How do repechages work in Olympic rowing?

Dear Sports Fan,

I have become an Olympic junkie this year. I watch it all, from volleyball to table tennis to swimming! I have a question about rowing. I was watching a race and some of the boats qualified for the semi finals and some for something called a repechage. What is a repechage and how do repechages work in Olympic rowing?


Dear Marcella,

How cool that you’re enjoying the Olympics this year. A repechage is certainly a rare thing in sports. I wondered about it as well. It comes from the French verb, “repêch” which means literally to “fish up again.” Idiomatically, it means “to get a second chance.” In the context of rowing, a repechage is a race that gives athletes a second chance to advance to the next round in their event.

The way a repechage works in rowing depends on how many boats are racing in that event. In smaller events, the top two or three boats from each heat (the first race in an event) qualify for the semifinals. The rest of the boats get one more chance to qualify for the finals by placing in the top two or three of a repechage against other boats who did not qualify. In larger races, the repechage may sit between the initial heats and a semifinal race. In addition to rowing, Olympic track cycling has repechage races in the sprint and keirin events.

Do repechages make sporting events more or less fair? You could argue both positions. On one hand, having a repechage means that a single mistake can’t eliminate a team. If a great team has a terrible day, they can come back, win the repechage, or at least do well in it, and still make the finals or semifinals. On the other hand, the use of a repechage may make the semifinals or finals less even. Setting aside the fact, for a moment, that teams that lose an early race tend to be worse, on average, than teams that win an early race, the repechage still presents a problem for competition. By the time the finals come around, a team that had to go through a repechage has suffered through at least one more race than athletes who won their first race. This effect of a format isn’t unheard of — some American football teams get a “bye” going into the playoffs, meaning they play one fewer game than their opponents — but in a competition with a compressed schedule, like the Olympics, this can really tilt things. Now you have athletes who could not win their first race and who are now more fatigued than their opponents, going up against them in a final or semifinal. It’s a rare feat to come back from a repechage and win a medal!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does third and long mean in football? How does it happen?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m learning a lot! I understand the downs to an extent but my question is, what does it mean when it’s 3rd and long or 3rd and 18? Does it mean that on 3rd down the offense has to cover over 10 yards? Does 3rd and 18 means that they didn’t pick up 8 yards on 2nd down so now the 8 yards are added to the 10 yards on 3rd down?


Dear Susette,

I’m so happy that you are enjoying and benefitting from our Football 101 email course. Thanks for sending me this question. You’ve definitely picked up the basics about down and distance which is covered in the article that first appeared on this website under the title, “What’s a down in football? I’ve been pretending to know but I don’t!” As a quick review for people who may be seeing this article without having read that one, the football team on offense has four chances to move the ball ten yards. If they can meet that geographic goal, they earn another set of four chances with a new ten yard target. The four chances are called downs, with first down being the first of the four chances, second being the second, and fourth being the last. The number expressed after the down, is the number of yards remaining to meet that original ten yard target. In most cases, as a team works on offense, that number will go down. For instance, a team that runs the ball three yards on first down only needs to move seven more yards to earn themselves another first down with a new target. This would be expressed as 1st and 10 followed by a three yard run followed by 2nd and 7. The scenario which intrigued you is what happens when the distance number goes up instead of down. How did that happen? What does it mean?

When you see a distance number that is greater than 10, the one thing you can be sure of is that something bad happened for the offense. The two categories of bad things that account for this are penalties and negative plays. If you missed the play that caused the offense to be put in its bad situation, you may not be able to tell which of the two categories it was. If you had to guess, one guide would be the number of yards to go. Because penalties are usually assessed in five yard increments, if the distance is a number divisible by five, it was probably due to a penalty.

A negative play is one that resulted in an offensive player being tackled or running out-of-bounds with the ball behind the line of scrimmage where the play started. It seems strange at first to think that an offense would ever put itself in a position to suffer such an outcome, but it’s actually quite common. For example, almost every time a quarterback takes the ball from the center, he either retreats backwards a few yards or is already positioned four or five yards behind the line of scrimmage. This distance gives him a short time (sometimes only a second or two) to survey the field and decide where to throw it. Sometimes, the defense gets to the quarterback before he can decide and tackles him. This is called a sack. The offense would have to start the next play from the location where the quarterback was tackled, behind the original line of scrimmage. If the first play was a 2nd and 10, the next one might be a 3rd and 14 if the quarterback was tackled four yards behind the original line of scrimmage. The same logic holds for plays where a running back or wide receiver is tackled behind where the ball originally started.

