In the United States, there has been a lot of serious academic research - and some not so serious - into the curious phenomenon of the Hot Hand. In all sports, there are moments when an individual player or whole team suddenly gets hot, and starts performing way beyond expectations. When this happens, the player or team seems to acquire an aura of self-assurance that transmits itself to supporters, fuelling a strong conviction that things are going to turn out for the best. This sense of conviction then reinforces the confidence of the players in their own abilities, appearing to create for a while a virtuous circle of infallibility in which nothing can, and therefore nothing does, go wrong. The quintessential instance of the Hot Hand (which gives the phenomenon its name) occurs in basketball, where certain players suddenly and inexplicably acquire the ability to nail three-point baskets one after another (in basketball you get three points for any basket scored from a distance of over 23'9'', a formidably difficult feat which means even the best players miss more often than they score). When a player gets the Hot Hand, his or her team-mates know to give them the ball and let fate take its course. Anyone who has watched a game in which a player acquires this gift will recognise the feeling of predestination that descends on all concerned: players, spectators, commentators (above all, commentators) just know what is going to happen each time the Hot One lines up a basket from some improbable position on the court. He shoots! He scores!
LRB 5 January 2006 | PDF Download