Interns and the NFL: Risk-Taking For The Win?

By Pam Baker posted 06-26-2018 08:05


My twin daughters have been on the same sports team for years now (after all, it’s easier for us to manage…), but this year one of them asked to be on a different softball team. That led to the inevitable evening when their teams were playing each other, which made me conscious of sitting EXACTLY behind home plate. Had there been a Swiss flag available, I would have worn it. 

One of them realized early that with the variability of pitcher skills in the league, she could get up to bat, not swing, and get walked pretty often. She could then steal bases and get a run a reasonable amount of the time. The other one would get up to bat, swing hard, and typically strike out. The aftermath wasn’t pretty but the consistent strikeouts did focus her at practice, as she was determined to get a hit. 

Insights From the NFL on the Effect of Risk on Decision Making 

With the NFL back in the news, my daughters’ disparate approaches to at-bats reminded me of some fascinating research on decision making in high risk situations using decisions made during NFL games. It found that overwhelmingly, when given the chance to win the game or tie it, teams would choose the latter.    

Specifically, they found that in the waning minutes of games when teams faced the choice of kicking the extra point (1 point) or going for the tougher 2-point conversion, they went for 1 point 89 percent of the time. But this strategy resulted in a win only 40 percent of the time, despite the fact that the average rate of successful 2-point conversions is 50 percent. Let’s be clear—there is no lack of number crunching on the sidelines of a football game—so clearly this decision is about more than data, it’s about risk perception.  

And it’s not limited to the NFL. The researchers also looked at the NBA and saw the same trend. This data offers some thought-provoking insights, including some follow-on research that they did outside of professional sports and found that “the same decision was thought to be riskier when it was seen as optional than when it was seen as unavoidable”.

 The Implications for Interns? 

Having hired and managed many interns over the years, I can attest to the fact that it’s tempting for them to keep their heads down, do good work, hope to get recognized, and pull in a full-time offer. I can equally say that the person who offered constructive criticism on our planned approach to a training roll-out, together with some thoughts about how to improve it, stands out despite the years that have passed since we worked together. I’d hire her again in a heartbeat. 

She took a risk: No one asked for her opinion. She calculated the personalities she was dealing with and how her thinking was likely to land. She knew straight criticism was unlikely to be appreciated but thoughtful hole-poking with some proposed alternatives would lead to a productive discussion. It certainly did—along with elevating the entire team’s impression of her. But by proactively offering her unsolicited suggestions, it could equally have gone differently. 

As students kick off their summer jobs and internships, they’ve got a limited opportunity to make impact. While cavalier risk taking isn’t the answer, taking calculated risks to stand out and make impact can be. In the words of the authors, “Good judgment, in sports and elsewhere, sometimes requires the presence of mind to take the risk of an immediate setback to achieve lasting success.” 

And my daughters? The one who rarely swung ended up batting against more and more talented pitchers as the season progressed, so walks became less frequent and her at-bats (and subsequent return to the bench) significantly quicker. Our daughter who struck out during the first few games asked for extra help at practice and at home and by continuing to swing and risk the strike out, she ended up with three hits in a row over two games. Their different experiences reminded me of the age-old adage, “You’ll miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” At work and far beyond.