Minor Setback for a Major Comeback

Minor Setback for a Major Comeback

When a setback isn’t a setback

Many years ago a frustrated headmaster at Chaote Rosemary Hall, a Connecticut prep school, sat to write a report for a young student. The headmaster described how the young student was ‘casual and disorderly’, and how he “studies at the last minute, keeps appointments late has little sense of material values, and can seldom locate his positions”. Not surprisingly, the student graduated near bottom of his class. Despite this inauspicious beginning, that young man went on to become not just a war hero, but the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Victor’s Bias

Everyone faces setbacks at some stage on the pathway to great success. Sometimes we forget this. A combination of hindsight and victory have a habit of often creating an illusion of constant success or perfection on a pathway to vitory. Part of the problem with analyzing success and failure is what is known as the phenomenon of ‘victor’s bias’. Often when looking at winners we don’t recognize the failures they’ve had before or how close they came to never winning.

Almost every great player I’ve had the pleasure to work with has confessed to me they were written off by someone, cut from a team or received a poor scouting report. I’ve heard many times, something to the effect of, “I wasn’t that good when I was younger,” or “My older brother/sister was actually way better than I was”. Success is rarely if ever pre-ordained and often missed early on.


People jump to conclusions based on the wrong information, often writing off future talents. One day as I was performing an ECG test on Martyn Williams a Welsh Rugby player, he said something that has stayed with me ever since. Martyn wasn’t the biggest or most physical rugby player Wales ever had, but he lived up to his nickname “Nugget.” He was gold, a world class number 7 who played for his country 100 times.

“If rugby teams were picked on fitness testing alone, Fergus, I’d never have played a game for my country,” Martyn understood that the main thing was playing the game, not posting the best fitness test numbers which he had often been judged on early in his career.

 ‘You can measure the heart, but you can’t measure heart’.


Sometimes, there’s benefit to early setbacks. It can be a teaching moment. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity team. Years later he reflected on it saying “It’s probably good that it happened. It made me know what disappointment felt like. And I knew that I didn’t want that feeling ever again.”

When we think of Michael Jordan we, decades later, still recall amazing highlights. But it’s often because of this we sometimes forget that being cut from his high school varsity team wasn’t his only setback.

In the 1998 Nike advert Jordan reminded everyone

“I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Occasionally life setbacks push you into a realm you’d never normally consider. A young Cassius Clay had his bike stolen so he turned to a boxing gym to learn how to prevent being pushed around. Not only did this begin a long journey for a young kid from Louisville, but it literally impacted millions of lives around the world.

Setback or detour?

Sometimes setbacks are simply a detour on a journey. One scout wrote about Wayne Gretzky “won’t survive the rough play” another deemed him “too small, too slow” for the NHL. Rejected by the NHL he signed to play for the World Hockey Association (WHA) for a year. The following season when the WHA and NHL combined, Gretzky started what would become a legendary NHL career. By the time he retired, Gretkzy held 61 NHL records, including 894 career goals, 1,963 career assists, 2,857 points and 50 hat-tricks.

Never Bet against Black

Setbacks happen to teams and organizations, not just individuals, even the world dominating All Blacks. In preparation for the 2007 Rugby World Cup the All Blacks prepared their team with what became known as the ‘Reconditioning Block’. The Reconditioning Block was pioneering exercise, training an elite team in a very intense environment for an international competition unlike had ever been done before. However, for a number of reasons the All Blacks failed to win in 2007 and the Reconditioning Block was the lazy excuse used by some.

There was an obvious fallout when the team arrived back in New Zealand, a passionate rugby nation. But rather than overreact and change the whole coaching staff, which is what many organizations would do, the New Zealand Rugby Union took time to evaluate everything. The coaching staff accepted some mistakes had been made, vowed to learn from the lessons and explained how they were best positioned to adapt for the next World Cup. Rather than jettisoning the whole coaching staff the NZRU kept the same coaching staff in place. Following the 2007 setback, the All Blacks have won every World Cup since.

