretty amazing -- go out and stand on a high school football field 40 yards from the goal posts and notice how few degrees of your horizon they take up. Then realize that high school goal posts are 23'4" wide, while college and NFL goal posts are only 18'6" wide.

Right now, though, being an NFL kicker is a terrible job, like being a long-snapper, because you only get noticed when you mess up. Unless there's a foot of snow on the field, nobody is going to remember the name of the guy who makes the game winning 40 yard field goal, because it's so expected these days. But they will remember the bum who missed.

The NFL could either make the goal posts even narrower, or it could just move them back behind the back line of the end zone a few yards to make each field goal attempt longer. For example, they could just rotate the existing goal posts 180 degrees so that the offset is pointing in the other direction, adding about four yards to the distance.


Anton said...

I'm certain a similar trend would exist too if % success at specific distances were considered, e.g. from >30 yds or >40 yds. I remember when it was real news when someone kicked a FG of >50 yds. Now? High school kickers make them all the time...

anono said...

Its really necessary to control for kicking distance.

OneSTDV said...

Since kickers are so much better now, it's time they changed the overtime rule. It's an unfair advantage to have it first. In the old days when you had to move quite far down the field for your kicker to have a shot, the coin flip didn't matter.

I imagine in the past 15 years or so, the winning coin flip team has a statistically significant advantage (probably 57/43 or something around there).

Someone could probably find the stats.

jody said...

not a bad approach to the subject, but in the case of american football, the improvement in kicking and punting is not because of "the middle class method". it's because kickers and punters used to suck, and now they don't. they weren't good athletes, did not have much specific training, and the sports science was less developed. now almost every guy is a good athlete, some are great athletes, and they have years of specific training. the highest paid kickers in 2009 have a higher salary than the highest paid player in the entire NFL in 1989.

a similar situation exists in throwing in track & field, except throwing never went through the improvement phase that NFL kicking and punting went through. throwers just aren't that good compared to how good they could be if there was a higher level of interest or a much higher salary. who's throwing seriously? not many guys.

on the other hand, there's a clear problem with evaulating sports where the game is head to head and there is no certain way to measure the athletes from decade to decade. boxing is the classic, all-time example here. but, trust me, the best tennis players today are dramatically better than at any time in history. the whole field is so much better now than 20 years ago. half the world used to not even be able to play professional tennis due to communism - one of the primary effects on why boxing looks the way it does today. the participation rate and pay are all much higher in 2009.

the real question would be comparing only the american men today with the american men from 20 years ago, now that NCAA tennis has been turned over to international players and it's much harder to develop american men. but i struggle to see how connors and mcenroe would survive roddick, who has the all-time fastest serve, something that is measurable. let alone the rest of his game. if you go back and watch video of connors or mcenroe playing in 1979, you can see weak aspects of their games literally pop right out at you. if you've been watching ATP tennis this decade, the difference in speed and skill between the players today and the players 30 years ago is instantly evident.

this effect, which is glaringly obvious when watching training videos in many sports from 30 years ago, is startling in boxing, as you realize that guys who you seem to recall as invincible superhumans, were actually kind of sloppy, stood only about 6 feet tall and weighed only about 200 pounds.

Steve Sailer said...

You used to have placekickers in the NFL who were all-around great athletes, like Paul Hornung, who was a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in college, then a superstar halfback for the great Green Bay Packer teams, or quarterback George Blanda. Is there anybody placekicking these days in the NFL who played a position in college?

By the way, it was fun to watch Colt McCoy punt a couple of times out of the shotgun formation in Texas's defensive struggle against Nebraska.

pat said...

In order to make place-kicking more difficult, they could widen the hash marks.

But before that happens, the NBA should raise the height of the hoop. 10 ft is ridiculous for a bunch of guys who are almost 7ft tall and can jump through the roof.

The NBA is unwatchable.

Justin said...

Jeez, Steve, talk about an item from the "if it ain't broke don't fix it department"... Why not just do like the Aussies, and play on a 200 yard field?

For those who think everything is always getting better: why don't we have more 4-minute milers?

Cinco Jotas said...

"So, yes, in this example, at least, the white middle class method of intensive/expensive childrearing seems to be resulting in better performance."

