What’s wrong with having a hobby?

Finland, media and social media alike, has been buzzing the past days about an article by Urheilusanomat regarding the lack of exercise (or physical activity) by kids in Finland. Urheilusanomat got a preview on Liitu, a study about the exercise habits and levels of Finnish school kids, and the results were shocking. Check these out: (all info from the article)

– in a study covering 14 kindergartens, none of the 3-years old kids fulfilled the recommended level of activity. The recommendation? A whopping 1 hour per day of moderately taxing physical activity. That’s like, one hour of running around playing tag!

– in schools, aged 7-16, 1 out of 5 fulfills the recommendation of minimum of 1 hour per day of physical activity. And the trend is very much downward-sloping: for 5th graders 1/3 meet the criteria, 1/5 of 7th graders, and mere 1/10 of 9th graders.

– on the other hand, out of the same group, 95% spend more than recommended on “screen time”. That is, in front of the TV, computer, tablet and phone. (Disclaimer: I don’t know if time spend in front of a screen doing school related things is included or not, which is fairly relevant given how schools are more and more moving away from traditional books and towards multimedia.) Oh, and the recommendation: 2 hours per day everyday.

Why is this, then? Why aren’t the kids more active? 59% said it’s because they “can’t be bothered to go”. Other often-quoted reasons were lack of instruction, lack of time, and other hobbies.

I started thinking about this, and in the following I’m going to do something that I absolutely hate when discussing social issues. I’m going to tell you about me.

Personally, I’ve always liked the way sports and other hobbies have been kept separate of schools in Finland, as opposed to, for example, the American model. Why? Because that way one’s social circle isn’t limited to one thing: school. I had my school friends, the group I hung out with at school and often after school, too. But I also had my figure skating friends, and later my cheerleading friends. I knew that my friend T from school had her horse riding friends outside of school circles. K had football friends. L had violin lessons and friends in the music school in addition to us at school. Your friendships at school weren’t defined by your hobby.

And I liked that! Maybe more so because having grown up in the Helsinki metropolitan area I had pretty much the best opportunities to have different hobbies, as far as availability and access go. I was privileged by the simple fact that I live in a large city. But still, school was about school. And hanging out with friends. Not about what else I liked doing.

But the way sports were done in sports clubs also created its own set of problems. Clubs are focused on competing and on finding new talents. I was good enough in figure skating to be moved forward in the synchronized skating program (I preferred the team setting, more friends to hang out with). By the time I was 14 or so, I was practicing 6 times a week. Weekdays, weekends, after school, before school, sometimes even during school, like when I spent PE practicing the steps for our short program while everyone else was learning to skate backwards.

However, my focus at that time was in school work. I wanted to get into a good high school, and then go to university. Synchronized skating was never going to be my life ambition, it was something I did because it was fun. At 6 practice sessions in a week it wasn’t fun anymore.

So I quit.

At that time I was so done with the sport that I didn’t touch my skates for years.

In a 2012 study of 14-15 years old athletes the most important reason for doing sports was having fun and enjoying the sport, according to Outi Aarresola of KIHU (a Finnish research center for sports). In the Liitu study of 11-15 year old kids 28% had quit a club, and 64% of those kids would love to continue if possible. 85% said the reason for quitting was tiring of the sport.

I would have loved to continue. Not at the point where I finally decided to quit, at that point it was too late. Like the 85%, I was too done with it all. But had I, year or so earlier, had the opportunity to say “I can do once or twice a week, but no more” I would have kept on skating. I loved it! I still do! There’s no feeling comparable to the blade biting into the ice. And that moment when you hit the perfect glide where it almost feels like you’re flying on the ice? Magical. It’s a really nice feeling. I would have loved to keep on skating. Just not 6 times a week!

At that point, doing sports was such an integral part of my life, however, that I looked for something else to do. I had been doing some sort of physical activity since I was 4. It started at gym for kids, then at the age of 6 I picked up ballet. I loved it, and I was so proud when at 8 (which is the age limit) I already had the required two years of ballet under my belt and I could get the pointe shoes. I felt like a real ballerina! Slowly my focus shifted to skating.

So when I quit, I was already in the habit of doing something active regularly, an important determinant in how active you’re likely to be for the rest of your life. I picked up cheerleading, first competitive, then at sports games (yes, with the Helsinki IFK. I refuse to apologize for my love of them because, really, it’s just good taste.) where the time commitment was more reasonable.

After the less-than-athletic years of university life, almost three years ago I found myself graving for that activity that doing sports brings. Carrying on my tradition of only doing sports where you get to wear skirts, I chose tennis. And so for almost three years now I have, once a week and under the compassionate guidance of a professional coach, hit the ball into my own face. (Okay, I’ve only done that twice. And once I hit myself in the leg with my racket while serving. And one time I tripped over my own racket. The way I play, even tennis is a contact sport.)

That’s what we need to offer the kids. Not the tennis ball to the face because that actually hurts, but an opportunity to play a sport, be active, without the push towards competitive career. I understand that while this is doable in something like tennis, in team sports it is not so easy. We’d basically need two parallel structures. That’s where the schools could step up to the plate. Let the kids who just want to play basketball for fun play at school, maybe even against other schools, and then let those who want to do it more seriously play with the sports clubs. Let’s find a way kids can just play and have fun. Where they don’t have to be the best, or compete viciously against one another. Where the commitment is enough at once or twice a week. Where you don’t have to do sports, but you just get to play. As a hobby.

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May the odds be in your favor

Or the story about the Finnish hockey league play-off odds. (And how one of these days I’ll actually have to read and/or watch The Hunger Games, considering how much I quote them.)

The play-offs are in full swing in Finland, at least if by “full swing” one means the extra “pity play-off” round went as it was supposed to go given the regular season standings, and the next round starts today.

