May 15, 2013

What matters: leadership, data analysis, culture

Three factors that can play an important role in a team's success

A writer yearns to have intelligent readers who engage with his ideas. Then you realise that they are examining your logic with an uncomfortably forensic eye.

Two weeks ago I argued that all students of sport need to understand randomness. That the familiar talking points of selection and tactics are lazily thrown around to explain events they often do not influence. That understanding the "causes" of why things happen in sport is very difficult.

Enter Kieran McMaster, a statistician and ESPNcricinfo reader. He asks how I can explain the evolution of the Spain football team and the All Blacks rugby squad, teams that not only win but also drive forward the evolution of their sport. Surely that is evidence of tactical supremacy? Moreover, his question gained added weight thanks to a random external event: the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. How can I square my scepticism about the short-term influence of tactics and selection with the consistent and relentless success of Sir Alex, who manipulated the levers of management so shrewdly?

Here goes.

I certainly do believe in leadership. It is obviously true that some captains and coaches make a sustained difference. Warren Gatland has transformed the Welsh rugby team from romantic underachievers to pragmatic winners. Jose Mourinho wins something wherever he goes. The pattern of success is too consistent to be explained by randomness. One out of one might be dumb luck. But it is much more likely to be skill than luck if a coach has a long sequence of different winning teams.

It is equally true that there aren't many coaches and captains in this elite category, certainly fewer than there are teams that need managers. Great coaches are incredibly rare. So clubs that continually chop and change managers, searching for the right "chemistry" (usually a euphemism) are usually taking an ill-judged risk. It is a statistical fact that changing the manager, on average, makes no difference at all to the performance of the team. It is, however, always expensive and usually distracting. Most teams would be better advised to invest in youth coaching and infrastructure rather than another round of sackings at the top.

Consider the following logic. If every club sacked its coach on the basis that they were searching for Sir Alex Ferguson, at the end of the process there would still only be one club with Sir Alex Ferguson, and dozens of disappointed teams, because there can only ever be one manager who is the best in the world. Sometimes it's better to work with what you've got rather than chase fantasies.

Secondly, I acknowledge that teams can gain a competitive advantage through smarter, clearer use of data and statistics. We all know about Moneyball and the Oakland A's. Cricket has a more current example: the Rajasthan Royals. They underspend and overachieve. And, like the A's, they use data to study how games are really won, instead of just recycling clichés. According to Raghu Iyer, the Royals' CEO, their strategy is not to buy famous players but to "out-think the opposition" at the player auction.

Thirdly, I believe in the power of culture. The recurrent success of some national sides cannot be explained by random cycles of dominance. Some sporting cultures achieve success because they get more things right, from grass roots to World Cup final. The All Blacks play a wonderful brand of total rugby. They rely on skills developed throughout New Zealand's rugby culture. In Dunedin this March, during rain delays in the cricket Test match between England and New Zealand, I watched Otago practise on the adjacent rugby ground. Everyone can pass, everyone has awareness, there are no donkeys and no under-skilled thugs.

The serious analyst of sport runs into difficulties when he argues that "an Australian would never have dropped that catch because they're tougher over there", or "India lost the match because they should have picked X"

Something similar can be said about Spanish football. Only once have I succumbed to a satirical rant on Twitter. It was during the European Cup final of 2012. In the lead- up to the match, we had to endure ill-informed punditry about how Spain's refusal to pick "an outright striker" was a negative move, how they played a cautious game based on control of the ball rather than dynamic sweeping moves, how rival teams ought to do this and ought to do that, as though opponents hadn't already tried everything and simply lost. Basically there was a widespread reluctance to admit that Spain had developed a systemic solution to playing a better, more modern brand of football. This struck me as both insane and ungracious.

In the 14th minute, Cesc Fabregas, an attacking midfielder who was playing instead of the lamentably absent "outright striker", scored a typically classy goal. The goal revealed the interaction of control, technique, movement, intelligence and team work - a microcosm of Spanish footballing philosophy. Spain went on to win 4-0, and this columnist could not resist a series of sarcastic tweets about "boring Spain", "stupid selection", "wrong-headed tactics" and so on.

But I'm not certain, returning to our original question, that the influence of national sporting culture should be filed under the heading "tactics". It is more a case of philosophy culminating in elite expression. Put differently: if Spain had been instructed by their manager to play a violent, low-skill form of football in that final, I doubt they could have done so. So deeply ingrained is their approach that it has become second nature, not really a "tactic" at all.

I thrill to all three of these methods of gaining an edge in sport: through leadership, via analysis, and through culture.

However, and here is the crucial point, not everything that happens on the sports pitch can be explained in terms of leadership and strategy, or even culture (though the influence of culture is so subtle that it's impossible to measure).

This is especially true over the short term. The serious analyst of sport runs into difficulties when he argues that "an Australian would never have dropped that catch because they're tougher over there", or "India lost the match because they should have picked X", or "imagine how good we'd be if we changed the captain". Above all, my scepticism about causes kicks in when a match is lost and a media inquest begins into everything that immediately preceded the defeat, as though the former inevitably led to the latter.

In sport, as in life, I believe in the capacity of innovation, strategy and intelligence to make a difference over the long term. But that faith can coexist with the right to challenge the retrofitting of today's causes to suit yesterday's events.

You can be a short-term sceptic and still a long-term optimist.

Ed Smith's book, Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune, is out in paperback now. He tweets here