An Introduction to Analytic Narratives for Coaches and Students

A photograph of Aboriginal Whalers at Eden, NSW.


I received an alert to a paper today that has sent me off to revisit Donald Polkinghorne‘s and Philippe Mongin‘s discussion of narrative and the process of historical analysis … and to contemplate pedagogy.

The paper that started my journey today is titled ‘The Cooperation of Humans and Killer Whales (Orcinus orca): The Application of a Simple Fuzzy Rule-Based Model to a Historical System‘. The authors of the paper are Emery Coppola, Ryan Jones, Jack Owens and Ferenc Szidarovszky.

They present:

an historical model application that is pedagogical in nature, in that it presents the methodology for constructing a simple fuzzy model for a vague  but complicated social cooperative network along with example model-simulation results.

Their paper has an immediate empirical appeal for me as they discuss activities in a geographical area four hours to the south of my home in New South Wales.

Once I was hooked by the accident of geography, I became intrigued by their approach to bring together fragmentary data sources to create a model.

I believe their paper, and its connections with others interested in ‘narrative knowing’ and ‘analytic narratives’, raises important issues for the discussion of sport analytics.

A Narrative of Cooperation

A picture of a whale hunt at Eden, NSW.

In their paper, Emery, Ryan, Jack and Ferenc study “a complicated social cooperative network in Twofold Bay, southeastern Australia, over a century until 1930″. They note “Surviving sources document that pods of killer whales or orcas worked cooperatively with human bay whalers” to pursue and kill baleen whales.

Jack has been involved in the field of geographically-integrated history since the late 1960s. The Twofold Bay research provides an excellent opportunity to pursue this kind of history project.

The research has to deal with some fundamental issues about data. “The whalers are long dead, and there is no systematic collection of records from which we can draw”. There are subsequent studies of “orca behavior in different regions of the world done over the past 40 years” and there is “significant research on Australia’s Aboriginal peoples”.

Despite these constraints, their goal was to develop a fuzzy rule-based model that predicts the likelihood of the success of the social network in killing a whale”. In this case study “prediction means that the model will simulate the outcome of a whale hunt for each event in our narrative”.

They share the process of developing their fuzzy rule-based model and report:Our attempt to represent a complicated social network with a simple rule structure falls far short of plausibility. At the same time, our initial efforts, however modest, compel the historian/modeler to formulate a set of linguistic rules that quantify often highly vague variables and conditions, qualitative and/or quantitative in nature, in an attempt to represent and simulate a complicated system of interest.

I liked their exploration of the pedagogical issues in their research. I liked too their reflection on their practice:

As we learn from our initial models and accumulate more data, information, and understanding, we can formulate and test new models against the surviving record, allowing us to consider alternative hypotheses and to see more clearly what additional information we need to acquire … in an attempt to explain better this fascinating cooperation between orcas and human whalers for at least a century to hunt successfully large baleen whales. (My emphasis.)

As I read the concluding paragraphs in their paper, I was struck by the generic issues Emery, Ryan, Jack and Ferenc raise:

  • Imperfect information
  • Flawed understanding of processes that are often so complicated that no model will ever accurately capture the underlying dynamics
  • Narrative sharing
  • Acceptable prediction accuracy
  • Models as a first step to forming a theoretical or heuristic framework for analysis
  • Refining and improving understanding through additional data collection, model development, and testing.

These issues are central to a scholarship that embraces “new forms of research organization and rapidly evolving types of information management and analysis” (Owens, 2010).   They connected me with Donald Polkinghorne and Phillipe Mongin.

Sharing Stories With Practitioners

A picture of the fins of two orca whales

After reading Emery, Ryan, Jack and Ferenc’s paper, I thought about how I might share with coaches some of the take-aways from their “flawed understanding”.

I wondered too how I might share the pursuit of heuristic frameworks with students as they develop their understanding of analytics.   Donald Polkinghorne’s (1988) exploration of narrative knowing places significant emphasis on the importance of “having research strategies that can work with the narratives people use to understand”. 

Most of the coaches with whom I work are able to locate themselves within an historical context in sport, in terms of the sport in general and in terms of their own career paths.

I think they would find the story of the orcas as fascinating as I do.

My hope is that this might lead to conversations about understanding and transforming performance. I think I might be very selective about what I share and would gloss over the fuzzy-logic part of the story.   I think the orcas would be a great lead in for students too but the context of our conversations would enable me to explore what constitutes fuzzy logic and its potential to model behaviour.