I’ve posted earlier about the play-off probabilities in general, but this time I decided to focus on something slightly different. I though I’d calculate the odds of each match-up, simplifying heavily by considering the regular season win percentages as a proxy for team quality, but by considering home and away win percentages separately. There are two reasons for this:

1) Home advantage is an actual thing. It has been shown to exist in studies, and can be tracked down to small, yet significant, rules favoring the home team. Plus the “intangibles”, such as fan encouragement, and/or the pressure to play well because your mom is watching.

2) The teams in the Finnish league have very different win percentages when broken down to home and away games.

Taking a closer look at this, the win percentage is simply games won over games played. Contrary to the Finnish league’s (and all other leagues’ for that matter, and this is a whole other issue in and of itself) I treated each win as equal, regardless of whether it took place in regular game time or in overtime or shoot-out. A win is a win.

This revealed some rather disturbing issues. For example for Blues, a team that finished fifth in regular season and now faces JYP in the play-offs. Blues won 36 games in regular season. JYP, the team that will have home advantage in the play-off series, won 33 games. In fact, the only team that won more games than Blues, was Kärpät, the team that won the regular season! So now we have a team with win percentage of 60% playing a team with 55% win percentage, and the weaker team starts at home.

win percentages home and away

Once the win percentages are calculated separately for home and away games, the figures prompt some interesting questions. Like stated above, the home advantage is a real thing, largely because of the several points in the rules advantageous to the home team, for example the right to put players on the ice last, and thus making it easier to play specific players against other teams top players. And true to form, the teams making the play-offs had higher win percentages at home than away, except for SaiPa (8th in regular season) who played the same regardless of the arena.

Since the rules are the same for all home teams, one could argue that the differences in home win versus away wins changes according to the non-rules related variables, such as home crowd input (the players often mention an active home crowd is “the extra player on ice” giving them an advantage, and even yours truly isn’t quite cynical enough to think that is simply lip-service to sell tickets) or unintentional bias by the referees in favor of the home team, often credited to a pressure from active crowd.

While the above would feel intuitively pleasing, and is supported by the large differences in the win percentages of famously active and attentive home audience at Kärpät and HIFK games (for Kärpät, the home w% is 76,67 and away w% 56,67, whereas for HIFK they are 66,67% and 43,33% respectively), the theory fails for Blues. Displaying some of the weakest attendance figures in the league, Blues is really rocking it on home ice: their win percentage at home is 76,67%, better than all other teams’ except for Kärpät with whom they tie. When away, however, they tie for the second-to-last place with JYP and HIFK with 43,33%.

Another team that needs to up their away game is KalPa. Second-highest home win percentage (behind only of Kärpät and Blues) of 70% is brought down to a mere 55% overall, when you only win 40% of your away games. That’s the weakest of the Top 8 -teams.

What this means in terms of the play-off match-ups, then?

First I used only the over-all win percentage as a measure of team strength, that is, ignored the home team advantage, and calculated the odds of each team winning their respective best-out-of-seven series. Kärpät-SaiPa series would go to Kärpät with a probability of 51,42%. Tappara would defend their higher-ranking regular season finish, winning the series against HIFK with 50,71% probability. Lukko-KalPa would end up with a surprise victory by KalPa, at least with the likelihood of 51%. And with a probability of 51,46% visiting team Blues would continue to win more games than JYP.

But, since the home ice did seem to influence rather largely to the teams’ win percentage (unless you’re SaiPa), what are the odds of the home-starting teams taking the series? Unlike in the NHL where the team finishing higher in regular season hosts the first two games and then visits for two after which they alternate if needed, in Finland the home team changes after every game. Still, in a full 7-game series that gives 4 home games to the team with higher rank, as opposed to three.

In the first two pairings, regular season winner Kärpät playing SaiPa and second-placer Tappara playing HIFK, the home team (the team starting home) simply increases their odds of winning. Kärpät takes the series with a probability of 62,51% and Tappara with 56,57%. The difference in team strengths is considerable enough, that even if we turn things around and pretend the weaker team gets to start at home (SaiPa and HIFK, respectively), Kärpät would still win with probability of 60,24% and Tappara with 51,86%.

With the Lukko-KalPa match-up the odds are in Lukko’s favor as long as they get to start at home (which they do). The home advantage means they have a 51,44% chance of making it to the next round, whereas if the teams started on the KalPa home ice, KalPa would take the series with the probability of 54,5%. Remember that with the aggregate win percentages the series would also go to KalPa (51%). That’s because KalPa has a higher win percentage than Lukko, 55% to Lukko’s 51,67%, due to actually winning more games in the regular season.

With home advantage, JYP with over-all win percentage of 55% clinches the series with probability of 50,28%. If they started at Espoo, Blues’ solid performance at home would bring them the series with a probability of 57,64%. As stated above, with aggregate win percentages Blues (with 60% win percentage) would win the series with a probability of 51,46%. So really, the odds are in Lukko and JYP’s favor simply because of the home advantage they got due to the way wins in regular time versus overtime are valued in the league.

What’s going to happen, then?

Well I can say for certain that the following will happen: either the team starting at home or the team starting away will win. It’s the play-offs. Best out of seven games. Anything can happen. The odds above are not a prediction, they are simply what it says on the tin: probabilities of winning the best-out-of-seven series, given regular season win percentages. It doesn’t take into account team-versus-team performance, or game plans, or who’s injured, or who’s having a bad day, or which team’s got their groove on. All of which will play a role in a play-off series.

But the above does tell us something: if we assume the point in hockey is to win games, and thus the team that wins more games is better than the team that wins less games, we are not rewarding the best teams of the regular season with home advantage in the play-offs.

We’re actually leveling the playing field.