El Confidencial Interview

A translation of my interview with Spanish newspaper ‘El Confidencial’ discussing my approach to presenting maths as the solution to everyday problems. The original interview (in Spanish) with Guillermo Cid can be found here.

This teacher knows how to shoot the perfect penalty: “The secret is in the numbers”

Doctor of applied mathematics Tom Crawford has spent years researching and demonstrating how numbers are much more than theory and can be key to our day to day

It is easily seen and is unquestionable. Tom Crawford is not a mathematician, and he knows it perfectly. His image is far and away from those ideas of the typical serious, boring, number-focused expert with squares in all his aspects of life, and it’s not a coincidence. This Englishman, a professor at Oxford University and a doctor from Cambridge University since 2016, is a loose verse in the sector and focuses all his work on proving it . For what? To teach everyone that mathematics is not just theory and paper and that it is present in all aspects of our lives.

With these ideas he has become a famous popularizer in his own country, participating in all kinds of radio programs from stations such as the BBC, and he even has a YouTube channel where he teaches mathematics in a different way. His stage name is Tom Rocks Maths and he is known as ‘the naked mathematician’ because he makes many of his videos without a shirt and even without pants.

This week Crawford is visiting Spain with an event at the Madrid Student Residence where he will talk about one of the aspects that has given him the most success, the relationship between sports and mathematics, and he has been talking with The Confidential on his entire career and, especially, on how the world of sports is intertwined with numbers.

Fan of soccer and of players like N’Golo Kanté or Roberto Firmino, assures that mathematics is leading the human being “to overcome his limits” and that it has been shown that they are a differential point in disciplines such as soccer, but without humans behind it nothing makes sense. “Mathematics is not magic, but a tool that we must know, understand and apply for our benefit.”

Photo: Tom Crawford.

Q: Professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, doctor of applied mathematics, popularizer … Why have you decided to give a talk on the relationship between mathematics and sport?

A: I love doing sports and following it, and I also love math, so I decided to join both fields. My favorite sports are soccer and running, and in those disciplines I focus research and talk. But well , the main thing is that they are very followed and practiced sports and that they have a clear relationship with the world of numbers. Talking about them, it is very easy to demonstrate how ‘mates’ are present in everything and are very relevant to our day to day. It removes the idea that it is only theoretical and that you learn almost by obligation.

Q: Today we have the cases of Eliud Kipchoge or some soccer teams that are clearly committed to technology and science, with mathematics very present, to improve their brands or achieve greater success. Do you think that there will be a limit in which these disciplines can no longer help us and the human being stops breaking records?

A: It is an interesting matter. For example, if we look at the evolution of athletic records in the last 20 years, we see a graph in which there is a constant and very steep drop in marks. Suddenly, in the early 2000s, disciplines such as mathematics began to come into play and the consequence was that records fell at a dizzying rate, also driven by improvements in training, in nutrition, in scientific research, in the professionalization of the industry … That yes, that occurs until a few years ago, and it is that this fall is stopping.

This, in my view, means that we are also reaching a new limit in progression. Come on, it is already difficult to continue breaking current records and you only have to see the case of Kipchoge and the two hours of the marathon. I do not know how far we can continue to improve, although mathematics could end up giving us a prediction, but I do believe that there will be a time when we will not be able to continue breaking more records. I do not know, it is impossible to think that a person can run 42 kilometers in an hour, for example, no matter how much scientific and technological knowledge is used.

Photo: Tom Crawford.

Q: In football we see more and more teams and clubs that invest millions in ‘big data’ and other knowledge to improve their performance, is this key for a team as well as in athletics?

A: Yes, I think that investment in these areas can be key to improve a team, to study new players, to see the performance of the squad … Of course, without the intervention of a good human team this is useless . The thing is not only to have large volumes of data and good analysis programs, you need people who know how to interpret that information and can also analyze it and make decisions about what they find.

For me a perfect example is that of N’Golo Kanté. The player, who is now at Chelsea, arrived at Leicester City who ended up winning the English league from a French second division team. They signed him because he had stealing and intercepting statistics well above the average in his league, so much so that he made Leicester scouts look at him. But then the team employees had to go to see if he really was a good player, if he fulfilled what they were looking for, if he fit into his system and things went well. The data can give you clues or help you find the player that fits for a position, but then you must do a personal analysis and check what you are looking for. It is not something magical or perfect.