Seems to me you could substitute "Asians" for "white middle class" and still have that sentence work, that is, if we're talking about mathematics and classical music.

Given a modicum of natural ability, this intensive methodology works for intellectual and artistic pursuits, so why wouldn't it work for athletic pursuits?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't deny that increased specialization and training have a part in the improved percentages, but can any of this be attributed to more indoor stadiums and more artificial turf? Or more intelligent use of kickers? For example, Robbie Gould of the Bears has the best percentage of active players (and maybe of all players but I'm too lazy to check) but almost never tries kicks beyond 50 yards because he doesn't have the leg strength. I'd bet I could count his tries beyond 50 yards on one hand.

Also, what effect might the rule change on the placement of the ball after missed field goals have (line of scrimmage then vs point of kick now)? I think that makes coaches more risk averse in choosing to try long field goals unless they have high confidence in the kicker or are trying to win/tie at the end of the game. The percentage of successful kicks of over fifty years has gone up since 1988, but it looks like the tries per NFL game might not have. So maybe the kickers are better (or have better conditions) but the coaches are not more likely to try because of the field position advantage given to the defender of a missed kick.

As far as charging the rules rewarding field goals is concerned, you have to balance the reward for the achievement of the kick with the failure of the offense to achieve its goal of putting the ball in the end zone. Three points for the achievement of getting the ball through the uprights from 50 yards away seems like something of a victory for an ineffective offense. The same three points from 25 yards out seems like a defeat for not pushing the ball into the endzone from so close (and a reward to the defense for making the stop). The psychology seems right to me.

airtommy said...

I wonder how much of a factor steroids play in that chart?

Anonymous said...

For the guys commenting on tennis players. Remember guys like Connors and McEnroe played with smaller rackets usually made of wood or steel. They did not use the oversize, carbon-fiber rackets.

I would like to see how hard today's players could hit the ball if they used the old wooden rackets.

Middletown Girl said...

Just don't take any lessons from Lucy(Van Pelt).

Anonymous said...

a lot of it is specialization on the part of special teams. Matt stover when playing for the ravens
would give the coach a report on his range from either side of the field. And he was money within that range.

In the old days a kicker prolly kicked it when the head coach said to kick it.

they are a lot more scientific about it now.

Svigor said...

For example, they could just rotate the existing goal post so that the offset is pointing in the other direction, adding about four yards to the distance.

A side bonus would be the off chance of seeing a WR starring in "OW, my balls!" after an attempted goalpost dunk.

Do kickers still dominate the "points scored" stats? Kickers and punters should be very well paid; the former score the most points, and the latter gain the most yards (per play anyway).

Matra said...

but i struggle to see how connors and mcenroe would survive roddick, who has the all-time fastest serve, something that is measurable

Not really. You can't compare serves made with the graphite racquets used by today's players to the earlier heavier graphite racquets from the mid-80s, never mind the wood racquets used before then.

The players are certainly fitter today and their technical training is superior. But even so it is difficult to believe those previously rare behind the baseline shots we see in every match today would be as common if not for the racquets.

Whiskey said...

The quick kick was one of Red Sander's favorite weapons at UCLA. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most everything you say Steve but don't think coaches worry about long field goals being run back- very very rare, I think. More worried about low trajectory and getting blocked or a miss which now gives defense ball at spot of kick.

Garo Yepremian had the funniest play in Super Bowl history and almost cost the Dolphins their undefeated season. (1:58)

Garo was not an athlete apparently-I think the best athlete/kicker was Scott Bentley who got FSU over the hump to win a national title- he had a brief journeyman NFL kicking career though

San Diego's old punter Darren Bennett was a legit Austalian footballer as is Philly's Sav Rocca- Ben Graham as well.

Janikowski is a professional eater, I think- didn't he beat Kobayashi at Coney Island last year?

Ray Guy was amazing- play he made against Redskins in SB 18 was amazing- jumped 3 feet in air to save high snap early in game....if he misses that who knows? Never had a punt returned for td btw

Pat McInally was a legit tight end also a good punter for many years- I think he had perfect wonderlic.

Sammy Baugh- have to mention him.

Reggie Roby used to wear a watch....why i would ask? Hang time? What is he hitting the stopwatch while he's bringing his leg down after a punt??

