Shockingly, I am not done with this topic. If you have a day or so for a deep dive, and are unsure of my opinions on the topic, click here for a good start.
The decision to take a timeout is very roughly speaking timed at moments in which the coach can have the maximum impact on how his team is playing. Typically, but not only, that time is when there is some ‘momentum’ in favour of the other team. Thus by calling a timeout, the coach is able to arrest that ‘momentum’. There are other times in which a coach may have information to give his team about a change in tactic or some important observation but even then he will most likely wait until there is some ‘evidence’ of ‘momentum’ before taking that timeout (unless it the score is close towards the end of a set).
By taking the timeout, the coach assumes that the information being given or the break in play being provided will be to the advantage only of his team. The reality is that during a timeout, both coaches are active. Assuming that both coaches are more or less equally competent, they are both providing roughly the same added value to their teams during that 30 second break. Coach A breaks his opponent’s ‘momentum’ and gives his team new information, but at the same time allows Coach B to also provide new the information he has been keeping up his sleeve for a break in play*. Furthermore, timeouts give a physical and mental break to both teams equally.
So from a tactical, psychological and physical viewpoint, we can see that every timeout is effectively a wash. Which is basically what we see in all of the studies on timeouts, for example here.
So why would anyone assume that a timeout would ever ‘work’? As ever, assumptions make an ass…
*Some evidence that timeouts have the unintended consequence of providing an advantage to opponents can be found in this NBA study. Bill Belichick in a very famous Superbowl moment did not call a timeout that he was expected to for this very reason, defied conventional wisdom by winning.
Thanks to Alexis Lebedew for providing the initial thought experiment / epiphany, as he has so many others.
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