Organising for Excellence in Team Sports (pt 3)

Mark Upton
Nov 25, 2016 · 4 min read

It’s taken a couple of weeks but finally I’ve found the time to wrap up some previous posts (here and here) that helped me clarify some thinking for part of a presentation I gave at a conference in Évora, Portugal . In that time I’ve also come across a couple of other articles that link in nicely and I’ll share here.

(thank you to the organisers for the opportunity to be involved and the wonderful welcome and hospitality during my short stay in Évora, and “JP” especially for his efforts)

The last section of my presentation was an attempt to “zoom out” and look at some of the social and cultural dynamics around organisation, management and education that are influencing how we go about things in professional team sport. Highlighting a general downward trend in mens team sport results in the UK over the last 20 years I suggested a need for some critical thinking. That may lead us to question the widespread adoption of this model of player development and management of clubs/sport orgs…

…which, as it turns out, is not confined to the team sport domain….

…and the short comings of coach development when modelled on education systems designed for producing “good little factory workers” (Matt Miller) rather than supporting the growth of expertise that would enable coaches to adapt to varying contexts…

I then moved on to showing everyone’s favourite video “How to organise a childrens party” that brings to the fore a fundamental issue…

“the basic principle behind all of this is we need to manage in different ways dependent on which system we’re in.”

Using some images to represent what Dave mentions in the video, I came up with the below in an attempt to capture the essence of the opportunity/problem we face…

The idea being that there is a range of productive space to embrace between order and chaos, with potentially the most fruitful being the “edge of chaos”. As more money and resource has come into team sports some have shifted further and further to the right, possibly unaware of being lured down a slippery slope. This has largely come from management and organisational practice that is a legacy of work that was more ordered in nature, ie factories.

(part of the problem may be the appointment of people to leadership positions who are heavily “process orientated” but struggle with the ambiguity, uncertainty and general messiness of complex human systems. Some relevant research involving senior executives suggests this can be learnt - “the executives all developed their capability for uncertainty through lived experiences of uncertainty” - and brings into question why some of the investment directed at unrealistic attempts to eradicate uncertainty could not instead be channelled towards helping people better deal with it….)

Also the rise of Sport Science and Analytics, whilst enormously valuable when applied within a complex systems world-view, can be equally detrimental when they are expected to provide THE answers, repeatable blueprints and “best practice” that may be more realistic in highly ordered systems. (people will deny this expectation but what they say is often not commensurate with how they act and what they invest money in).

Shortly after returning from Portugal I also came across this article and the image below. It reflects very similar themes as discussed in this series of posts. The Type 2 system could represent players on the pitch, the multitude of coaches and support staff at a club, or geographically distributed clubs that are overseen by a sport’s governing body. Flows of information, decision making powers bestowed upon those most attuned to that information (and thus understand the local context) , and dynamic self-organising (“teaming”) around common purpose/intentions/need are compelling features of the Type 2 System. Yet we have a long way to go before this model is more widely recognised than the (in)famous model portrayed on the left. Which might also suggest we have barely scratched the surface of genuine excellence in team sports…

To wrap up, and putting everything else aside for the moment, we cannot forget that the essence of sport is people. Listening to experiences from a football academy and their “business model” approach to young children this week was jarring. It thus feels appropriate and necessary to finish with sharing the “paradox of performance” (@3Dcoaches) and a message of love from Athletic Bilbao (words from club president Josu Urrutia)…

“Paradoxically, production and performance improve when people are prioritized over production and performance”

“Why do we love our children more than anyone else? Because they are our children, of course. We do this for them, to keep their identity always.”

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