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How giving 110% is actually possible

Quantitative pedants always wince whenever anyone โ€” usually an athlete โ€” rattles off a phrase like “we gave 110% out there tonight.”

“It’s impossible to give more than 100%,” they’ll say. “That’s what ‘percent’ means.”

But of course percentages greater than 100 are possible. That’s how Google’s Android Market can grow by 861.5% in year-over-year revenue, just to pick one example.

It all depends on what your baseline is โ€” x percent of what. But it’s usually easier for tongue-clicking know-it-alls to just assume athletes are dumb than to try to actually figure out what it is they might be talking about.

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske has a new paper in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports titled “Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort” that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the context of the NBA.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say “100%” is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%. But it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, NBA players pull greater-than-100-percent off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. And giving greater than 100% can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left.

I haven’t dived into the paper (it’s behind a subscription wall, natch), but doesn’t this seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use language this way? Shouldn’t we all calm down a little with rulers across the fingers, offering our ready-made “correct” use of the rhetoric of percentages?

(Via @pkedrosky.)