Never ever quit

When you get setback or are criticized, remember it may be simply a misinformed commentary, a redirection or detour. The two most important lessons I’ve learned from elite sport is it will happen and never accept it as final.

After all, Sylvester Stallone was once voted by his high school classmates as ‘most likely to end up in the electric chair’.

59 Lessons Book Cover – Your help is needed!

Judging a Book by it’s Cover


“59 Lessons – Working with the world’s greatest coaches, athletes, & Special Forces” is coming soon.


Writing a book is one big challenge – deciding on the cover is even bigger.

We all know people judge book by their covers even though we shouldn’t … which would you prefer?

Email me at info@fergusconnolly.com and tell me which appeals to you most

Option #1

Option #2

Option #3

Option #4

Option #5




MLB Player Development & Sports Science

MLB Player Development & Sports Science


Welcome to the last in my series of MLB sports science and elite performance.

You can catch the previous two if you missed them here:

Building The Right Sports Science Program

Learning from other sports – Reverse Engineering Sports Science ‎


As we all know investment in players has reached an all-time high and planning a careful pathway for their long-term career is essential for the teams sustained success.

Sports science gives a great opportunity to teams to observe the player as a whole and help identify where the players are limited and how to help them sustain their career.

Limiting Factors & Compensating

As we know great players are able to compensate for some limitations in one area by maximizing the positive impact of outstanding capacity in another. Sometimes this is quite pronounced and obvious: even a casual fan may notice when a player makes up for being limited technically, tactically, and psychologically by using their physical gifts to the fullest.

The most recent example the world witnessed was of course Tiger Woods overcoming obvious incredible physical limitations. In other cases, an athlete’s competence might be fairly even across the four (Tactical, Technically Physical and Psychological)coactives, and the need to compensate is much less noticeable.

Tactical, Technically Physical and Psychological (TTPP) Factors

Great players are able to adapt such compensations over time as their careers evolve, and it’s fair to say that if an athlete is to continue their career, they must be able to constantly develop all elements of their game – tactically (game sense, perception, positioning), technically (skill, awareness), physically (speed, power, stamina) and psychologically (concentration, awareness, resilience). Flipping this upside down, they also need to stay in the game to advance these elements.

For example, a pitcher needs a minimum level of physical ability and health to be able to stay in the game long enough to develop resilience psychologically, and then to be able to spend enough time improving physically to then improve technically and tactically. The pattern recognition, decision-making speed, and emotional fortitude needed to dominate a World Series takes time to develop.

Tactical, Technical, Physical and Psychological Career Development

(adapted from Game Changer)


The same goes for athletes in any team sport. While a young, precocious team can have unexpectedly early success, for this to be sustainable there needs to be a cumulative level of experience that has allowed enough players to get close to their maximum potential in each domain.

The importance of Health as the TTPP Foundation

Conversely, as players age, it is their increased technical, tactical, and psychological acumen that enables them to prolong their careers, even as their physical abilities start to erode. It is also essential that they recognize the increased importance of health factors that enable adaptation and recovery, such as sleep and nutrition. Maintaining a solid health foundation will limit the degree to which physical prowess declines and impacts overall performance. Health is also, of course, key to the preservation of technical, tactical, and psychological elements and this is where sports science can have an immediate effect establishing proper lifestyle habits.

It’s critical to remember that great technique can also buy time. If you have good technique and are continuing to improve physically, you can do well enough to stay in the game so that your tactical, technical, and physiological abilities can progress. Of course great technique also helps avoid injury over the course of a career. At the highest level, this is really the practical application of a “ratchet theory”—as time goes on …

  • Players develop at different rates over their career
  • Great players compensate better than their peers
  • Health is the foundation for all aspects of long-term career progression (TTPP)
  • ‘Staying in the game’ allows many intangibles (experience, resilience) to be developed naturally if the environment & culture is right
  • Identifying and developing the players limiting factors them you extend their effective career



Information Management for Communication & Decision-Making

Before Worrying About Analysis – Lets Optimize Information First

The 5 I’s of Information Management


Never before have we had so much information, yet never before has knowledge been so elusive.

