Grazing, even for a moment, on the outskirts of great coaching

Leonard Cohen’s Preface to the Chinese translation of his collection of Beautiful Losers poems includes this passage:

When I was young, my friends and I read and admired the old Chinese poets. Our ideas of love and friendship, of wine and distance, of poetry itself, were much affected by those ancient songs. … So you can understand, Dear Reader, how privileged I feel to be able to graze, even for a moment, and with such meager credentials, on the outskirts of your tradition.

His thoughts sprang to mind this week when I had an opportunity to meet two coaches (a head coach and an assistant coach). I did feel immensely privileged to spend time with them. I had been following the coaching career of the head coach for over a decade. The assistant coach has been involved in my critical friend project for five years.

When we met I had one question: “How have you turned around the energy in the team?”. What they shared, in confidence, fascinated me. When I watched the team perform, I saw at first hand the outstanding performances of understanding they had co-produced with the two coaches.

I was in awe of the privileged access I had to their coaching on the outskirts of their everyday practice … grazing.

Photo Credit

At the game (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

Outside (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

Valerij, Anatolij and Dynamo Kyiv’s Golden Years

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Introduction

I have been researching Valerij Lobanovs’kyj’s coaching career at Dynamo Kiev. I am particularly interested in his partnership with the statistician and analyst Anatolij Zelentsov.

I believe their partnership is a defining moment (that extended over three decades) for those of us involved in the analysis of performance and the quest for actionable insights.

There are two parts to their partnership at Dynamo Kyiv: 1974-1990; and 1997-2002.

Over these two periods, Dynamo Kyiv’s goals scored and conceded were:

The gap in the data between seasons 18 and 19 signal Valerij’s absence from the club. When he left at the end of the 1990 season, Dynamo Kyiv were in the USSR Vysshaya Liga. On his return in 1997, the team were in the Ukraine Premyer Liga.

1974-1990 Vysshaya Liga (USSR)

In the eighteen seasons Valerlij and Anatolij were together at Dynamo Kiev, the club won: eight Vysshaya Liga titles ( 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1985, 1986, 1990); six Soviet Cup finals (1974, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1990); two UEFA Cupwinners’ Cup competitions (1975, 1986); and the UEFA Super Cup (1975).

In 1976, the Vysshaya Liga was divided into two seasons (Spring and Autumn). The club finished seventh in the Spring and second in the Autumn. In that year Valrij coached the Russian Olympic football team that won a bronze medal at the Montreal Olympics. Valerij coached the Russian national team in the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Dynamo Kiev had their worst two years in the Liga since Valerij had arrived (7th in 1983, 10th in 1984). When he returned in 1985, Dynamo Kyiv won the league title and did so again the following year.

In 1974-1975, Dynamo Kyiv defeated CSK Sofia, Eintrach Frankfurt, Bursaspor, PSV Eindhoven, and Ferencvaros (3v0 in Basel) to with the UEFA European Cupwinners’ competition.

In 1985-1986, their opponents were: Utrecht, Craiova (100,000 spectators saw the second leg at Kyiv), Rapid Wien, Dukla Prague, and Atletico Madrid.  Dynamo Kyiv won the final 3v0 in Lyon.

1997-2002 Premyer Liga (Ukraine)

Valerij returned to Dynamo Kyiv at the start of the 1997-1998 season. At this time the team were in the Ukrainian Premyer Liga. In Valerij and Anatolij’s second partnership at the club, Dynamo Kyiv won four consecutive league titles (1997-1998, 1998-1999, 1999-2000, 2000-2001); and three Ukraine Cup Finals (1998, 1999, 2000).

Valerij’s last game was away against Metalurg Zaporizhya on 7 May 2002. He suffered a stroke shortly after the game and died a week later on 13 May. Dynamo had won the game 3v1 and were leading the League by four points. In that season they had won 17 of the 21 games they had played, were undefeated and had scored 52 goals and conceded 7. Their only defeat that year came in round 25 when Shakhtar Donetsk beat them 2v0 to win the title by one point.

Anatolij died four years later. He was still working with the club at the time of his death.

Greater than the sum of their parts

I have been fascinated by a friendship that started in 1968 and only ended with Valerij’s death in 2002. This friendship combined a very special coach and an analyst who was around at the time it became possible to use computers in sport. Together they took part in a golden age of Dynamo Kyiv football and did so in two distinct phases of their careers.

I thought this quote, attributed to Anatolij, embodies what this friendship meant:

Ideas are good, but most important is to realise them in practice. Valerij is the unsurpassed master in the realisation of ideas. What’s more, he does it in his own way. (GOTP, 2015)

Photo Credits

Dynamo Kyiv 1975 (Game of the People, 2 November 2015)

The group of four (Pasquale)

Valerij Lobanovs’kyj (Alchetron)

Anatolij Zeletsov obituary (Dynamo Kiev)

Postscript

This is my fourth post about Valeij and his coaching career. The four posts are my belated attempt to research a remarkable part of football history that has relevance for coaches and analysts. The limitations of language have prevented me from pursuing granular detail in this research.

The posts combine three of my passions: coaching; analysis and analytics; life history.