A penalty is another explanation for why an offense might move backward. Most offensive penalties make that down not count. Most penalties offensive penalties supersede whatever the result of the play was and force that down to be replayed. This is why you sometimes see a team “decline” a penalty. This is a decision the team that the foul was called in favor of might make if the result of the play was more favorable to them than the penalty would be. A penalty on first and 10 could result in a first and 15, 20, or even 25 depending on the infraction.

While it’s impossible to say exactly what lead to a team having a 3rd and 18, my guess is that it resulted from a 10 yard penalty on a play that was run from 3rd and 8. Eight yards seems like too far to be the result of a common negative play, and a 3rd and 8 is not an uncommon situation. Third and “long” is just an expression. It doesn’t really have an exact meaning, but I would say that anything over seven yards could be considered “long.” Certainly anything over ten yards — which you now know to be the result of a penalty or negative play — would be considered “long.”

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer



What is an audible in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is an audible in football?


Dear Ruben,

One of the things that separates football from most other sports is the degree to which its coaches control the action. Football stops and starts all the time, and each time it does, coaches on both sides have the opportunity to tell their players what to do. In the NFL, coaches are actually able to talk between plays through a microphone to one offensive player on their team and one defensive player. These players are identified by having a small green dot on their helmets. These messages from the coaches to their players are simple codes that refer to plays which the players have learned in practice. Each one is complex enough to tell each of the eleven players on offense or defense what to do during the upcoming play. All of this happens quickly, in ten to fifteen seconds, and then the two teams run to the line of scrimmage and set up opposite each other. Here’s where things get interesting and where the audibles come into play.

Once the two teams set up to run their plays, as pre-determined by their coaches, a new and vast array of information is available. The offense can see where the defense has lined up. The defense may be able to guess what the offense is going to do. The problem for football coaches is, at this point, they are no longer able to talk to anyone on the field. Some coaches, usually in college football, get around this by having their players set up, pause, and then look to the sidelines where the coach will be signaling a new play to them through some large visual code that is easily understood by them but complex enough to mean nothing to their opponents. Most coaches, especially at the professional level, simply trust a player on the field to decide whether to change the play or go with the original one. If a player on the field (always the quarterback on offense and often a linebacker on defense) decides to go with a new play, that play and the process of deciding to change the original call and communicate that decision is called an audible.

One common example of an audible that television commentators often talk about looks at the number of defensive players “in the box” or set up to defend a run. If there are a lot of defensive players “in the box” and the original play was a run, the quarterback may decide to audible to a pass play. If there are only a few and the original play was a pass, the quarterback may audible to a run. Usually the relevant numbers are five and eight. Five men in the box is an open invitation to run the ball. Eight players guarding the run is a tempting situation to audible to a pass play.

As you may have guessed from the word, audible, which also means something you can hear, the change to the original play call is usually accomplished by SHOUTING! The quarterback on offense or the designated player on defense will scream a new instruction to their teammates. This instruction, like the original play call, will be in code so the other team can’t figure out what it is. Screaming is the easiest way to perform an audible but it’s not always possible. Football crowds are wise to the advantages easy audibling gives an offense, so when the opposing team’s offense is on the field, especially during important third downs or at the end of games, the crowd will scream as loud as they can to make audible audibles impossible. When this happens, a team will revert to hand signals to communicate. Audibles are still possible but the chance of miscommunication is greater.

One amusing element of audibles is that quarterbacks will often scream fake audibles just to make the defense wonder whether the quarterback has seen something nifty and is changing the play to take advantage of it. This adds some of the chatter we often hear from quarterbacks, like Peyton Manning’s famous “OMAHA!” What’s a real audible call one game or series may be a fake one the next. If all this sounds confusing, it is! It’s just one of the small things that makes playing football such an intellectually as well as physically challenging feat. You can understand how football players might want to pause the game and just ask whether an audible is real or not. They don’t do that though, at least… almost never. A microphone at a recent NFL football game caught a Carolina Panther asking quarterback Cam Newton if the audible, “Even Janitor” was a real thing. This is what it sounded like:

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is a squib kick in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching football this weekend and I thought I heard one of the announcers say something about a “squid kick.” Turns out, it was a “squib,” not squid. What is a squib kick in football?