Dan in DC

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about tennis - would it make sense for current players to practice some of the time using old style, heavier racquets?

Tom Regan said...

As someone not raised on NFL, I think one way of improving the status of the kicker in the team, and giving him more credit for what goes right rather than what goes wrong is to change the 1-point conversion.
Its too easy, its from too close a range. If the 1-point conversion was from around the 30 yard line, there would be a reasonable percentage of them missed. So your kicker becomes vital in determining the outcome of games even when field goals are evenly converted between the two teams.

OhioStater said...

Or like rugby make the kicker kick from really wide angles.

Anonymous said...

"But it's hard to tell how much better are today's star tennis players..."

That depends on whether tennis is more like writing or more like music playing. Regardless of the amount of practice one puts in, one isn't going to be a good writer without natural talent. Some start writing in their 50s or 60s and are great at it anyway. It's not clear that past years of practice help at all in writing. If you're trying to be original, each new scene, paragraph, sentence is a new challenge. Old tricks won't help you, they'll just be categorized as cliches.

Music is a complete opposite. No matter how much natural talent you have, it's not worth anything without tons and tons of prior practice. If you didn't start playing the violin by the age of 5, you'll never be a good violinist.

I'm guessing that playing tennis is more like playing music than like writing fiction: you do improve with practice and the earlier you start practicing, the better you'll be.

Simon said...

Mentoring & training makes you better at sport. Or French, or cello.

But it doesn't raise your IQ.

madeupname said...

As a rugby fan who knows nothing about American football I would like to know if the balls have stayed the same over this period (as they haven't in rugby).

bjdouble said...

I would say that talent matters more than repetition in tennis. The best young American player is Sam Querrey, who never went to an academy and only got serious about tennis at 18 - way, way later than his peers.

The tennis academies haven't been very good at producing great tennis players. Bolletieri got lucky at the beginning by latching onto some players who were already talented. The best Bolletieri product on the pro tour right now is Kei Nishikori -- and he isn't in the top 100. Agassi and Sampras were both the products of mad geniuses, child molester Pete Fischer in the case of Sampras, and Agassi's father. Same for Connors (his mother), Sharapova (her father), Nadal (Uncle Tony), Evert (her father).

On the other hand, some players are just natural talents - McEnroe and Federer and Navratilova and Billy Jean King, who are all talented volleyers. Maybe it's the baseliners who need the repetition of constant drilling. Volleying takes longer to learn - tall serve and volleyers like Ivo Karlovic and John Isner mature much later - but it can't really be taught. McEnroe still does well on the seniors tour even though he's nearly 50 because reflexes last longer than speed. I see this even with the older hackers I play with -- they can still handle quick reflex volleys fine.

So I'd sum it up by saying that for baseliners, repetitions matter. But overall, talent matters more than practice, and Querrey is a perfect example of that.

JWO said...

You are going to gain just by having more people try an event. More to select from.

Anonymous said...

"Since kickers are so much better now, it's time they changed the overtime rule. It's an unfair advantage to have it first."

Agreed--each team should get to play offense at least once in the OT.

Not only are the kickers better, but the perfect conditions of the indoor stadium aid the kicker and thus the team that winds the coin toss. It's not a sporting way to end a contest if the other team doesn't get a shot at offense.

RGH said...

We have an almost perfect live laboratory in professional baseball. On one hand we have a large number of Latino players who learned baseball the same way Pedro Gonzales learned tennis - spending every daylight hour playing the game in the sandlot. On the other hand, we have mostly white, suburban kids who learned the game in elite leagues with personal coaches. (I know that in the suburban areas near where I live, any kid who wants to start for his high school varsity team had better be playing ninety games a year and be taking private lessons from the time he is nine years old.) The exceptions are those who simply have stupendous natural ability.

Which group do you think is more effective on the field?

Jeff Lee said...

Racquets today are getting lighter, but not much has changed since graphite was introduced in the late 80's. Today's tennis pros still use heavy, small-profile racquets because power for them isn't everything. (Compare Roger Federer's racquet to Pete Sampras' for example). String technology has also made quite an impact on spin as well. The "kick" on some of Federer's serves would have never been possible 10 years ago.