One of the challenges in business, military and sport today is separating data, information, knowledge and wisdom. While people jump straight into complex statistical analysis with data many make basic errors with information. Proper management of information by people in leadership positions is critical to any organization.

Firstly, all staff are experts of some nature and the best leaders are both aware of this and empower these staff. It may be local tribe knowledge for a military unit, customer knowledge specific for a sales team in a region or position specific knowledge for a sport. They have expertise and domain specific experience that even leaders don’t have and can’t be taken for granted.

All of these are personal and relational interactions which rely on hard information, data, previous experience to make decisions. This is very different from a manufacturing process based on hard data which is infinitely more predictable.

Never before have we had so much information, yet never before has knowledge been so elusive.

Leadership and coaching at any levels is an art not a science – if it was, someone would have an “App for that”.

The effectiveness of expertise is based on a flow of information. A great leader or coach with poor or incorrect information will be ineffective.

There are five principles for information management I’ve used for years to support information flow, communication and decision-making in applied high-pressured settings.


You need instant data and information to make proper informed decisions. In sport for example, finding out 4 hours after breakfast that a player reported a tight hamstring when he came in is no good if your star player is lying on the trainer’s table with 2 lbs of ice strapped to his hamstring! Of course, information must be accurate, but in today’s world the speed of data impacts decisions greatest. We can argue over whether the chicken or egg comes first, or get information to the expert on the ground fast and empower them.


You need to have all the data from each domain integrated and at your fingertips when you need it. In sport, having a players body weight going up without the nutritionists bodyfat scores alongside it or knowing what dietary plan he is on means you are unable to draw proper conclusions. Data out of context or without a reference can be misleading. Of course occasionally we don’t have the complete context or all the data, but fast integrated information with relevant context beats a perfect analysis late. Never provide isolated information without some supporting contextual information to allow informed decision making.


Only present the necessary important information – not ALL the data. Presenting all the data is lazy and time wasting for the coach must wade through it to decipher the relevant information. Only present as much information as is necessary – not as much as possible. Always have the rest of the information ready if called on but start with the important information first. If you think that presenting as much information as possible is wise you are mistaken. In many cases you simply are confusing the user and perhaps distracting them from the most pertinent issues.


This goes both ways, individualized for the subject and individualized for the person getting the information. Some people respond best to one-pagers, some to charts, some to verbal. Knowing your audience is essential. The day of treating everyone the same for optimal team performance is long gone. Every customer, athlete or person must be considered as an individual as well as within the team context in order to perform optimally. Therefore data must be individualized and presented on an individual basis so that the players can be treated as individuals.


Presenting the data to coaches (and players) must be done in a manner that is easily understood. This is one area the better leaders understand instinctively. In professional sport the majority of players and most coaches need data that can be digested fast. It must grab their attention first and be easily understood. Remember in most cases you won’t get the chance to stand over their shoulder and explain it to them. Two important tips to master this is – firstly observe how they respond to each report or piece of information and note which they caught their attention the best. Secondly, carefully note how they present data to you. If they present information in a very factual data driven way, reciprocate. If they are more descriptive – again replicate this approach when providing information to them.

After an event recently a coach asked me what the most important skill for a performance director was. I replied communication. It doesn’t matter if you have the best ideas if you can’t communicate even basic information. These 5 I’s, while seemingly straightforward, will be a very good guide for helping you communicate optimally.


Three Books on Leadership

Three Books on Leadership for Coaches

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is about recommend reading …

I love to read, I always have and have such a large collection of books that I’ve now run out of shelf space.

Reading is the greatest gift I believe you can give to a young person and one of the most important to succeed in life. It’s not because you are giving them knowledge alone, but you are inspiring them to learn for themselves. All great leaders and coaches I know adapt and learning to adapt is a skill that can be learned at an early age, reading is one such way.