Dear Samantha,

Oh, I really wish there was something in football called a squid kick! What would the squid kick be? Maybe one that utilized a formation with a few people close together and then a bunch of people trailing behind them? Alas, what you did hear was squib kick. A squib kick is kickoff play in which the kicking team intentionally kicks the ball close to the ground and about half as far as they normally would on a kickoff.

The primary reason for using a squib kick is that it limits the likely range of outcomes from the play. On a normal kickoff, the returning team will get the ball close to or in their own end-zone. If the player who gets the ball tries to return the kick, he usually has about five to ten yards of space before the players on the kicking team who are “covering” the kick are able to reach him. This gives him some time to pick up speed, choose a direction to run in, and have his teammates set up to block for him. If everything goes well, he’s able to weave his way between all the players trying to tackle him and sprint down the field for a touchdown. More often, he gets brought down between the 15 and 25 yard line. Sometimes, trying to return a kickoff is a terrible idea and the return man gets tackled right near his own end zone. The range of outcomes from a normal kickoff is quite big. A squib kick shrinks this range. The ball doesn’t go so far down the field, and instead of flying through the air in a nice, easy to catch arc, it bounces around of the ground. This means that by the time someone on the receiving team corrals the ball, they’ve got little to no time and space to try to return it. They usually get tackled almost as soon as they touch the ball. As a bonus, since the best returners are set up at the back of the receiving team’s formation, the player who catches a squib kick is usually bigger, slower, and less used to returning kicks. The downside is that the ball doesn’t go as far, so the receiving team cannot be tackled close to their own goal-line. But they’re also very unlikely to return the kick for a touchdown.

The word squib comes from the world of explosives. In explosive terms, a squib is a device that resembles dynamite but packs a much smaller punch. It’s been used for controlled explosions in mining, film stunts, and even devices like automobile air bags. The difference between a squib and a dud is that a squib’s meekness is intentional. You can understand how this meaning came over to football. The squib kick is not as strong and doesn’t travel as far as a regular kickoff.

There are two main situations when teams will use a squib kick. The first is situational – if the kicking team is winning and would only really be threatened by a return touchdown, they may choose to use the squib in order to reduce the likelihood of that happening. The second is based on personnel – if the returning team has a supremely good kick returner, the risk of having the return any kick for a touchdown may not be worth the opportunity to trap them close to their own end zone. In this case, a team may squib every kickoff during a game.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What are some hurling vocabulary words I should know?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m going to my first hurling match tomorrow at Fenway park and I want to sound like I know what I’m talking about, even if I have no idea. What are some hurling vocabulary words I should know?


Dear Chester,

In my last post about hurling, I tried to explain how the sport worked, but I didn’t get into vocabulary at all. I just called the stick a stick and the ball a ball and so on. My goal was to arm you (and me) to understand the basics of the sport so we could enjoy watching it in person more. If we really want to sound knowledgeable though, you’re right, we need to learn the lingo. So, here’s a list of words to learn:

  • Camogie – this is to hurling as competitive softball in the United States is to baseball. It is the women’s version of hurling, which has its own ancient origins and slightly different rules.
  • Hurley – nope, not the fat dude in Lost, in hurling, the hurley is the stick. You can also call it a hurley stick.
  • Bas – the bas is the flat end of the hurley, used to hit the ball.
  • Sliotar – pronounced sly-o-tar, this is a hurling ball.
  • Block, hook, and side pull – these are the three acceptable forms of physical contact that a player is allowed to make with the opposing player who has the sliotar. A block is when a player uses his hurley to trap the ball between it and the opposing player’s hurley. A hook is when a player uses his stick from behind to snag the opponent’s stick before he can hit the ball. A side pull is basically a shoulder check – when two players collide side to side with their shoulders taking the brunt of the force.
  • Puckout – this is a restart of play which happens after a goal or a shot that misses the goal and goes out of bounds. It’s a free pass from the goalie, like a goal kick in soccer.
  • Lash – to lash is to hit the ball while it’s on the ground. Not necessarily in anger, although this may be where the phrase, “to lash out” comes from!