Valerij, Anatoli, Oleh and Mykhailo

Valerij Lobanovs’kyj

Anatolij Zelentsov

Reflecting on #abbotsthon17 and #HPX17

#HPX17 Conference Image

Introduction

An intense three days has come to an end at Sport Ireland’s High Performance Knowledge Exchange Conference (#HPX17). I was fortunate be part of a pre-conference workshop (#Abbotsthon17) as well as the main event.

I had started a conversation about the workshop with Alan Swanton, the performance analysis lead at the Irish Institute of Sort,  in January this year. I am immensely grateful that he and Daragh Sheridan took the bold decision to invite me. When I saw John Rudd‘s slide in his Saturday presentation at the conference, I thought about the trust Alan and Daragh had placed in me.

This encouraged me to reflect on the three days on the Sport Ireland campus and the opportunity I had to meet a global cohort of presenters. I am fascinated by the opportunities we have to come together and explore the optimisation of readiness to perform and the delivery of performance as athlete, coach, support staff, family and friends.

I took to heart Tanni Grey-Thompson‘s caution in her keynote and shared by Matt Dossett:

Unmeetings, Hackathons and Conferences

Alan and Daragh getting ready for the conference.

One of my biggest take aways from #HPX17 is the cultural capital available to Irish sport. I am fascinated by the vision Daragh had for the conference. I do see enormous opportunities for the expansion of the role that Daragh has at the Sport Institute. He is Head of Capability and Expertise at the Institute. He holds this position at a time when, as Mark Pesce (2017) suggests:

We’re in the midst of the most important shift in civilization since the invention of the steam engine — the pervasive application of intelligence into every aspect of the world.

I do think that if Ireland can take a connectivist approach to this pervasive application of intelligence then the system will flourish.

The form this sharing can take is the set piece, themed conference. The theme of #HPX17 was Lessons Learned from High Performance Sport: The 2020 Evolution. It can take place in much less structured ways too. That was my first suggestion to Alan when we first started discussing the workshop.

I wanted to flip all the content for the workshop and set about creating some autoresponder opportunities to share content so that our meeting on 5 October could follow the interests of participants. I reposited resources throughout my cloud storage and started a # to aggregate Twitter feeds, #Abbotsthon17.

The theme we agreed was:

A picture of the front slide page for the workshop

Alan did his best to organise me and I really appreciated his guidance around a framework for the program. As with all good unmeetings and hackathons, we did wander but I am hopeful we did so in a sensitive way. One of the big successes of the day, for me, was Alan’s inclusion of Denise Martin and Johnny Bradley. The day ended with a panel that included Alan, Denise, Johnny and Vinny Hammond (who has just flown in from a conference in Boston, USA).

A picture of panelists at the workshop: Vinny, Denise, Johnny, Keith and Alan.

I am hopeful there are many outcomes from this workshop in terms of evolution. We had thirty analysts in the room from a range of sports. I am profoundly grateful for their patience with me. I trust that we have made enough of a connection within and between sports to have a sustainable community of practice open to sharing and able to bring a mutual appreciation to the occupational culture of being an analyst.

I though one immediate step might be to have a Friday Letter From Abbotstown. We have lots of volunteers to write each Friday’s letter. I have found such letters are a great asynchronous resource. No one has to reply or engage unless they choose to do so. But in that memorable line “we read to know we are not alone”.

Are We There Yet?

Camera set up to record the presentation

On Thursday, I had an opportunity to present some ideas about performance analysis and data analytics. Our session included Alan, Johnny, Ireland’s men’s hockey coach, Craig Fulton and myself. I thought Are We There Yet? might be an appropriate title. I did share my presentation in advance but made some late additions after hearing Joe Schmidt start the conference and finding a link to Australian Netball.

Just prior to the talk, I tweeted this:

We held the talk inside the indoor track. I was very apprehensive about this. I did not want to be fixed to a microphone and I was conscious the audience was trapped on some basic seats.

Alan managed the session beautifully. I presented first, then Alan and then we had a discussion with Craig Fulton. I cannot say enough how big a treat it was to share the session with Craig. I admire what he has done immensely. Johnny worked with Craig on the World League circuit so we ended up discussing the relationship between coach and athlete.

Johnny, Colin and Alan in the panel discussion

My concerns about presenting in the indoor arena evaporated when I heard Craig talk about the thirty-four players he had used in one hockey season. His account of coaching took me off to believe that we are here now when we work with coaches like Craig.

During the day I was left pondering on this Seneca quote from On Tranquility:

In money matters, the best measure is not to descend to poverty nor yet to be too far removed from it … We shall be content if we have learned to be content with thrift, without which no amount of wealth can satisfy and with which any amount suffices.

That for me is the evolutionary headline message of the conference: become a sport system that learns to adapt. (We do need a funding cycle greater than one year to help us with our planned thrift.)

Secondly, take time to appoint the right people particularly as head coach.

Thirdly, fund sport in a way that is appropriate to Irish culture with its rich textures.

What a prospect!

Daragh and Alan on the morning of the Conference.

Photo Credits

All photographs (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

Tweets captured from Twitter