Performance Analysis, Vocation and Moral Agency


I have been spending time of late reflecting on performance analysis in sport as a vocation.
The combination of reading Max Weber many years ago, revisiting Norman Scotch’s paper on magic, sorcery and football, and observing the incredible flourishing and productivity of present day performance analysts have nourished this reflection.
Recent events surrounding the English cricketer, Jonathan Trott, have sharpened my focus and have heightened my interest in moral agency.
This post synthesises these themes.
I am hopeful that it does stimulate some comment and is thus enhanced by open, timeless peer review. It is a decision on my part to encourage debates about epistemology and ontology in performance analysis.

Magic and Sorcery

When I was researching an undergraduate dissertation on apartheid in sport (1973), I manged to find Norman Scotch‘s 1961 paper ‘Magic, Sorcery, and Football among Urban Zulu: A Case of Reinterpretation under Acculturation‘.  It is just four pages long.
Norman Scotch has been acknowledged as on of the first medical anthropologists. His ‘magic’ paper was written during fieldwork near Durban in 1958 and 1959 that studied hypertension.
In it he has some observations that are particularly relevant to a discussion of performance analysis as a vocation.
This first sentence of the paper is:

In discussing beliefs in witchcraft in Africa, Gluckman points out that native beliefs in witchcraft not only persist in the face of continuing acculturation but often expand and change to meet the exigencies of new life situations.

Subsequently, Norman writes:

It is common knowledge, and not surprising, that in an effort to produce winning teams each of these football teams employs an inyanga, or Zulu doctor, who serves the dual purpose of strengthening his own team magic    and    ritual,    and    of    forestalling the sorcery directed at his team by rival inyangas.

I thought this paragraph was particularly important:

magic in Durban football is so widespread that although in searching for players there exists at least a minimal recognition of individual talent, few players known to be the object of umtagathi, or sorcerers, would be considered by a team regardless of their ability; moreover, success or failure of a team is invariably attributed to the skills of the inyangas, as well as to the natural talent of the players. However, when a team consistently loses it is the inyanga who is replaced, not the players. When, on the other hand, an individual player is suspected of being the object of sorcery he may be dropped from the team for fear that the spell might generalize to include the teammates of the unfortunate victim.

I have always liked Norman’s idea that an inyanga spends time forestalling the sorcery of rival inyangas. I have often wondered if performance analysts are engaged in this kind of forestalling activity with detailed analyses of opponents. I take from Norman’s paper that inyangas are inward and outward looking and this resonates with me in the context of performance analysis.
Forestalling required disciplined insight into the performance patterns of teams, units and individuals. I believe the process of sharing these disciplined insights raises a fundamental question about the care we owe to others … our own team and our opponents.

Performance Analysis as a Vocation

I have been very fortunate to have spent the last thirty-five years engaged in some form of performance analysis activity. For most of this time I have received a salary for this activity.
In 1978, I was employed at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill. I started to explore the use of real-time systematic observation in physical education and sport settings. There was limited access to video cameras and recorders. My hope was that my disciplined observation would enhance my teaching and coaching. One of my aims in doing this was to aspire to transform the experiences learners so that they too might consider systematic observation as a meta-activity in their personal learning journeys.
I believe my commitment to performance analysis was as much vocational as it was prebendary. In his discussion of Science as a Vocation, Max Weber proposes that:

that science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and that this will forever remain the case. Not only externally, but inwardly, matters stand at a point where the individual can acquire the sure consciousness of achieving something truly perfect in the field of science only in case he is a strict specialist.

In science:

each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted in a quite specific sense, as compared with other spheres of culture for which in general the same holds. Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated.