Enjoy the game tomorrow! And have fun deploying some of your new vocab words!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What constitutes offensive illegal motion in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m confused over what constitutes offensive illegal motion in football. Rule 7 – Section 7 states, “No player is to be moving toward the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.” Does this mean there’s a brief wait period before a backfield player can advance after the snap?

Look forward to your answer,

Dear Dennis,

From your reference to Rule 7 – Section 7 in your question, I’m going to assume that you’re interested primarily in the National Football League, not any other type of football. Rule 7 – Section 7 in the NFL rulebook corresponds to illegal motion, a very specific violation of a general rule. In this post, I’ll explain the general rule, then write about the specific violation called illegal motion, and quickly touch on the other common penalties that are similar to illegal motion. At the end, we’ll return to your question about whether a backfield player must wait briefly before advancing after the snap.

The general rule which underpins the illegal motion penalty is that offensive players should be still when the ball is snapped. Although this sounds mundane, it’s actually one of the primary things which separate football from the rest of the popular sports. As opposed to a fluid, constantly shifting game like basketball or soccer, football is a series of set plays, almost like moves in a turn-based board game. The game stops, the teams set up, they go like demons for a short period, and then the pattern repeats. All the stopping and starting can make football seem boring to new fans and lead to the common criticism that football games only have 11 minutes of action but it’s actually the key to football being the most tactically complex and suspenseful sport. When I think about how I watch a football game, the moment between when an offensive team has set up to begin a play and when they snap the ball is the moment when my brain is most active. I’m trying to figure out what’s going to happen – is the offensive team going to run or pass? Will they be successful? Who is going to be involved in the play. Having the offense pause before the play starts facilitates more than just fan interest, it also gives the defense a chance to adjust their formation and plan to match the offense’s. This is essential to keep things somewhat balanced between offense and defense.

Motion is a technical term in football that provides one exception to the rule against the movement of offensive players when the ball is snapped. One player on the offensive team may be moving when the ball is snapped as long as that player is not moving toward the line of scrimmage and he is not a member of the offensive line. You see this somewhat commonly with wide receivers who move from one side of the formation to the other or running backs who move from one side of the quarterback to the other. Illegal motion is what happens when a team attempts motion and fails for some procedural reason. The two main types of failure are the player in motion mistakenly moves toward the line of scrimmage instead of just sideways and the player in motion being ineligible to be in motion because he was originally lined up on the line of scrimmage like an offensive lineman. In all cases of illegal motion, the penalty is five yards.

There are two other types of violations against the principle of offensive stillness. The first is an illegal shift and it’s very similar to illegal motion. Shifting is movement by offensive players before the ball is snapped (instead of during). More than one player is allowed to shift at the same time but they all have to come to a one second stop before the ball is snapped. The other violation is called a false start and it’s what happens when any of the players not in motion make a sharp movement before the ball is snapped. This is most commonly an offensive lineman starting to come out of his stance and move backwards to protect his quarterback.

To return finally to your question about whether the illegal motion rule means that a backfield player like a running back or quarterback has to momentarily wait after the ball is snapped before moving, it does not. Illegal motion only applies to players who were moving before the ball was snapped. As long as they are eligible to move and moving sideways or backwards, they are allowed to continue their motion through the snapping of the ball. All the other players, who were still before the snap, are allowed to start moving in any direction as soon as the ball is snapped.

Thanks so much for reading and keep the questions coming,
Ezra Fischer

What does down by contact mean in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does down by contact mean in football? I hear people talking about it when a player fumbles the ball. Does it have something to do with fumbling?


