Understanding stories, connecting messages


On 26 July the New Scientist carried news of research by Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and  Uri Hasson at Princeton University. New Scientist noted that “There’s now scientific backing for the old adage that when two people “click” in conversation, they have a meeting of minds. The evidence comes from fMRI scans of 11 people’s brains as they listened to a woman recounting a story.”

Research Findings

The abstract of the research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy indicates that:

Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication. We used the speaker’s spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker’s activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener’s activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate.

The scans showed that:

  • the listeners’ brain patterns tracked those of the storyteller almost exactly…
  • though trailed 1 to 3 seconds behind. But in some listeners …
  • brain patterns even preceded those of the storyteller.

The article quoted Uri:

“We found that the participants’ brains became intimately coupled during the course of the ‘conversation’, with the responses in the listener’s brain mirroring those in the speaker’s”. Listeners with the best overlap were also judged to be the best at retelling the tale. Uri noted that “The more similar our brain patterns during a conversation, the better we understand each other”.

Take Home

The Princeton research has some fascinating insights to share with coaches and teachers. In a mixed ability group it is interesting to note how each member of the group anticipates, stays with or misses a message.

Douglas Fields in his blog post about the research notes that:

Interestingly, in part of the prefrontal cortex in the listener’s brain, the researchers found that neural activity preceded the activity that was about to occur in the speaker’s brain. This only happened when the speaker was fully comprehending the story and anticipating what the speaker would say next.

The Princeton researchers found that there was no match between the brain patterns of the storyteller and the listeners, when they heard the same story in Russian, which they could not understand. Perhaps this is the equivalent of saying “They just did not get it.”

Photo Credits

Story Time at the North Library

Getting Coaching

The Occupational Culture of the Performance Analyst: Providing a Video Service

In the last couple of weeks I have been discussing an Honours’ project with a student at the University of Canberra. I have been encouraging him to think about researching the occupational culture of the performance analyst in sport. By coincidence I had just reviewed a paper about delivering a performance analysis service to a basketball team in Japan.

We have had almost two decades now of an occupation in sport that can be described as ‘performance analyst‘. Whilst I was discussing the project with the Honours’ student I was prompted to think about how little we share about the tacit knowledge of supporting and serving coaches and athletes with augmented information. Recent discussions of performance analysis as the practice of “recording, processing, and interpreting events that take place in training and/or competition in sport” are further stimuli to explore the occupational culture and community of practice.

Whilst searching through my electronic files to find material to share with the Honours’ student I discovered some pictures taken by colleagues at the Australian Institute of Sport. The pictures were of the video service set up for the 2005 ICF World Canoe Slalom Championships in Penrith, Australia.

As host organiser in 2005, Australian Canoeing provided a video service to competing nations. There were some significant logistical issues to overcome to provide this service. The aim of the team delivering the service was to provide an uninterrupted video feed. The service team comprised staff from the Australian Institute of Sport and the New South Wales Institute of Sport. It was a very young team. The video feed came into the raft shed at Penrith and was distributed to 30 end user points. We had a wired system for the video feed and to ensure minimal disruption ran a parallel back up system.

Given the distance from the furthest camera on the course to the raft shed we amplified all video signals. On the first day of competition the weather was so bad that we lost a number of connections and had to lay out new video lines. We used up a great deal of our redundant equipment in the first day and the proximity of the course to a Dick Smith store and a Bunnings DIY store saved us from running the event without any back up resources.

My role at the event was to oversee the team delivering the video service and to liaise with all nations requiring a video feed. It was a wonderful learning opportunity for me and the service team. My aim throughout was to offer an invisible service that provided uninterrupted augmented information for coaches and athletes. For the finals of the competition we provided a feed from the broadcast coverage of the event as an additional option for the nations using the video service.

Set up and testing of the video equipment for the event took three days. We managed to disassemble the equipment in one day. We kept a detailed inventory of equipment and did not lose one item at the event. We acquired a vast library of DVD, hard disk and DV recordings of the event that were used subsequently for coach education and development resources.

The Control Desk

Looking Out into the Room

Splitting the signals:

The view from the back of the room:

Down Time:

All of the service team have stayed in sport science after the World Championships. I am now searching for a picture of them at the event.

I hope this is the first of many posts about the occupational culture of the performance analyst. I see it as a way of exploring and sharing tacit knowledge. I like the way Wikipedia explains tacit knowledge:

  • While tacit knowledge appears to be simple, it has far reaching consequences and is not widely understood.
  • With tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact and trust.
  • Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. Tacit knowledge consists often of habits and culture that we do not recognize in ourselves.
  • The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience. … It involves learning and skill but not in a way that can be written down.

Five years after the World Championships it is interesting to reflect on the learning opportunities available at large scale events. It struck me at the time that such events offer a different scale of event to apply the principles we use in 1:1 services to coaches in training and competition environments.

