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)

Ten years on, thinking about desire paths

This month, I will have been away from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) for a decade.

The years seem to have raced by. My decade anniversary coincides with another AIS re-organisation.

I have tried to stay connected with my colleagues at the AIS but have stopped visiting the Bruce campus. Earlier this year (July), I wrote in response to Wayne Goldsmith’s Facebook post about the AIS.

My decade of absence, Wayne’s first line (“It’s breaking my heart’) and a visit to Sport Ireland for their High Performance Knowledge Exchange Conference have sent me off thinking about the place of the AIS in national and international sport.

There has been a consultation process in 2017 in Australia for a National Sport Plan that will be a long-term strategy for the whole of sport that will have four key pillars: participation, performance, prevention through physical activity, and integrity.

The Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport (2017) proposes a vision with four sub-components, and seven game-changers for the Australian sport community over the next twenty years.

My rewording of the vision uses strike through text:

For Australia to be the most an active sporting nation, known for its celebration of playinclusivity, integrity, thriving sports organisations, continued exceptional international success competitiveness in international competitions sport events, and a world-leading vibrant sports industry. (My emphases)

I am perplexed that we are aspiring to improve “our Summer Olympic performance from 10th in Rio to a top 5 place by 2036”. I had hoped that a visionary document for the 21st century might have gone beyond the sportive expressionism of a nineteenth century nation-state model.

Perhaps we might talk about optimising performance (at all levels) instead.

I could not find mention of ‘climate’ in the document. (It was not identified as one of the six megatrends in Australian sport in 2012.)

My decade away from the AIS and life in a rural community since 2007 have encouraged me to think about bottom up approaches to playful activity enriched by inclusivity and integrity. This to me is the essential transformation of a system that de-emphasises international success, celebrates personal growth  and acknowledges that performance at quadrennial festivals is a very small part of a much bigger task.

This task for me is to offer opportunities for young people to engage in physical activity and create desire paths one of which might lead to high performance sport. We can do this by valuing effort, championing integrity and inclusivity, and accepting that we are not defined by medal outcomes.

I am hopeful that the National Sport Plan in 2018 will provide an organic, long-term plan for the flourishing of play, games and sport in mid-21st century Australia … replete with expressive joy.

Postscript

I am using ‘desire paths’ in the way that Kate Bowles does:

is that it represents shared decision-making between separate users who don’t formally cooperate. So a desire path is both a coherent expression of collective effort, and completely unplanned — in fact, it’s the opposite of planning. Simply, each one puts her or his foot where it feels most sensible, and the result is a useful informal path that’s sensitive to gradient, destination, weather, terrain, and built through unspoken collaboration among strangers.

Photo Credits

No limits (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

The parsnip field home (Steve, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Anatolij Zelentsov

Introduction

It is hard to find pictures of Anatolij Zelentsov. He was the statistician and analyst who accompanied Valerij Lobanovs’kyj on his coaching journey with Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and subsequently at Dynamo Kyiv. This portrait picture is from  the Komkon website.

As part of my ongoing exploration of the golden age of Dynamo Kyiv under Valerij’s leadership, I wanted to share what I have learned about Anatolij (I am going to spell his first name to resonate with Valrij, I think his name in Ukranian is Анатолій Зеленцов).

Simon Kuper (Football Against the Enemy) and Jonathan Wilson (Behind the Curtain) have shared their experiences of meeting Anatolij in person. Their accounts started my research about Anatolij. Jonathan (2012) described Anatolij as ““a young academic brimming with enthusiasm for the statistical methods he believed could be employed to improve standards of coaching”.

Dnipropetrovsk Beginnings

In an interview with Komkon, Anatolij remembers being introduced to Valerij “sometime” in 1968. At that time he was the Dean of the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science, Valerij was about to become head coach of the Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk football team.

Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipro since 2016) is approximately 400 kilometres from Kiev. At the time Valerij and Anatolij met, Kiev was the centre of the Soviet computer industry. Jonathan Wilson (2011) points out:

The first cybernetic institute in the USSR was opened there in 1957 and quickly became acknowledged as a world leader in automated control systems, artificial intelligence and mathematical modelling. It was there in 1963 that an early prototype of the modern PC was developed.

Anatolij gave Valerij access to this cybernetics culture and, as Gabrielle Marcotti (2013) points out, they came of age together:

when the Soviet Union was developing its first computers. Yes, they were the size of minibuses and, in terms of computing power, roughly equivalent to a convenience store microwave.

They were at the forefront of the use of computers in sport “at a time when the most advanced technology used by coaches around the world consisted of a whistle, a legal pad and a ballpoint pen” (Gabrielle Marcotti, 2013).

The Development of Training Models

Anatolij and Valerij shared their thoughts about performance in their book The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models. (David Squires (2016) suggests “they were too busy decrypting football to think of a punchier title”.)

I was not able to find an online source for the book. A number of authors cite short passages from it. In his interview with Komcon, Anatolij reports “This book was censored for a long time. They demanded to remove “anti-sovietism”. He added:

Our first thoughts about modelling of the game appeared exactly in a theatre. We, with Lobanovsky, used to come to watch rehearsals in a theatre, to see how the future show is “modelled”.

