High performance: Complex simplicity

27 Nov 2014 Posted by

A busy month is coming to an end, and I’m in London now having crossed the Atlantic a couple times, then bounced around the USA for a series of talks, visits, conferences and meetings.  As always, a stimulating month, and so I’ll be unloading a few posts on you in the coming days.

The main purpose of the trip was to talk Talent ID and Management at the New England Chapter of ACSM in Rhode Island, and then give a similar talk at the BASES Conference in the UK.  I’ll put that talk up tomorrow, but for now, another talk at BASES inspires this very short article, which I actually first posted a version of on The Science of Sport on Facebook the other day.

It was given by the GB Track Cycling team, and these are three quick thoughts on what struck me.

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1.  Doing things better – management & synchronization

There has always been a lot of talk about innovation being the difference. If innovation is either “doing new things” or “doing the old things in a new way”, then innovation is NOT where the answer lies.

Sure, there’s a lot of engineering and science behind the performance, and some is novel, but it’s rarely the differentiator – attend any scientific conference for any sport and you’ll see all these elements.  It’s like when altitude training was claimed as the source of advantage (admittedly, in road cycling), or that cutting Nutella out of the diet or mixing pineapple juice with water was part of the explanation for winning – these are not differentiators or advantages.

What’s different, at least from this outsider’s perspective, is the management and synchronization of all these components into what looks, from outside, to be a fairly simple system.  So rather than being new things or new ways, it’s more just the same things better.

Of course, when it comes to cycling, there’s this shadow of doping, and I can’t bring myself to just ignore it.  One could include doping into the “engineering and science” mentioned above – just do it better (which is to say, don’t get caught, like Astana – five strikes and counting), but I don’t want this post to become about that.  Rather the concepts, and just recognize that cheating, sadly,can be a form of innovation, and so too management can be the lever that enables it to be more effective – same things better.

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2.  Financial advantage and sport selection

The cost is enormous – human, time and financial – in order to generate and then manage intellectual capital. It’s not difficult to see why, in a niche sport like track cycling, this would create an enormous advantage. It’s a true competitive advantage because unless another nation with comparable cycling culture, expertise and resources were to match the investment, it would be an advantage that cannot be overcome.

Quite how this transfers to sports that are not quite as technological, but cheaper and “broader”, I’m not as sure. Track cycling in particular is more science, less sport.  I think the same is true for skeleton and bobsled, incidentally, where the USA, GB and Australia have very successful transferred elite athletes from one sport to another in rapid time, by recognizing what the sport involves, finding the best athletes and then investing time, energy and resources into measurement and optimization.

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3.  Complex simplicity by understanding the problem

That said, you could do a lot worse than simply stripping away whatever it is you coach or play or work in, and really understand what goes INTO the outcome.  What successful sporting systems have in common is that they appear to do the basics well – this is a very overused and tired cliche.  The truth, in my opinion, is that simply doing the basics in a competitive environment is not going to be enough to win, because someone else will do the basics v 2.0, or basics plus one, and then defeat you.  So what appears to be the presence of the basics in successful teams is actually the optimization of the fundamentals, and this is what I believe separates great teams (like UK track cycling, SA Rowing does it, German football) as well as successful companies.

It produces, eventually, a complex or elegant simplicity, as shown in this diagram sent to me via Twitter by @SiNainby:

Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 3.21.34 PM

The UK Track cycling system philosophy (and in fact, the UK sports system) achieves a similar thing by reverse-engineering the requirements of the sport, then identifying the athlete who might meet those requirements, and then systematically working towards ticking off from that list of requirements.  It’s mechanical, systematic and eventually, pretty simple, but only emerges from a rigorous, complex understanding of that ‘ball of string’ that has to be untangled first.

UK cycling philosophy

 

On the implementation side, costs can be high (see Point 2), but the principle is cheap, if not free, and for any coaches reading this who feel under-resourced, don’t disempower yourself.  What is needed is to spend much more time on the questions.  Ask hundreds of questions, sometimes a dozen different ways, and then figure out what the key questions or problems are.  Really get to grips with the problem, and then move towards finding the answers.

Some will be prohibitively expensive, but many are not, so the lesson, even from this multi-million pound system, is to get complex with the problem, so that you can get simple with your practices.

Ross

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