Dear Bruce,

There are two ways for an NFL football player who has established control of the ball to be ruled down by contact. Either contact with an opposing player forces a part of his body other than his hands or feet to touch the ground or a player from the opposing team touches him while a part of his body other than his hands or feet are touching the ground (even if it wasn’t contact with that player that forced him to the ground.) In other words, a ball carrier is down by contact if he’s touched while on the ground or if contact with an opposing player forces him to the ground. In college football, the rules are different, but in the NFL, when these conditions have been met, that play is over and anything that happens afterwards, good or bad for either team, should not count. A player cannot fumble the ball once he is down by contact nor can he score a touchdown or earn a first down. Generally, as you pointed out in your question, if you hear people talk about whether a player is down by contact, it’s because one of those three things may have happened. In this post, we’ll run through a scenario for a fumble and for a touchdown (a first down scenario is identical to a touchdown one) as a means of explaining the down by contact rule.

Is a player down by contact or has he fumbled?

Imagine a wide receiver running down the field. The quarterback delivers a perfect back shoulder pass which the receiver catches easily. He secures the ball, cuts to the middle of the field, and fakes out one defender before being tackled by another. As he’s falling forward, the ball squirts loose and rolls around on the ground for a while before the defender picks it up. The defender runs the ball a few yards up the field before stepping out-of-bounds. He and his teammates are celebrating because they feel they’ve created a turnover and their offense should get the ball. The wide receiver is indignantly yelling at the ref that his knee was down before he lost control of the football. Not to worry, in the NFL all potential turnovers are subject to automatic video replay.

The question for this review is whether the wide receiver should be ruled down by contact or whether he fumbled the ball. The official looking at the video will go through a series of questions about the player in question. First, did he establish control of the ball? Yes, he caught it and then ran a bit with the ball, clearly establishing control. Second, was he forced to the ground by a player on the defensive team? Yes, a defender tackled him. Finally, the key question – was he in possession of the ball when a part of his body other than his hands or feet, in this case, his knee, first touched the ground thanks to the action of a defender? If the answer to that question is yes, then the player did not fumble the ball, he simply dropped it after the play was over — once he was down by contact.

Has a player scored a touchdown or was he down by contact?

In this scenario, a running back takes a handoff from the five yard line. He swings out wide, near the edge of the field, and thanks to some great blocking or trickery by his team, he has a clear path to the end zone. Alas, he trips on an errant tuft of grass. Not to worry, this isn’t college football, where the play is over as soon as any part of a ball carrier’s body other than his hands or feet touch the ground. This is the NFL where the down by contact rule tells us that a player with the ball must be on the ground AND touched by an opponent before the play is over. So, the running back starts wriggling his way toward the goal line. All he has to do is get the tip of the ball to the line to score. As he’s wriggling and squiggling and reaching out to score, a defender runs over and dives at him, touching his back with outstretched arms. The refs call it a touchdown but, since all scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and the ref runs to the video monitor to take a second look.

In this scenario, there’s no question about the ball carrier having possession of the ball. The running back takes it from the quarterback and holds onto it for the entire play. There’s also no question about when the player’s knees, butt, elbows, etc. touch the ground. He falls on his own and then maintains contact with the ground for the rest of the play, crawling along. The only question is when the ball carrier was first touched by an opposing player, which would make him down by contact and end the play. Did the touch happen before or after the ball reached the goal line? After looking at the video and freezing it the moment the ball carrier was touched by a defender, the ref concludes that the ball had not reached the goal line yet. No touchdown is awarded but the offense gets to start the next play with the ball six inches from the goal line, the distance it was when the ball carrier was touched and therefore down by contact.

Hopefully these two scenarios have helped to demystify the down by contact rule in the NFL. Show off to your friends the next time the issue comes up in a game you’re watching!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is a balk in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a balk in baseball? I think it’s when a pitcher starts to pitch but then doesn’t but I’ve asked a few friends I have who are baseball fans and no one can explain it more clearly. Can you help?


Dear Jeff,

The balk is one of the most unique rules in baseball. It’s controversial, important, and simultaneously confusing to the point of opaqueness. Reading Major League Baseball’s rulebook on the subject is almost entirely useless for anyone who doesn’t already know what a balk is. For example, here is a short passage on what constitutes a balk:

From the Windup Position, the pitcher may:
(1) deliver the ball to the batter, or
(2) step and throw to a base in an attempt to pick-off a runner, or
(3) disengage the rubber (if he does he must drop his hand to his sides).
In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first.
He may not go into a set or stretch position —if he does it is a balk.

There’s only one response to language like that, and Groucho Marx said it over 80 years ago.