Resilient Authoritarianism and Soft Power


Last Thursday I was driving into Canberra and had the opportunity to listen to Richard McGregor’s interview with Margaret Throsby on ABC’s Classic FM. Richard McGregor is the author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers published in June 2010. I had heard an earlier interview with Phillip Adams too.

Both interviews left me with a desire to explore the combination of resilient authoritarianism and soft power as a leadership style relevant to sport contexts. Richard explored both characteristics in his interviews. His study of the Chinese Communist party provides enormous detail about the processes and outcomes of a distinctive, transforming leadership practice. This is a link to a talk Richard gave at the Lowy Institute.

Penguin Australia’s trail for the book is: “It is impossible to understand China without really knowing who is in charge. And this book tackles the subject head on. How did China’s Communists merge Marx, Mao and the market to create a new superpower? How can they maintain such a grip on power in the face of a changing world.”

Resilient Authoritarianism

A lot of the references to ‘resilient authoritarianism’ are linked to China. For example, Andrew Nathan (2006) points out that he describes China’s authoritarian regime as resilient “because it remains robustly authoritarian and securely in power”. He suggests that some signs of the regime’s resilience are:

  • Hu Jintao’s smooth succession to power in 2002-2003 and his consolidation of power since then.
  • The regime’s ability to discern problems in economy and society and to make policy changes to respond to these problems.
  • High levels of support for the regime in public opinion.
  • The inability of social discontent and political dissent to cumulate.

He adds that the roots of the regime’s grip on power include:

  • Economic growth has improved the welfare of most of the population, giving them a stake in the survival of the current regime as long as they continue to benefit from its policies and its stability.
  • The regime has scored real as well as perceived achievements in foreign policy, such as securing the 2008 Olympics for Beijing …
  • The regime maintains a variety of safety-valve institutions which, however ineffective they are, nonetheless offer dissatisfied citizens an alternative to opposing the ruling party.
  • The regime has been able to use repression to prevent the rise of any substantial political opposition.
  • The regime has managed the far-flung and complex propaganda system in such a way that the broad public perceives diversity and significant freedom in the media, while at the same time sensitive political messages are eliminated from the public sphere.
  • The Party has developed the ability to co-opt economic and social elites, so that it is “the only game in town” for ambitious persons.
  • The regime has the necessary policy-making systems in place to respond to economic and social change.
  • Crucial to the resilience of the regime is the elite’s will to power. The leadership hangs together.

Art Hutchinson explores the relationship between resilience and robustness. He notes that ‘resilient authoritarianism’ is:

a strange combination, to be sure, and in fact ‘robustness‘ rather than resilience may be a better term for the Chinese government. The former connotes sheer strength and durability; the latter is more characteristic of a system that’s able to bounce back seamlessly (or nearly so) from a wide array of unanticipated shocks and challenges. It’s a distinction many large organizations should take to heart–and many have.

He argues that the true resilience of highly distributed systems tends to triumph due to:

  1. Greater adaptability (they can deform in extreme ways without disintegrating altogether) and;
  2. The speed with which they can route around ‘failure’.

Soft Power

Joseph Nye (2008) points out that soft power is:

the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. A country’s soft power rests on its resources of culture, values, and policies. A smart power strategy combines hard and soft power resources.

Ernest Wilson (2008) suggests that smart power is defined as:

the capacity of an actor to combine elements of hard power and soft power in ways that are mutually reinforcing such that the actor’s purposes are advanced effectively and efficiently.

It strikes me that attraction and advancing purposes effectively and efficiently are characteristics of good coaching.

Leadership in Sport

The discussion of authoritarianism and soft power in political science resonates for me with discussions about effective coaching. In writing this post I was taken back to Muska Mosston’s work in identifying and discussing The Spectrum of Teaching Styles. The Spectrum builds upon the premise that teaching behavior is a chain of decision making. Every deliberate act of teaching is a result of a previous decision.

Jonathan Doherty (2003) points out that Mosston’s ideas on the interactions between teacher and student have provided a framework for teaching physical education in different contexts all over the world. He notes that in the 1970s it was described as “the most significant advance in the theory of physical education pedagogy in recent history”. (For a recent discussion of the pedagogical approaches in the Spectrum see Sicilia-Camacho and Brown (2008). Jaekwon Na (2009) provides an example of the use of the Spectrum in the teaching of Taekwando. Shirley Gray (2009) and her colleagues look at the teaching of invasive games.

I see an important link between deliberate acts of teaching and the underlying approach to authority and control. Ian Pickup (2010) explores some of the factors that impact on teaching in his discussion of teaching young children.

Resilient behaviour in coaching for me is a fascinating mix of world view (big picture understanding) and pedagogical practice that frames deliberate acts of knowledge reproduction and production. In professional sport it requires a lot of political will too.

Richard McGregor’s insights provide an interesting guide as to how coaches might manage all three elements.

Photo Credits

Bank of China

Gentle Caress of Light

Coach 01