“Adaptability is the greatest ability”

As part of my mentoring program with coaches, performance directors and executives I have recommended reading lists on each module. I have so many I have read and can recommend on various topics, but today will share the top three on a key topic – Leadership. Put these on your list, hard copy or as audio for your drive to and from work.


Ok, I’m going to cheat a little on my first answer –

The Leader’s Bookshelf by James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell

I love this book, it’s one I keep close by and refer to often. It’s not just simply a list of great books, but a collection of perspectives by some great military minds on each one. I found it a brilliant read for a number of reasons. My first thought was – which of these have I not read! Secondly, I was fascinated by the authors opinion on each of the books.

Alone it’s a great book, but as a starting point for more reading, it’s gold.


The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh

This is one of the classic books on leadership that has withstood the test of time. I’m partial to Bill Walsh having heard so many stories first hand during my time at the San Francisco 49ers from Keena Turner, Guy McIntyre and Harry Edwards about Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo and how they overcame so many obstacles and challenges like any good team. The context itself is quite poignant as Bill Walsh passed before it’s natural conclusion. The title alone gives you a great insight into the focus of the book and I’ve met very few sports coaches who haven’t read it, but it’s a must read for all in in the corporate sector too.


When people talk about ‘The Process’, well this is where it all started.


Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I’ve often found learning from outside my direct sphere of interest more inspiring than sport, military or business. Learning from a different domain has the effect of avoiding any preconceived bias you might have and getting the message to you in a way that can often hit home in a more profound way. Team of Rivals does this. As we all know, success needs people with different perspectives to be truly sustainable. This book is different from the rest but gives you a new perspective on the genius of Lincoln, especially in light of the personal tragedies he had to overcome at the same time.

Learning from a different domain has the effect of avoiding any preconceived bias you might have


Send me an email to info@fergusconnolly.comwith your top three.

Why Most Teams Fail in Year Three

How to Dominate

with Sustainable Success


In Game Changer I first wrote about a not-too subtle phenomenon that occurs in many leadership situations. I referred to this as the – ‘The Three-Year Rule” where, many new programs and coaches fail or begin to struggle in their third year.

The great Hungarian manager Béla Guttmann, went so far as to claim, “The third season is fatal.” I’m certainly not the first to have noticed this. Working in various sports and countries around the world, this trend has become more and more apparent.

Why is this?


Failure to reinforce the basics

Vitor Frade, the great Portuguese mentor to many of the world’s greatest soccer coaches first brought this to my attention. Professor Frade explained that in many coaches roll one year into the next without starting with, and reinforcing, the basics of the organization, game plan and philosophy of play.

This might not seem necessary at the elite end of performance, but it actually is more important at that level. The importance of a cohesive message cannot be underestimated for any organization. The ‘basics’ cover three main areas, operation, vision and methodology. Remember you can’t assume everyone in the organization knows these things, remembers from last year or that they will be handed-down to new comers by veterans.

Operation refers to how things are done, from time keeping to the more mundane. Vision is the philosophy of the team, the style we play to or operation of a business. The methodology is ‘the how’ this is achieved in practice.

By starting with this first message, players and assistant coaches know what is expected of them. The great Bill Walsh always started the first day of every season with the San Francisco 49ers, the very same meeting, covering the same points maintaining a clear cohesive message.

In modern sport and business, there is highly skilled talent recruited, and more frequent changes in staff making this arguably more important today than ever before.

The first year, as a leader, you make things clear and people more or less abide by the vision, by year two unless you reinforce them these messages become diluted with absence of focus and staff turnover, by the third year the vision is a faded memory.