With both groups, coaches and students, I would be mindful of Donald’s observation:

History’s function is to describe the events of the real world as they have actually happened and to explain why they have happened. … Historical narrative is supposed to be factual – that is, it is supposed to be made up of true sentences that represent actual past events. The sentences of historical discourse are expected to pass a correspondence test based on the evidence of the traces of events left in documents. (1988:57) (My emphasis.)

I take our ability to develop actionable insights to be informed by a rigour in how we collect and analyse data that can be fragmented and partial as well as comprehensive.

Could He Have Won?

Farmland in Belgium that was the site of the Battle of Waterloo


I enjoy returning to Philippe Mongin’s 2009 paper, A Game-Theoretic Analysis of the Waterloo Campaign and Some Comments on the Analytic Narrative Project.

In the paper Philippe presents a game-theoretic model of Napoleon’s last campaign, which ended dramatically on 18 June 1815 at Waterloo. It looks in particular at the decision Napoleon made “on 17 June 1815 to detach part of his army against the Prussians he had defeated, though not destroyed, on 16 June at Ligny”.

In his discussion of events in the Waterloo Campaign, Philippe observes:

At three key moments – June 17, around mid-day on June 18, and in the final hours of this same day – Napoleon could have departed from the line of events that his previous decisions had set in motion, and he did not (2009:15).

Philippe is able to include much more detailed data in his analytic narrative compared to the orca paper. His discussion of the process of constructing an analytic narrative provides an explicit opportunity to explore how history might have been redefined and to think critically about ‘the culture of the unique’.

In 2016, Philippe revisited the process of constructing an analytic narrative. He notes that “the transformations that standard narratives incur to become analytic narratives bears some relation to the transformations they incur to become computational narratives” (13:11).

I take the essence of this tranformation to be the understanding that “analytic narratives are narrative texts, which include, among their parts in non-narrative form, the statements of formal models and their consequence” (13:9).

Philippe used this approach in his study of Waterloo, Emery, Ryan, Jack and Ferenc did too in their use of models within a case study with much less documented evidence.

Narratives and Audiences

A picture of Mongolian wrestlers and their coaches.

My aim in discussing analytic narratives is to open conversations about evidence and models.

It is an attempt to extend the epistemic reach of sport analytics in the connections we make with coaches and students.

I am attracted to the qualitative nature of analytic narratives but am mindful that they provide an excellent platform for engagement with quantitative models. Emery, Ryan, Jack and Ferenc used fuzzy logic with fragmented historical accounts; Philippe used game-theoretic tools with an extensive textual record.

I am hopeful that the epistemic reach of sport analytics can be enriched by a pedagogical leap too. Jack Owens (2010), in his work on a Masters course at  Idaho State University, developed a capstone internship experience that allowed tutors to ‘coach’ students “in ways they can interact more effectively with others”.

As Donald suggests, narrative will be at the heart of vibrant interaction with practitioners. Imagine where a story that starts “Did I ever tell you about Old Tom?” or “How could you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?” might lead us.

Photo Credits

The Aboriginal whalers of Eden (ABC South East NSW)

Return of the killer whales of Eden (Australian Geographic)

Orcas (Ed Dunens, CC BY 2.0)

Waterloo, Belgium (cjlvp, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

P1140782 (WhatsAllThisThen, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Coppola, E., Jones, R., Owens, J. & Szidarovszky, F. (2015). The Cooperation of Humans and Killer Whales (Orcinus orca): The Application of a Simple Fuzzy Rule-Based Model to a Historical System. NOAH LLC and the Geographically-Integrated History Lab (ISU).
Mongin, P. (2016). What Are Analytic Narratives? Proceedings 7th Workshop on Computational Models of Narrative. B. Miller et al. (eds), pp. 13:1–13:13. Dagstuhl.
Mongin, P. (2009). A Game-Theoretic Analysis of the Waterloo Campaign and Some Comments on the Analytic Narrative Project. Paris: Groupe HEC.
Owens, J. B. (2010). Graduate Education in Geographically-Integrated History: A Personal Account. Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library.
Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. New York: State University of New York Press.


News of Steve Pearce’s tree project in Tasmania set me off thinking about how we record sport performance.

There is a home page for the project.

The page includes this information:

In 2016 the team spent over 8 weeks in the Styx Valley, 100 km to the west of  Hobart, filming, photographing and climbing giant Eucalyptus regnans trees.

The camera rig for photographing the tree portrait took two weeks to install due to the huge size of these trees, the wide distances they were apart and the frequent bad weather events. 

Despite this, the team have managed to create an incredible portrait of a 84 meter high tree.

We have also produced some stunning photos and videos of the forest, capturing many beautiful photos from a bird’s eye view using drones.

