Friday, July 30, 2010

Know Thy Opponent

Quick question: How many of you keep notes on your opponents? I mean, actual no-kidding written notes that are reasonably detailed? I'm guessing most of you haven't even considered it. If so, you're missing out on what could be a huge advantage. You probably run into the same players on a fairly regular basis in local league and tournament play, right?

Pro athletes in several sport disciplines have access to and take full advantage of extensive notes about their opponents. Granted, in those arenas the notes are likely compiled by someone else - a coach or other designated person. You can bet that every serious football team knows the tendencies of their opposing teams in various situations - what play they're likely to run, who will most likely carry the ball, who will most likely get a pass thrown to them, what defense they'll line up with in a given situation, and so on. This is common even at the high school level and lower. In baseball, particularly pro baseball, a batter likely has access to the entire history of pitches thrown to him by any given pitcher. The history is done in agonizing detail... pitch-by-pitch; the type of pitch, the speed, position in the strike zone (or out of the zone), and ultimate result of each at bat.

Why is this done? For competitive advantage, of course. Knowing the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of your opponent will undoubtedly give you an advantage if you're able to exploit them. Would you play a particular person differently if you knew that they weren't very good at kick shots or bank shots for example? Would you approach safeties or push outs against a given opponent if you knew they had an effective jump shot? Of course you would. Would you rack the first 9-ball rack differently if you already knew your opponent tended to break from the left side? Yep.

About a month ago, I was talking casually to a strong player between matches at a tournament. He pointed to a woman across the room and asked if I had ever played her, and I replied that I had seen her play but hadn't actually played against her yet. He then told me that he had a league match against her a couple nights prior and that she was a fairly strong player... but a couple of games into the match he discovered that she was uncharacteristically weak at bank shots (given her skill level) and he used that knowledge to beat her. As luck would have it, I found myself matched up against her in a tournament less than a week later - and that same nugget of information helped me beat her as well!

That was the 'tipping point' for me. I realized how valuable such information would be if I kept track of it in an organized manner rather than trying to rely on memory. Although I see the same players on a fairly regular basis around Las Vegas, I typically won't play most of them more often than once a month or at least every few weeks due to normal rotation. Consequently, I didn't really remember useful details. Sure, I might remember the basics such as whether I beat them or whether they're a strong player or whatever. But useful details that I could exploit? Nope. Poof, gone from memory. So now I'm writing them down and you should too. The more info the better. The date, the time, the occasion, your skill level and their skill level at the time, the outcome of the match (actual score, number of innings, number of defensive shots, etc, etc) as well as any perceived strengths and weaknesses. Do they have a strong break? Where do they break from? Do they avoid side pockets more than they should? Do they tend to get rattled if they're behind? If you think it might be useful, write it down. Even if you don't, and it's a legitimate data point, write it down anyway because trends are important and you might discover something important about those data points down the road.

Keep the notes in a format and medium that makes sense to you. A small notepad might work, for example. I use my smart phone (an iPhone). If you feel really ambitious, it doesn't hurt to keep notes on other players you watch as well even if you aren't playing them... because you might play them at some point in the future.

The important thing is to get started. Make it a habit, and it'll become second nature before you know it.

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