Luckily, we don’t need to understand the particulars of the rule as it’s written to understand how the rule works in actual baseball. We can work our way backwards from what the rule is trying to prevent to how it’s actually enforced.

The balk rule was put in place in 1898. Before then, a pitcher could get a base runner out in the following way. Imagine there’s a runner on first base. He takes a short lead toward second base and waits there. As the pitcher starts his windup to pitch the ball, the base runner takes one or two steps farther toward second base. This is a smart move, because it puts him in a better position to get to second base on a weakly hit ball and it still leaves him with plenty of time to return to first in the case of a strike or a pop fly. However (!) the pitcher hasn’t actually pitched. Instead, he’s tricked the base runner by winding up and starting to throw the ball but not actually letting it go. Now that the base runner has moved further from first base, it’s easy enough for the pitcher to stop, turn, and throw the ball to the first baseman, who calmly tags the base runner out. Now, baseball prides itself on being a tricky sport, but it’s possible that this trick was simply too devious to allow. It’s also possible that the main problem was not the move’s deceptive nature, but its effectiveness. Rules have always been created to balance the power between offense and defense, and a move which is almost guaranteed to remove a base runner from the game may simply have been too effective to allow. In any event, the balk rule was put in place to prevent pitchers from doing this.

For all its complex language, the balk rule can be summarized as this – once a pitcher starts his pitching motion, he must complete it by throwing the ball to home plate. I italicized the word “his” because pitchers all have unique pitching motions. One pitcher’s motion may be as distinct from another’s as a lion is from a house cat. The motion itself is not important to the rule, what is important is that every pitcher’s motion during one pitch is identical to his own motion on every other pitch. Umpires learn pitchers’ motions and are able to notice if a pitcher deviates from it, even slightly. When a pitcher throws to first base, to hold a runner there, or to try to pick him off, he uses a motion that may be similar to his pitching motion, but is not identical. The umpire is able to distinguish a pick off throw motion from a pitching motion.

Although the balk rule exists to prevent a pitcher from intentionally tricking a base runner by starting to pitch and then doing something else, the rule is enforced slightly differently. Most sports rules try to stay away from legislating intent and the balk rule is no different. In order to avoid asking umpires to make a judgement call about whether the pitcher intended to trick the base runner and whether the base runner was actually fooled, the balk rule simplifies the decision. If a pitcher enters his pitching motion but does not complete it, a balk must be called. This results in some unfortunate accidents when a pitcher starts to pitch but slips or stumbles or is attacked by a fit of sneezing or bees. In any of these situations, the umpire should call a balk. Balks legislate action, not intent.

The penalty for a balk is that all base runners get to advance one base. If there was a runner on first, he goes to second. A runner on third would score. The only exceptions to this are if the balk also results in the batter reaching first base because of a walk or a hit batter. In this case, all the runners would advance anyway, so there’s no further penalty. If, in the process of the balk, the pitcher loses the ball and it goes flying somewhere, the base runners are allowed to try to advance more than one base, but they do so at their own risk and can be tagged for an out.

Thanks for reading,



What is a shift in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a shift in baseball?


Dear Darrel,

If you’ve watched a baseball game on TV lately, there’s a good chance you looked up at your television screen at some point and were surprised by the location of the players on the fielding team. Perhaps the short stop was on the first base side of second base instead of in his normal position on the third base side. Or the first and third basemen were on the home plate side of their bases and creeping in as the pitcher readied to pitch. What you were seeing was a shift – a tactic whereby the fielding team adjusts its positioning before the ball is put in play. A team may choose to shift its outfield, its infield, or both for situational or personnel reasons. We’ll run through a few examples of each scenario in this post.

The shift is a compelling element of baseball because it is simultaneously so obvious and so revolutionary. If you’ve ever played in the outfield of a baseball or softball game, you probably automatically shifted based on who was at bat; that dude with biceps the size of watermelons who hit the ball way past you last time is up to bat? You move back. That’s an example of a shift based on personnel. You see who is up to bat and adjust based on what you think they might do. In the example we gave, it doesn’t feel revolutionary. The personnel shifts you see in Major League Baseball (MLB) games today are the product of a similar type of analysis, just formalized and backed by big amounts of data. By the time a player has been in the league for three years, they will have played in close to 450 games and been up to bat over 1,250 times. This gives opposing teams a lot of information about where they usually hit the ball. Virtually every player has patterns that will reveal themselves over time and with study. A player who has a strong tendency to hit the ball in one direction or location is more vulnerable to a defensive shift.