In the conclusion to his 1919 lecture, Max Weber asserts:

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations

Within this post we have Norman Scotch discussing magic, sorcery and witchcraft and Max Weber contemplating seers and prophets.
It is interesting looking back to the responses to performance analysis in the early 1980s. At that time, I was thinking vocation whilst many of those I was hoping to persuade were thinking witchcraft! It became slightly less heated when performance analysis was dismissed as “just technology”. I was fortunate that Jim Parry was exploring epistemological issues at this time. It helped challenge exiting orthodoxy and pose second order questions about sport science activity.
The more I became involved in real-time and lapsed-time analysis the more my work resonated with Max Weber’s observation about the vocational dimensions of self-clarification and the pursuit of knowledge of interrelated facts.
A recent post by Adam Cullinane, What has changed in Performance Analysis over the last 5 years? underscores the accelerating pace of self-clarification and the pursuit of knowledge of interrelated facts. It is fascinating looking at these changes in the light of the genesis of performance analysis as a vocation.

Moral Agency

Personen / Gelehrte / Deutschland / Weber, Max / Szenen
Bryan Turner (1999) observes that Max Weber’s lectures on Politics and Science as vocations highlighted Max Weber’s concerns “that the processes of specialization with the rationalization of society made the achievement of personal integrity and wholeness extremely difficult to achieve” (hedonists without a heart and vocational men without a soul). Bryan Turner points out that Max Weber was very concerned that social changes threatened honorific standards that emerged from enlightened, cultivated individuals with broad interests.
This heart and soul discussion resonated very strongly with me following the events surrounding English cricketer, Jonathan Trott at and after the First Ashes Cricket Test in Australia in November 2013.
Throughout my performance analysis career I have looked very carefully at the movement patterns of players and referees/umpires. My professional desire has been to provide as comprehensive analysis as possible to support the coaches, players and officials with whom I work.
I have been conscious throughout my vocational career that my analyses might contribute to a team’s defeat and the possible end of an athlete’s international career.
Cricket is awash with data and the emergence of expert systems to identify patterns of play has led to very precise, forensic insights into strengths and weaknesses with associated batting, bowling and fielding strategies and tactics.
My own ethical stance has been to do whatever I can to support optimal performance within the bounds of fair play and mutual respect. For much of the 1990s I seemed to be spending a lot of time in forestalling the pressures analysis of my teams by analysts in opposing teams.
After this forestalling decade, I read Albert Badura’s (2002) discussion of selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. In the paper, Albert points out that “moral agency has dual aspects manifested in both the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely and the proactive power to behave humanely”.
I re-read the paper recently. Albert’s conclusion that “civilised life requires, in addition to humane personal standards, safeguards built into social systems that uphold compassionate behaviour and renounce cruelty”. This made Jonathan Trott’s experience even more poignant.
We have very clear ethical guidelines for conducting research in performance analysis (see, for example, Peter O’Donoghue, 2009). I can see enormous benefits in exploring explicitly the moral agency issues of our vocation too.
I have always hoped that opposing teams might share their analyses of each other to make their sports even better. I am naive enough to hope that this might reduce cheating.
In thinking about moral agency, I have been keen to explore moral hazard too. Wikipedia notes that moral hazard arises when “an individual or institution does not bear the full consequences of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to bear some responsibility for the consequences of those actions.”
I accept totally that participation in high performance sport involves the voluntary assumption of risk by its participants. My argument here is that vocational performance analysts use their skills in the context of moral agency and moral hazard to manage this risk personally.
I believe in this way we can be pro-active about what we share and how we share. An unequivocal commitment to fairness helps us avoid moral disengagement.
My hope is that this gives us opportunities as a community of practice and a vocation to have a very distinctive code of ethics and practice.


This is a time when the analysis of performance is flourishing. I think our industry is collecting and using data in remarkable ways. We are maturing as an industry. This is a powerful first order, empirical world.
I am hopeful that our progress with second-order questions will be equally strong.  We can behave thoughtfully, carefully and compassionately.
I do understand that each of us will make a choice about moral agency and am keen to learn about your choices.

Photo Credits

DSC00097_ausveng-trott (Rae Allen, CC By 2.0)
M W Kellog at Magnolia Petrolium for Franklin Industrial Service (Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library, no nown copyright restriction)
Max Weber 1917 (Guttorm Flatabo, CC By 2.0)
Gideon Rosen, Philosophy and Free Will (Princeton Public Library, CC BY-NC 2.0)


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