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Predicting Potential is Messy

Track and field is the most objective and straightforward sport there is: did you run faster than the other person or not? When it came to recruiting high school runners when I was a college coach, it should have been pretty straightforward: choose the fastest people.

But that’s not how it works. You aren’t rewarding athletes, you are predicting potential. And potential is messy.

You quickly learn to judge a kid who ran a 4:15 mile in California as different than Texas or Maine. The former often provides numerous opportunities for perfect weather, while the latter often means fewer opportunities thanks to humidity or snow. As a coach, you start making adjustments. Did they play multiple sports and only train a little? If so, that 1:53 800m seems a lot more impressive than the kid who ran a bit faster but came from a top program, had a private coach, and has specialized in running since the age of nine. You make these sorts of minor adjustments on just about everything: from training to school culture to the quality of someone’s teammates.

But also true is this: it’s not as simple as taking the kid who ran slightly slower but barely trained and came from the middle of nowhere. With the undertrained, big potential kid, sure, there could be more room for growth. But you also don’t know if they can handle the big step up in training. Or maybe that small town kid with big potential won’t be able to handle being the ninth best runner on the team instead of the first.

Even in the simplest and most objective sport, context matters.

Predicting potential is hard. And people mess it up all the time.

Just look to professional sports. The NFL essentially gets to watch sport-specific film from four years. They also get to poke and prod at an athlete’s physical and mental capabilities. And yet, NFL teams still mess up predicting who will thrive and who will fail all the time. Just look at the number of draft busts every year.

That doesn’t mean we get to throw our hands up and say it’s all random. The 6-minute miler at 18 isn’t likely to become a 4-minute miler at 22. The odds are against them. But when the applicants for a job or school are within the same general ballpark, a lot of who succeeds or fails is up to a bit of luck or measures that we just don’t have or understand.

As the old saying goes, just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it matters; and you can’t always measure what matters.

I can’t help but think about this in relation to the current conversations going on around college admissions. We have some schools eliminating or minimizing standardized test scores, and others discussing different acceptance rates based on gender, race, or socioeconomic status. In a perfect world, it would make sense to simply accept those who score the highest or do the best. But in the real world, a pure meritocracy-based system isn’t reality. Especially when the tests themselves are imperfect and not representative of what underlies a productive and contributing member of society.

Just like in athletics, academic institutions are trying to predict potential. Can you thrive at our university? And just like in athletics, it seems straightforward at first— are your grades and test scores better?—but in actuality, it’s extremely messy.

I can’t help but put my track coach hat on. It was really easy to fool yourself into thinking you had cracked the code, found the key attributes that allowed you to identify who was going to thrive. Until, a year or two later, reality smacked you in the face, and you realize that luck plays a much larger role than we like to give it credit for.

This doesn’t mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater and say to hell with it all. But it does mean that it’s wise to adopt a posture of humility and uncertainty versus arrogance and certainty, especially in this realm.


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