Other times, it’s not the player who is up to bat but the situation that dictates a defensive shift. For example, if the batting team is down a run, has a player on first base, and is likely to try to bunt the ball to advance the runner to second, the first and third basemen may move toward home plate so that they are prepared to field the bunt they believe is coming. If it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the batting team has a player on third base, and the game is tied, then the fielding team knows that they will lose if they allow that player to reach home. If the batter hits a long fly ball to the back of the outfield, the base runner will stay on third base until the ball is caught but then have plenty of time to run home safely before any throw could reach home plate. In this case, the fielding team knows for sure that any ball hit to the back of the outfield will result in them losing. So why even have outfielders back there? Isn’t it better to have them move in, so a ground ball hit through the infield may be able to be fielded quickly enough to prevent the runner from scoring? It is! The outfielders moving in in cases like that are another classic scenario that calls for a situational shift.


Defensive shifts have become much more common and more extreme in recent years. As of this year, they have doubled in frequency every year since 2011. It’s now quite regular for teams to shift all or almost all of their defensive players to one side but it still looks weird. One wonders how professional baseball players, people who are paid millions of dollars to be good at hitting a ball, cannot simply hit the ball in an unexpected direction. Apparently, it’s harder than it looks! Shifts are all part of the greater statistical revolution in baseball. The gloriously large and discreet data that baseball creates have offered numerous opportunities for teams to identify exactly what each opposing player and team does best… and do everything in their power to take that away from their opponents. Shifts are an integral part of the tactical game of cat and mouse that makes baseball a compelling sport to watch.

Thanks for reading,

How does a snap shot work in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does a snap shot work in ice hockey? Can you describe how it works and when or why a player would choose to use it?


Dear Pat,

There are three main kinds of shots in ice hockey: the slap shot, the snap shot, and the wrist shot. Each shot has its own technique and is distinguishable when watching hockey on TV or in person. Each shot has advantages and disadvantages and is appropriate for different situations. In this post, we’ll describe the most commonly used shot in today’s National Hockey League, the snap shot. You’ll learn how to identify it when you see it, when and what it’s used for, and even how to do it if you find yourself with a hockey stick in your hands.

The snap shot is a hybrid shot which combines the best features of the slap shot and wrist shot together in a single unstoppable combination. As we described in the post on wrist shots, the wrist shot is the quickest to get off because it requires no windup and the most accurate because it’s done in a single, fluid motion where the puck never leaves the blade of the stick. As we described in our post about slap shots, the slap shot is the most powerful shot in hockey — it can send a puck flying through the air at over 100 miles per hour. The snap shot steals elements from both shots. You can understand the snap shot as a slap shot but without most of the wind-up or as an abbreviated wrist shot. Take a look at one good example:

The clearest advantage of a snap shot is that it takes virtually no preparation to take. You can move into the snap shot motion equally well from stick handling or immediately from a pass. The snap shot doesn’t have the wind-up of a slap shot or the fluid but long motion of the wrist shot. This makes it much harder for goalies or defenders to block. Curtailing the wind-up also robs the other team of vital information about the direction of the shot. The snap shot takes advantage of the flexibility of modern hockey sticks but also allows a player to aim quite accurately.

If you want to work on taking a snap shot yourself, start with a slap shot or a wrist shot, whichever you’re more comfortable with. If you choose slap shot, take a smaller and smaller wind-up until you’re barely moving your stick back from the puck before propelling it forward and into a shooting motion. Once you’re there, raise your bottom hand up six inches to a foot on the shaft of the stick and add an extra flick of your bottom wrist right after your stick comes in contact with the puck. If you’re more comfortable starting with a wrist shot, practice leaving the puck still on the ice as you do the first half of the sweeping motion of the shot. It will feel like you’re picking the puck up in the middle of the wrist shot motion. Now add some extra oomph to the shot by slapping the puck when you first make contact.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer