What All Team Sports Have In Common

What All Team Sports Have In Common

The Foundation of All Team Sports

We all have played different team sports at some stage– but have you ever thought of what they all basically have in common?

Take any live game – a local kids game, collegiate or professional. The first thing we need to condition ourselves to do is not to follow the ball – as is normally presented to us on television. Rather look at the movements, the reactions, the reasons for movement. It’s here you start to see the basic principles that underline all team sports.

There are four basic principle common to all sports – from your kids playing in the backyard right up to playing in a championship final with millions of dollars on the line.

Let’s start at the beginning……

The Macro Principle Of Structure (Formation)

All plays start with original positioning from kickoff/ tip-off or a restart. So in football it’s the formations, in rugby this could be a line- out, in football a kickoff, in basketball an inbounds play after a timeout, and in soccer a free kick or corner.

To play the correct role in each structural situation, players need to be aware of where they are in relation to teammates, opponents, and the ball.

They must also know where they are on the pitch, court, or field before the ball goes live. In an offensive situation, positional structures exist to create a scoring opportunity; in a defensive situation, to prevent one. If there is a breakdown, players need to re-adjust fast in relation to positioning of players, opponents and team mates, ball and place on the field. This is referred to as The Macro Principle Of Structure or the formation.

The Macro Principle Of Ball (Target) Circulation

Now, watching the game and focus on the movement of the players and the movement of the ball. Ignore colors and teams and observe those two things only: ball and player movement in response to this. Sometimes it helps to watch at double speed from a high-up view that shows the whole court or field. You will see that the movement of the ball influences the movement of both teams.

This influence is noticed most in games where there is zone defense (for example in basketball).
The Macro Principle Of Player Circulation (Movement)

The next thing you’ll notice, especially if the ball slows or becomes stationary, is how the players move in relation to each other. Defenders will try to fill space or track a man, whereas attackers will move into space to accept the ball.

By moving to a different point on the field, an offensive player not only puts pressure on the defender but also creates space for the other players on his or her team. What is most interesting is when players move anticipating actions of others.

Player circulation often includes elements of deception or misdirection to confuse the defense and obscure the true intention of the attacking move. It also creates too many possibilities for defenders to choose among, impairing their decision-making.

The Macro Principle Of Relationship (Sequence And Timing)

The final element to look at is relationship or timing. This is the sequence or order in which events happen and the timing with which they occur. Effective attacking or offensive play will demonstrate good initial positioning, smooth player circulation to accept the ball and move into space, and precise ball circulation to exploit it.

The best teams and players do this with effortless timing and in an order that befuddles and breaks down even the most potent defenses. This seems almost pre-programmed and like a dance when observed from a distance, but as we will see, it is far more complex.

The best players do not try move as much as possible but rather as much as is necessary—a highly efficient skill that makes the team appear to be playing effortlessly and with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Cohesion Of Principles

When you see these four macro principles come together in synch at every level, from kids on the street to the highest level of any sport, you witness an orchestra of almost telepathic non-verbal communication – basic skills executed at incredibly high speed and skill.

The sequencing of players’ actions appears to create and close space almost at will. The positioning, timing, and constant movement are on par with those of any world-class orchestra.


Solving Problems in Performance

The 5 Most Common Approaches
To Solving Problems in Performance

There is a very old military saying that “The plan never survives first contact with the enemy”. In other words, the plan is important but the ability to react, adapt and problem-solve is arguably more important.

How good you are at problem-solving is critical, but equally important is asking – “Are you solving the right problem?”.

Generally performance teams in both sport and business fall into one of five groups. Here, I’ll share a simplified model of how I assess problem solving in professional sports teams.

1) Not Accurate. Not Precise.
Are you simply ticking boxes? Do you test random things with little real direction? Do you have a battery of tests that are done, but really the data is not collected at the right time, or not with precision. In other words, useless data? The end result is you’re doing lots of things, but it’s not really making a difference or impacting the bottom line or score board.

“The Shotgun approach”

2) Accurate. Not Precise.
In this case you have a good understanding of performance, and perhaps a very good Game Model and Athlete Model. However, you’re knowledge or precision in problem solving is not sufficient. An example might be a preponderance of player cramping. Your players cramp quite often in games. You identify the issue correctly and attack the problem by throwing a number of solutions at it – hydration, lactate testing, FMS etc. However you are not precise enough to look at biochemical imbalances and dietary habits. Very close, but still not, sadly, solving the problem. Figured the problem out, but not smart enough approach.

“Absence of Knowledge”

3) Not Accurate. Precise.
You are doing some testing, assessments really well, however you’re solving the wrong problem. Let’s say for example, your S&C program is excellent. You monitor and test with great care and detail, analyze the results well. The team play well, but you appear to make mistakes late in games. The coaching reaction is more fitness work, when upon a closer look the real issue is more related to psychological errors – but you have no methodology for psychological profiling. This is being accurate, but not precise.

“Incomplete Solutions”

4) Clueless.
I hope you’re not in this group, but unfortunately this group is more common than we’d like to admit. These teams may or may not have any serious intention of getting better, or if they do have neither addressed the problem properly nor identified the source.


5) Accurate. Precise.
These teams have a very good game model, player model and clear SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures), even if not in name. These teams address problems logically, holistically using a clustered system of skills. They will constantly review without fear or favor, finding the best solutions and most of all doing it efficiently.

“Refined Holistic Problem Solvers”

In the competitive worlds of sport and business we can plan, but we have to be able to adapt and solve problems. You are problem solver.

Remember this scene from the iconic movie Pulp Fiction?

[The doorbell rings]
“You’re Jimmie, right? This is your house?”

“Yeah.” – Jimmie

[Harvey Keitel puts his hand out]
“I’m Winston Wolf, I solve problems.”

In this business, it’s your job to solve problems. How are you doing?

Images adapted from Nate Silver’s awesome book – ‘The Signal and the Noise”

Death of a Strength Coach

Death of a Strength Coach

It’s time for a change

Over the past few months consulting and mentoring coaches across many sports one topic has come up repeatedly. It didn’t matter if it was MLB, NFL college or tactical, the same fundamental challenge remains – the role of the traditional Strength Coach doesn’t exist anymore.

One coach put it best “I spend more time as a ‘therapist’ in the weight room than our psychologist does”

Another “I am the therapist. I’m the one the guys feel most comfortable opening up to.”

Another professional strength coach said: “I am also a manual therapist and when I’m working on guys, we chat about the psychological challenges almost every time.”

This does certainly not mean that the strength coach is more important than any other role, it means that they have greater influence than simply counting reps or writing programs.

Everything is Psychological
First of all, everything is psychological. No matter whether you are the receptionist or caterer, you have an impact on everyone’s psychological well being. For more on this see the excellent book “The Power of the Other” by Dr. Henry Cloud. Thanks to my good friend Mike Sanders for the recommendation.

It’s not just psychology – as a nutritionist you can put the best plans you want in place, but the strength coach also impacts and influences your area too. With the strength coach support, the players will buy-in, but without it the challenge gets harder.

Another strength coach said recently: “Almost every day a guy will walk in and hand me a supplement and tell me the nutritionist told me to take this, what do you think?”

The converse works too. A psychologist or nutritionist who doesn’t support or isn’t aware in detail what the aims of the strength staff are cannot support the player properly.

The Renaissance Answer
The solution has been staring us in the face for a long time. Everyone in the program is in reality a ‘performance coach’ with a senior responsibility for a certain area. The days of very specific titles and isolated roles for successful teams is long dead. Specialization is ironically the biggest disadvantage.

The model I’m helping many teams transition to currently, is based around a holistic unified performance staff with the focus on – performing. Within that model each ‘Performance Coach’ has a primary and secondary role. Yes for a strength coach, primary responsibility may be Strength & Conditioning, but they also may have secondary or tertiary responsibilities for nutrition, welfare, recovery, lifestyle. All performance staff are included, psychologists, nutritionists, athletic trainers, rehab specialists, reconditioning experts or whatever specialist title is now in vogue.

Naturally the human reaction is insecurity or fear of losing influence or control of your area. However, this is a completely wrong mindset to adopt. You’re not giving up control, you’re multiplying your effectiveness in each area and you’re creating a cohesive message in every area. Your whole performance staff are now force multipliers for your unified message.

Death of the Performance Director
Finally, the management of this system is not based on a model of ‘management’. There is no omnipotent unquestioned Performance Director role. These roles are served by one or more Performance Facilitator(s). The responsibilities of the Performance Facilitator are to facilitate the performance coaches to do their job to the best possible standard. This can be done by one or more people who work together to facilitate for their performance coaching staff. The performance coaches are the experts, they are at the cutting edge, as a Performance Facilitator it’s your role to serve and help them find the best way to achieve the overall performance goals.

Continuous Professional Development
One last key element of this model is an underlying professional development system. This is based on a matrix where the key skillsets, not taught in university, the coaches need are taught. Based on a system of reading, activity, presentation and follow-up action-based processes in the field, the performance coaches develop their skills to be more effective. There is a false natural assumption that once a staff is hired everything is fine. If something goes wrong organizations simply fire or replace coaches. Nothing is more foolish. The initial and constant reaction should be developing staff. This can only be done with a coach development pathway and continuous professional development system.

To learn more visit www.fergusconnolly.com or www.59lessons.com

Audit, Benchmark or Red-Team?

Audit, Benchmark or Red-Team?

You don’t know what you don’t know

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

– This is known as the “There are known knowns” quote from the United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in February 2002.

At first this quote was met with much mirth, but on later reflection the quote, while perhaps confusing at first is very profound. In sport and business all performance teams know there are things they can improve on, but many also recognize there are things they don’t know they have to improve on. Consulting with teams and organizations, I often get asked about how best to approach this. How do you get better when you don’t know where or how to?

Generally, there are three options I’ve used each specific to the level and requirements of the team and situation Auditing, Benchmarking and Red-Teaming.

Auditing is the most common of the three, where one or a number of experienced people from outside the organization spend time assessing the performance of the group. This can take anywhere from weeks to months, either continuously or intermittently.

The downsides of auditing is that it can be confrontational in nature, but it doesn’t have to be. The reporting and possible improvements can be very valuable for the team. Of course everything is dependent on those brought in and the quality of the auditing process. The most successful

Benchmarking is usually done my people from outside the organization also, but it can be done with sub-departments by performance directors. Most often the approach is done by presenting the best-in-class examples of performance standards and practices to the staff and as a group they compare and contrast.
This is a very useful and slightly more detailed process, but it provides the staff with a great insight into identifying possible short-comings and gaps in knowledge and operational procedures. The value here is really in the process itself. The skill of the moderator can make or break a benchmarking process.

Red Teaming 
Red Teaming is done internally. In this case the perspective is taken by certain members of the performance team that they are looking for weaknesses. They adopt a very constructively critical view of the performance and operations of the group, looking for weaknesses and ways to improve.
Again moderating is critical, but as a process it’s one of the best ways to continuously improve the organization or department. Red-Teaming is perfect for all aspects of an organization, but very effective for isolated departments like senior leadership, marketing, sports science, or analysis.

Recruiting & Hiring
The process can very helpful in recruiting and headhunting. Some organizations beset with politics, one-upmanship, and personal agendas generate cultures where individuals crave status, titles to fulfill selfish ambitions – but done correctly these processes put the focus on tasks and responsibilities, not on roles and titles.

Recruiting staff on their ability to do tasks responsibly, not on their job titles or to fill roles. Auditing, Benchmarking and Red Teaming can help create teams of generalists who have a broad range of responsibilities and who are committed to success. This way, it doesn’t matter what someone’s title or role is, and people won’t pursue status. Instead, they will work together across the numerous areas needed to coach the team, help it perform well, keep players healthy, and run the business side of the operation.

The best advice I can give teams looking to improve is not to ask what you want to improve – because often, as the Rumsfeld quote outlines we don’t know, rather ask what is it we don’t know we don’t know?

  • Choose the expertise and experience of the consultants carefully
  • Ensure you have actionables from the reporting process, not simply observations
  • Have at least one follow-up visit scheduled before you begin the process as part of it
  • Be sure to have the focus on the systems, not people.
  • And remember the goal is to improve, not find fault with individuals, so focus on tasks, not roles.

To see more visit http://fergusconnolly.com/

Talk Soon,



Sports Science doesn’t answer questions

Sports Science doesn’t answer questions. It allows you ask better questions.

We all love to make predictions. It doesn’t matter if it’s sport “Warriors will win easily tonight, they’ve too much talent” or life “They’re a perfect couple, they’ll be married within the month”. Of course in business and sport we apply the same thought processes. What’s perhaps more interesting, is that we also tend to listen more to statements that are absolutes. People who take absolute stands on certain questions tend to be more appealing, whereas those who provide fewer clear answers are less appealing.

The Tetlock Phenomenon
In 2005 Philip Tetlock provided an interesting insight in his book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?”. Based on many studies and years of research, Tetlock proposed that people who make prediction such as experts on television or get quoted in newspaper articles are essentially no better than the rest of us. However there is important point – they are rarely held accountable, unlike those of us who’s job rely on results, based on these decisions.

The truth is that we all yearn for certainty in business, life and sport. This is why we also love to align ourselves with people or things that present a decision or solution stated with certainty.

These natural human urges have for the past 15 years fed the explosion in science and technology in sport. Fueled by marketing budgets, anecdotes and movies such as ‘Moneyball’, the perception was created that sports science and sports technology would provide a path to the land of certainty.

The False Promise
Only now is the sports community slowly realizing that this was a false promise. I say slowly, because in many cases there has been huge investment in technology, people and science projects. No one wants to admit they have been wrong. No one wants to go back to the boss and admit the investment they begged for a few years ago hasn’t delivered what they thought it would.

This is not to say sports science doesn’t work. It will not deliver you to the promised land of certainty, but it can help, when used properly. Sports science and Technology won’t answer performance questions. Sports Science does two things. Firstly, it with test or assessment results it allows you ask better questions. Which allow you solve partial problems. Secondly it gives you something invaluable and underrated – insight.

Understanding this is critical to making your sports science program work properly and effectively.

Use your Dashboard
There is one final aspect to bear in mind. Science and technology are like the dashboard of your car. They provide signals and indications – confirmations if you will – that what you are doing is correct. They are necessary, but there’s a reason self-driving cars haven’t been perfected yet.

Imagine you are driving your car home from work. You have driven this route many times. On the 10 or 15-minute drive you will probably never look at your GPS, your speedometer or fuel gauge. You know where traffic lights are, you know upcoming corners and traffic hazards. You are familiar with the drive, you ‘know’ instinctively the speed you’re traveling at is safe. Your brain registers the frequency of passing stationary objects like trees. You drive in the gray.

On a new route, you’ve never driven before you’ll use more analytical feedback. You will use your GPS, you’ll check your speed and fuel gauge more often. You will still rely on instinct, but you will combine it with quantitative data.

But you are always in control. Sport is a people business. Sports Science and Technology are your dashboard, but you are the decision-making element always in control.

To make your sports science program effective don’t look for certainty, use science and technology to make YOU better at making decisions.

“59 Lessons – Learning from the World’s Elite Coaches, Athletes and Special Forces”
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