One of the most quoted parts (see, for example, Jonathan Wilson (2011); Vadim Furmanov (2012); and Jed Davies (2013)) of the book is:

When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.

Within this paragraph, we have socialism meeting dynamical systems or as Vadim Furmanov (2012) suggests “Scientific Communism meets Total Football”. This approach led Anatolij to evaluate the functional readiness of players.

In an interview in 2004, Anatolij indicated where his functional evaluations had taken him:

In the 50-60s, many coaches believed that the more a team trains, the better it plays. However, you can spend three hours on the field, without getting the proper load, but you can work fruitfully for 45-50 minutes. The basis was to increase the intensity of training with a decrease in their duration. In this case, it was necessary to take into account the specifics of the recovery period, theoretically simulate and practically justify the model of the training session with the known reactions of the player’s organism in advance. To work scientists were connected with developments in related fields – Academician Glushkov, Professors Zimkin, Chagovets, Yakovlev. Together, we achieved results that had no analogues in the world at that time.

Tessellation

Barney Ronay observed recently:

Lobanovskiy is usually cast as the father of things. Father of analytics. Father of a data-driven total football. … every movement tracked, rated and tessellated.

Tessella‘ is a Latin word for a tile or small square. It is also used to describe patterned mosaic floors. Tessellation is at the heart of the system Anatolij and Valerij developed.

Many of the insights into this tessellation come from Italian discussions of Anatolij’s work. For example, a post by Laboratorio Pincharrata (2012) quotes Anatolij:

In my laboratory the functional disposition of the players is evaluated and how they can reach their best potential. We develop the players in a natural way following the scientific recommendations We recommend how to plan the training, how to evaluate them, how to understand the actions of the players in the field, all from a scientific point of view.

Anatolij’s computer program for the evaluation of ‘functional readiness’ to analyse game play and individual player performance divided the playing field into nine squares. Within this tessellation, Anatolij measured the frequency with which each player entered defending and attacking areas and the work he did on and off the ball. Each player was awarded an overall score to three decimals based on physical, cognitive and affective measures.

The only example of an output of this system I have been able to find appeared in the Laboratorio Pincharrata (2012) post:

Anatolij said of this approach:

In our lab we are trying to evaluate the potential of every player. Moreover, we don’t just give coach an advice, we justify it with numbers. We recommend how to compose the program of trainings, how to evaluate it, how to understand actions of players on the field… all from the scientific point of view, no emotions. (Komokon, nd)

He added that the laboratory had a decade of records:

Tracing all players — those who leave the team and those who remain with us. It doesn’t matter for us. We developed different methods of training, different models of games. We have have fast video-database with almost all tournaments in the world. Starting from them we are trying to predict the development direction of Modern Football. (Komokon, nd)

Synergy

The story of Dynamo Kiev’s golden years raises some fascinating insights for present day analysts as they work behind the scenes with coaches and players.

Valerij had a vision for how the game of football might be played. His technical and tactical coaching insights pervade present day football, fifteen years after his death in 2002. One of his observations was “A system does not guarantee success, but it gives a much better chance of success than making it up as you go along’.

With Anatolij as his partner, he was able to develop a system that transformed preparation and game play into chess rather than an unthinking acceptance of chance. The system involved 22 on-field elements transformed by the understanding of game play as a dynamical (dialectic) flow. Anatolij’s view of this was “continuous motion of players, collective speed actions of a team, high individual skills based on the foundation of collective actions” (Komokon, nd).

Throughout my research for this post, I have been struck by the impact of a long-term friendship on transforming performance. I think Anatolij and Valerij’s relationship was a perfect meeting of minds. From this grew an exemplary synergy.

I am mindful that their meeting has been referred to as ‘accidental’ which is to me the other part of very special relationships … the magic of serendipity.

Postscript

Anatolij died in September 2006 at the age of 72. I found an obituary for him using his name in Ukrainian (Анатолій Зеленцов). The Dynamo Kiev website noted:

Almost forty years of his life, Anatolij Zelentsov devoted to “scientific football”, creating an original system of accurate calculation of the training process, mathematical modeling of loads.

And:

Until the last day of his life, Anatolij Zelentsov did not stop in development, giving the updated training staff of Dynamo and the Ukrainian team the latest scientific developments in the field of increasing the intensity of training sessions, models of playing football and much more.

The notice listed three publications (in addition to The Methodological Basis noted above):

The experience of programming the preparation of the players of the Dynamo Kyiv team, the programming of the training of football teams of masters (with Valerij Lobanovsky)
Tactics and strategy in football (with Valerij Lobanovsky, V. Tkachuk, A. Kondratiev)
Lessons of football (with Valerij Lobanovsky, V.Kowerver, V.Tkachuk)

Photo Credits

Anatolij Zeletsov (Komkon)

The group of four (Pasquale)

Dynamo Kiev 1985-87 (FourFourTwo)

Anatolij Zeletsov obituary (Dynamo Kiev)