Another good example that demonstrates this is Roberto Firmino. He is a perfect player for the Liverpool system but that was not seen with the data, let’s say, more often like goals or assists, but with other types of records that are more covered but are very important. Who says what data we should look at is a human being who then uses mathematical tools to find just what he is looking for.

Q: In Spain now the use of ‘big data’ has become very fashionable in the sports environment, can a bubble be generated around all this following the case of ‘Moneyball’?

A: Obviously there is a danger and that is that without the correct human vision, without an analysis that makes sense of data and numbers and knows how to analyze them correctly, databases are only millions of numbers. You need a correct interpretation to give value to what you do, otherwise they are useless.

This type of knowledge is not something magical or perfect. They are super useful tools but without a human team that decides what information is important or how we should look at them, the investment will be useless.

N'golo Kante's is one of the cases that Crawford uses as an example.  (Reuters)
N’golo Kante’s is one of the cases that Crawford uses as an example. (Reuters)

Q: One of your most famous sports-related research talks about shooting the perfect penalty. How does mathematics say that you have to shoot that penalty?

A: Yes, the answer is in the numbers. Obviously there is no place that ensures 100% success, but there are two points in the goal that offer you up to 80%. Where are those points? Well, in the corners, as long as the goalkeeper is in the center of the goal.

Studying the speed of the shots and the capacity of the professional goalkeepers, it can be said that the goalkeeper has half a second to react and move from the moment the player shoots until the ball enters the goal. In that time the goalkeeper can move in an arc that does not occupy the entire goal but leaves the sides and especially the corners free, since it is impossible to physically get there from the center.

You have all that leftover area to mark with great security, but the most interesting thing for me is that if we create a circle between the corner that forms the squad and the semicircle that the goalkeeper can reach, we have the perfect point to shoot drawn on the center of that circle. A point as far from the goalkeeper as from the post as from the crossbar. If you are able to shoot at that point you will have thrown a perfect penalty. I think the measurements are something like 1.7 meters high and 0.65 meters measuring from the stick to the inside. Obviously nothing tells you to score because the goalkeeper can move or guess your intentions, but it is the safest place to score.

Q: Math is usually thought of as boring and difficult, and you try to turn this thinking around with this type of research and topic. Do you think that the idea about mathematics can change with these actions?

A: I think there is still a lot to do. It’s not so much that you don’t know what math is but that people don’t understand or are afraid of math. When you are with friends, you don’t hear anyone say let’s not talk about history because I don’t understand history, but you do hear about mathematics. That is what has to change. It can’t be cool to say that you don’t understand math or don’t like math.

But the worst thing is that many do not believe that mathematics is useful and relevant for life. They believe that everything is theory that stays in class and on paper, and that’s why I decided to change this idea by relating this knowledge to real life. Sport is a great example. People are closely related to sports, and even more so to soccer. If you can show people how numbers are being used or can be used in these fields, the message will come much more than simply talking about formulas or theories. Without going any further, we have already discussed the penalty case.

Q: And does ‘Mathematicians naked’ follow this idea?

A: Yes, well, normally people think mathematics is serious and boring, and almost by accident I thought that taking off my shirt and giving a different image could attract users. I created a YouTube channel to teach math and discovered that many people entered when they saw that there was a guy without a shirt in front of the camera. That was not the initial idea but this is how I have managed to get many people who are not related to mathematics to enter this world.

Many people remember math with bad experiences in class, exams and so on and my videos try to change this and leave at least one good experience to at least lose the fear of math and users see that not only are they not scary but they are very important to your life. In addition, in the videos they see that I have tattoos related to formulas and others and that in itself gives you an idea of ​​something positive, ‘cool’.

Q: In Spain we have a paradox with mathematics because while many students do not like them, they have the highest grade to enter university because they have many job opportunities. Do you think that the ‘boom’ in mathematics in the workplace is good for people to get to know this world better?

A: As a mathematician, I think the more mathematicians there are, the better for everyone. There are many sectors where they are needed and the people who make this career are usually graduates who face problems very well, know how to find solutions and have the ability to analyze all kinds of situations. That is why I think that a ‘boom’ in this sector is good for all of society, but I understand that there may be a double reading for this.

If a lot of people get into a race just for work, they will end up being unhappy and have no passion to do their daily work. If the only motivation that leads you to study a career and dedicate yourself to a profession is that there is work, it is very likely that the bad days with cold, with a lot of work, with personal problems or little desire to work end up leaving everything.

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