Failure to adapt your system

Arie De Geus, who was the head of Shell Oil Company’s Strategic Planning Group is well known for the saying “The only sustainable competitive advantage you can sustain is to learn faster than the opposition.”. This applies to sport, not just business of course. This can be seen most clearly in the third year of any team when performance appears to suffer. It may not be that your team is not performing, it may simply be that the opposition now has adjusted to your style or system and you’ve not continued to adapted.

Good coaches have a successful system, but great coaches continuously refine and adapt it. This is one of the most fundamental differences between good and great – the ability to evolve. This takes honesty and humility with a desire and ability to learn fast.

Remember, in the first year, any team with a good system can surprise the opposition. The second year there is only one year of game film available for the opposition. However, by the third year there are 2 years of film, but not just any film, film of your losses. This is what every opponent needs – your kryptonite – how you were beaten.

Unless you continue to adapt your game-plan and present a different approach or misdirect, your simply feeding your opponent secrets to defeat you.


Failure of honesty and trust

Any successful organization must have a level professional trust. Those of us who have been fortunate to have been part of successful teams recognize you don’t have to be closest friends, but when it comes to winning it’s based on trust and faith in each other – from head coach the whole way down.

In the first year a new coach can ‘sell’ any vision to a group whether they are honest or not. With the new appointment comes enthusiasm and expectation. Most players will trust the vision presented by the coach.

If, by the beginning of the second year, it appears that the coach isn’t genuine or honest, this trust is eroded somewhat. Nonetheless, most players will still buy-in for the second season.

However, by the third year if the leadership hasn’t demonstrated honest and openness, the initial trust is in much shorter supply and you will see a failure on the field and off the field in the locker room. Sid Lowe and Dominic Fifield wrote about this recentlyin an article about Manchester United’s coach Jose Mourinho.


Sustainable Winning – Dominating Beyond Year 3

There are a number of ways some organizations side step these issues or use artificial ways to delay the three-year rule.

Some coaches keep older players on the roster or list to enforce culture and or delay the inevitable by changing staff or players after trust has been broken. But this never addresses the source. Avoid any issues in year three:

  • Always ‘start at the start’. Begin with operation basics, reinforce the vision and how you do things – for both assistant coaches, staff and players
  • Adapt faster than your opponent can. Competition never stays still, you need to ‘Red-Team’ inhouse constantly to see what your opponent is preparing for.
  • Be open and honest with your staff and players. Betrayal of trust cannot be under-valued. Almost every player can take bad news once it’s direct and honest


Lessons from other sports for MLB

What MLB should learn from other Professional Sports

The biggest mistake all Sports Science programs make

Reverse Engineer Sports Science to win – Learn from CSI


Ironically, the most common error that most sports have made in sports science is the easiest to address and it’s something baseball can easily learn from.

When the sports science trend exploded there was a rush to invest in technology. The logic most adopted was forgivingly understandable: buy technology, invest in sports science, test and measure as much as possible. When errors or outliers were found – especially low numbers such as speed, strength – work harder to improve them.

“The forgivingly understandable error”

However, this was a completely erroneous approach based on one simple oversight – you can’t measure everything, let alone everything that truly matters. Simply increasing numbers doesn’t always make players better either – everything is related.

Teams soon realized a few fundamental challenges.

  • They were measuring too much data and hadn’t planned for it
  • Many teams didn’t know what data was actually important and what wasn’t
  • They realized they were measuring largely physical metrics only
  • Many teams had now more data collection to do but hadn’t man power to do it
  • Worse still, many hadn’t the inhouse expertise to interpret the data
  • Often because these developments evolved without coach involvement initially, getting their buy-in later was much more difficult and many coaches ignored sports science.
  • Seeing the trend there was flood by technology companies to sell every kind of product to organizations that hadn’t the inhouse expertise to distinguish marketing from truth.

As you can see, this has led to confusion, vast sums misspent and varied results across the leagues.

I’ve seen this same mistake in every sport from NFL, NCAA, International rugby, Premier League soccer and the NBA. It all sounds fine in theory – but in the real world of the bullpen, where results matter, a pragmatic approach is needed to win.