Still tennis technology is's nothing like what swimsuit technology is doing today to world records and swim meets.

Dave R. said...

In a hyper-competitive field, even a very marginal improvement can be the difference between victory and defeat. That seems to me the most likely explanation for tennis coaching.

But Steve is right: the broad use of chauffering, coaching and helicopter parenting for the most mundane of tasks does call even that into question. Maybe the parents only think they're getting a marginal benefit.

Scrutineer said...


Why do you think the key to improved placekicking has been training rather than the enormous increase in the number of potential placekickers (i.e., soccer refugees)? Wikipedia tells me: "Until the 1980s, most high schools in the U.S. did not offer soccer at all, and youth soccer programs were extremely rare until the 1970s." The available talent pool must have expanded by at least an order of magnitude. I suspect that dwarfs the effect of placekicking camps and kicking tutors.

Who would probably be a better kicker:

1) An average college football player with no soccer background who attends Chris Sailer's placekicking camp for a few summers.

2) An average college soccer player with no placekicking training.

Jeff Lee said...

Apparently, string technology over the past decade has had a bigger impact on tennis than I thought. It's something most spectators can't see because racquets are far more visible.

Scrutineer said...

jody - but i struggle to see how connors and mcenroe would survive roddick, who has the all-time fastest serve, something that is measurable.

Roddick's fastest serve was 155mph. Roscoe Tanner's fastest serve was, supposedly, 153mph (1976).

The Borg generation was better than many people think.

SGOTI said...

"Or like rugby make the kicker kick from really wide angles."

Rugby angles are inherently no wider than in football, and if done right can be dead-on kicks.

Unlike football, there are no hashmarks, so rugby try conversion (or "point after attempts" in football parlance- worth two points) are taken from a line at least ten meters out from the try line (goal line) straight out from point where the ball was forcibly touched down in the try zone (hence the archaic football "touchdown", and not just knocking a pylon).

A penalty kick (3 pts), if electing to "kick for points" can be taken at the point of the infraction or any point directly behind it, so you could technically add distance to reduce the angle.

You can also drop kick (3 ptys.) from anywhere in the field of play during the action. I think Doug Flutie was the last to do that in the NFL for at least 50 years, but it happens a lot in rugby.

Usually Lurking said...

This is a little off-subject, but I always thought that Free Throw percentage in Basketball would increase thoughout the 80's, 90's and 2000's. Yet, if I remember from, the numbers have stagnated. And the percentage is not that great.

My guess would be that the players who are most likely to make it the the NBA are not that likely to be hard-core when it comes to practicing Free Throws.

SGOTI said...

"As a rugby fan who knows nothing about American football I would like to know if the balls have stayed the same over this period (as they haven't in rugby)."

I'd say American footballs (prolate spheroids) have changed much more drastically than rugby balls over the years, having at one time been far more soft and oval, and therefore much more akin to rugby balls of any era, as well as changing length and firmness.

There are also kicking footballs and balls for general play nowadays (in the NFL).

Rugby balls have removed the laces, flattened a bit and standardized the size/weight, but are fundamentally similar (elliptical spheroid) to what they started as back in Webb's day.

Thus endeth the threadjack.

Eric said...

I wonder how much of a factor steroids play in that chart?

That's my question as well. Not only will you get longer successful attempts, but even the medium distance kicks should benefit from greater leg strength. The kicker need only concentrate on accuracy with the posts easily in range of his steroid-infused quadriceps.

Then there's the advantage steroids give you in coming back from injuries. And the amount they can extend your career, which should reduce the number of rookie mistakes overall.

Master Dogen said...

The main reason to worry about kicking a long field goal is that the opponent gets the ball at the spot of the kick if you miss it. If you think you might miss the kick, it's a better idea to punt it deep and try and down it at the five yard line

Anonymous said...

Kai Forbath, the UCLA kicker, won the Lou Groza award last night. During his acceptance remarks he thanked "Coach Sailer."

Anonymous said...

You can probably see similar trends in basketball free throw percentages. Apparently back in 1953 no NCAA team cracked 70% in FT%. Today, the top 101 teams listed on ESPN are all above 70% with a few teams over 80%. I'd expect similar results in the NBA.