The picture shared here is comprised of 87 photographs that took “more than 3 weeks of full time editing to assemble”.

The team (there were eight members) note “Of the 67 days in the field we had 12 successful mornings of weather and only 5 mornings of suitable fog.”

They add “There is so much more to the story of this photograph and it possibilities”.

The possibilities include a shared virtual reality experience.

This is a link for use on a mobile phone.

The team write of their consideration of virtual reality:

During the Tasmanian Tree Project we experimented with the idea of creating a virtual reality tour of the tree. This presented us with a number of technical and financial challenges. Our biggest consideration amongst these was the setting. A tree offers no secure sturdy platform to shoot such images with a typical DLSR setup which requires great precision. 

A mobile delivery option would mean we could take advantage of the accelerometers on a mobile device providing a infinitely more dynamic experience and opening up the possibility of using more affordable VR headsets. We also wanted very much for the experience to be one that everyone could download for free and take home from the museum. This mobile delivery would allow to effectively transform the viewer into a advocate for these grand trees when showing it to a friend.

There is a 3D model of the tree too.

Throughout my reading about the project, I was fascinated by the desire to share the process and outputs of the project. I was struck too by the roles team members played in data capture.

  • Creative director
  • Project co-ordinator
  • Research climber
  • Lead climber, POV cameras
  • Forestry scientist
  • Support climber and rigging
  • Filmaker and producer

I thought too about the invisible work that teams do. In this project:

The camera rig for photographing the tree portrait took two weeks to install due to the huge size of these trees, the wide distances they were apart and the frequent bad weather events.

All of which left me thinking about aspirations for completeness in the observation, analysis and recording of performance … that might enable us to appreciate the beauty of performance.

The Tree Project Team share this perspective on their work:

We feel that the simple yet profoundly striking vision of seeing a tree for for first time can break down all preconceptions. We believe that this also allows everyone an opportunity to grasp further complexity and deeper ecological concepts.

I can see how this might guide our work in sport too. We might even start conversations about the ecological validity of our analysis process.

Photo Credit

The Tree Project, Steven Pearce.

A letter to the Secret Soccer Analyst

A training session

Dear Secret Soccer Analyst

I have four apologies to make to you.

First, I am sorry I missed your post when you first published it. Fortunately, Richard Whittall, Rob Carroll and Darrell Cobner alerted me to your story.

When I last looked Richard’s tweet had received 918 likes and 255 retweets. Martin Bucheit’s tweet about your post has 19 likes.

Your open sharing has touched many people. I am late to the party but am touched too. Profoundly so.

A picture of a videographer at a training session.

 I have been involved in the analysis of performance since the late 1970s.

In the 1990s, I worked as a performance analyst in rugby union. For most of the decade, I had intense work periods that during competition and overseas tours extended to 18 hour days … week after week.

It was an analogue video world. I was fortunate to have access to host broadcast videos and captured my own game video with the help of colleagues. We thought we had hit the jackpot with S-VHS format.

I have a second apology to make.

When I started the Centre for Notational Analysis in Cardiff in 1991, I hoped to create a career path for young people interested in performance analysis. We were at the start of a movement that has positioned you to feel the way you do.

I am staggered by the creativity of people like yourself. The world you occupy is a quantum shift from the occupational culture of the 1990s.

We do share the same vision though … to provide an invisible service to coaches that records, analyses and potentially transforms performance.

Filming training

My third apology is that despite my advocacy for performance analysis as a service, I have had limited success in persuading clubs and sporting organisations that our work should be valued rather than priced.

Young people are still inducted into performance analysis as unpaid interns or lowly paid analysts. We are encouraged to believe that the status of being connected with a club or team ‘compensates’ for zero or low wages.

Some learning organisations are pro-actice and make every effort to support their analysts financially and through continuing learning opportunities.

Our dilemma is that we have so many people wanting to be analysts and often have the experiences you have.

My fourth apology is to lament that I have not been able to gain acceptance for two fundamental questions:

What is so important we have to share it?

Can less be more?

At the heart of this conversation is a profound debate about frequent augmented information. The availability of hardware and software has led to a surfeit of options for each analyst.

It has created an insatiability that we as a profession must address. We either need more people or automation to help us or we use the two questions above and add two more:

What has changed in performance in training and competition?

How might feedforward transform our practice?

Much of my time now is spent in exhorting our community of practice to share experiences openly. Your post is a very important marker in our conversation about practice and reminded me of that quote in Shadowlands

We read to know we are not alone.

Now that you have shared your thoughts, I hope you realise that you have a world of friends who are just a phone call or email away.

I hope too you will accept my apologies.


Photo Credits

Training day in 38C heat (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)