Conversations into stories

A Medium alert this morning brought me news of a Sporticus post, Conversations at the notice board.

In it, Sporticus connects a noticeboard outside his gym with his reflections on pupil flourishing. The post concludes with this observation:

If I could harness the conversations at the notice board and make sense of them as well as I can the data in my spreadsheet, then perhaps I might have a chance at helping my pupils change their behaviour for the better?

I find it fascinating that he reflects on his practice in this way. His other blog is titled DROWNINGINTHESHALLOW. In that blog, Sporticus engages with a diverse range of issues in physical education, teaching, coaching and learning. One of his posts there last month, The Reserve, was a moving contemplation of the responsibilities teachers (and coaches) have to nourish conversation and become part of young people’s sport and life stories.

I had just three years as a physical education teacher (1975 to 1978 at Whitton Comprehensive). It took me all of those three years to be sufficiently aware of my responsibilities as a story listener and builder. By the end of three years at the school, I looked forward to the hum of conversation and excitement outside my gym door as the next class got ready to start the next episode of their stories.

Sporticus’s post this morning about the notice board was an excellent synesthesia trigger about my days of teaching and my subsequent research in teaching physical education. It was a reminder too that for three years I did start to learn about conversations into stories … even when pupils had lost their voice.

Photo Credit

LSE Sports Day, Malden Sports Ground (LSE Library, no known copyright restrictions)

On the radar?

I missed the Twitter exchange about radar plots yesterday.

I caught up with some of the exchanges through a Ted Knutson post about Revisiting Radars.

Ted noted “The fact that lots of people have reactions to this type of work is a good thing, not a bad one”.

I have been using radar plots in my work for some time. I am mindful of the issues that Luke and Sam (@stat-sam) raise.

Some time ago (2008), I was fascinated by the title of a Purna Duggirala (Chandoo) post You are NOT spider man, so why do you use radar charts? I enjoyed Graham Odd’s (2011) critique of radar charts too.

Primed with Graham’s observation:

… the overall shape presented for a series on a radar chart does not leverage any of the pre-attentive attributes we perceive quantitatively. In essence, this means we are unable to attribute much genuine meaning to the shape of a series. The only patterns our visual perception can really discern in a data set presented as a radar chart are similarity and extreme outliers.

I tried to use my radar charts as a stimulus for conversation. Like, Ted, over the years I have found radar charts a good way to hook attention and trigger conversation. I had similar experiences to Ted in a variety of sport contexts:

In situations like this, visuals go a long way toward opening the conversation. If you show a table of numbers to a coach who isn’t already on board, you’re dead. Bar charts? Only mostly dead. Radars? Interesting… Tell me more.

My use of the charts acknowledged the limitations of the visualisation. Once the coaches had started to discuss the issues raised by a fallible (flawed) visualisation, we inevitably started to discuss how performance might be re-presented (represented) which led in many cases to some fascinating second-order conversations about observation and the narratives we build around performance … and other forms of visualisation.

My willingness to use radar charts dates back to William Anderson’s (1971) discussion of descriptive-analytic research in physical education. He notes:

Their principal concern is to collect accurate descriptive records of events in actual classrooms and to analyze these records in a way that enables a better understanding of the events. (1971:2)

He adds:

The descriptive records of teaching which emerge are in many ways like the descriptive record of a basketball game contained in a basketball shooting chart. The shooting chart is a diagram of a basketball court on which is recorded the number of each player who took a shot, the place on the court from which the shot was taken, and whether the shot was made. The shooting chart is a record of a critical dimension of “real world events” (the game). A careful examination of the chart can lead to understandings and insights which were not possible during the game itself. In much the same way, descriptive records of teaching provide a picture of real world events (classroom interaction) which lead to a deeper understanding of the teaching process. (1971:3)

Ted makes the point “As I designed them, radars exist to help you open the door with statistical novices, and from that perspective they have been wildly successful”.

This happened in conversations about pedagogy too in William Anderson’s work.

Like Ted, I am acutely aware of the flaws in radar charts. We have unprecedented expertise in sport now. The stories we can produce have immense visualisation resources to share performances. The key for me will be how we work with a variety of audiences in sport, and particularly in decision support for coaches, to achieve the level of engagement Ted reports:

Radars start a conversation. They get a reaction. And for whatever reason, football people are often more comfortable talking about and digesting them than almost any other vis type I have encountered. (Original emphasis.)

These issues are why I have included Audiences and Messages in my open, online discussion of sport informatics and analytics. We have great opportunities for conversation in our community of practice about diverse practices.

Photo Credit

Crystal web (Wendy, CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

Mr Ted Higgs

The Murray Cods after the Olympic Test Race 1924

I was introduced to Mr Edmund (Ted) Higgs in a Trove newspaper reference from The Mail (Adelaide) on 19 May 1923. I found my way there thanks to Robin Poke‘s research on Australian rowing between the Wars.

Mr Higgs was interviewed about the successes of the Murray Bridge crew. Asked what was the secret of the crew’s success, he  said “I put it down as a combination of practice and theory” and added “the experts will have to watch us more closely before the mystery is solved”.

The story of Murray Bridge’s success over a decade is a great story about coaching and the connection a coach made with crews of rowers.

In 2011, Wayne Groom and Carolyn Bilsborow started to research the story of Murray Bridge Rowing Club as the subject of a documentary of “the great untold story of Australia’s sporting history”.  Their research and the documentary were completed in 2016 under the title Paris or the Bush. Wayne noted at the launch of the documentary:

It is the classic Cinderella story of a crew with no money, no boats and no clubhouse versus wealthy, privileged, city teams.

I was particularly interested in Ted’s role in this story.

The Mail article from 1923 had prompted me to reflect on what insights a coach has to transform a group into a team. In 1913 the crew won the national championships by a quarter of a mile in a three-mile race in very difficult conditions with “superior watermanship”.

Ted had learned about rowing on the Mersey River in Tasmania and had steered his first boat at the age of 10. The Mail article provides some detailed information about Ted that is extended in a more recent post by Geoff Smedley (2013).

Ted coached at Murray Bridge for 40 years and was still rowing himself as a 73 year old in 1953. A Standard article from 15 April 1953 reported:

In 1912-13 a club maiden crew won the champion eights of Australia, and then the interstate championship. In 1920, Murray Bridge won the first King’s Cup, rowed in Brisbane. In 1922 in Sydney it won again, and next year in Perth it retained the title. The crowning triumph the same year when it when it won the right to represent Australia at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.

I thought the documentary Paris or the Bush was a Chariots of Fire story worthy of much wider consideration, particularly in conversations about coaching and coaches’ learning journeys.

I liked the Mail’s description of him:

… he has the far-seeing grey eyes typical of a sportsman accustomed to long distances and accurate judgement.

He talks concisely, yet graphically, like the rower who makes a clean, spectacular stroke.

Ted is pictured below in his club blazer, standing next to the Governor of South Australia.

Tedd Higgs the coach with the Governor of South Australia

This video is a very powerful look back at what Ted and his crews achieved. It is a short (2m 26s) video of descendants of the 1924 crew being shown footage of the crew rowing in Ireland in 1924.

The documentary contains the wonderful story of one of the crew members, Wally Pfeiffer and his crew members’ support for him. It shares an ageless story of values and ethical behaviour and is, I think, as relevant today as it was in 1924.

I am just starting my research about him but am already fascinated by his connections with current coaching issues. He understood his sport, developed a training regime to embed his technical insights in muscle memory and set a standard that his contemporary coaches found difficult to overcome.

Photo Credits

The Murray Cods (The Murray Valley Standard, 3 March 2014)