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The Age of Sailer: A Quantitative Analysis
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December 09, 2009, 05:20 PM
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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 Pro-Football-Reference.com:

FG Made % Chg Missed % Chg
1958 46.9% 53.1%
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.