Complexity and Models

Mark Upton shared two links recently that set me off looking at complexity and models.

John Launer (2018) observes “the study of complex adaptive systems (CAS), also known as complexity science, is burgeoning”. In his article, he proposes “the idea that the fundamentals of complexity are in fact extremely simple” and suggests that “complicated descriptions of complexity may fail to capture its most important qualities, and that simple ones, especially those that use metaphor and appeal to intuition, may be better ways of doing so”.

John asks “in a world where prediction can never be certain, are there nevertheless some general rules that can reduce uncertainty, so that our actions stand a better chance of achieving their intended results?”.

John adapts Jeffrey Braithwaite and his colleagues’ (2017) consideration of complexity science in healthcare to suggest ways to promote complexity thinking. These include:

  • Resisting the temptation to focus on an isolated problem and looking for interconnections within the system.
  • Things happen when you least expect them.
  • Looking for patterns in the behaviour of a system, not just at events.
  • Keeping in mind the system is dynamic, and it does not necessarily respond to intended change as predicted
  • Drawing up a model of the system surrounding a problem.

(Note: in their paper, Jeffrey Braithwaite et al (2017:3) observe “Complexity refers to the density of interactions between different components (agents, parts, elements, artefacts) in a system or a model representing a system, and which produce roles and behaviours that emerge from those interactions. Complex Systems are rich in collective behaviour”. They make a distinction between  complicated (“a lot going on with all the components”) and complex (interrelatedness, emergent behaviour, self-organisation and dynamics).

Jeffrey and his colleagues make use of and adapt Thomas Kannampallil and colleagues’ (2011) visualisation of complex and complicated:

I liked John’s view of interrelatedness: “Human groups engaged in an endless dance of mutually responsive interactions, in which everyone including yourself plays a part”.

The second link from mark introduced me to Joshua Epstein’s (2008) lecture Why Model? The lecture distinguishes between “explanation and prediction as modeling goals, and offers sixteen reasons other than prediction to build a model”.

Joshua notes “the choice, then, is not whether to build models; it’s whether to build explicit ones. In explicit models, assumptions are laid out in detail, so we can study exactly what they entail. On these assumptions, this sort of thing happens. When you alter the assumptions that is what happens. By writing explicit models, you let others replicate your results” (2008: 1.5).

16 Reasons

  • Explain (very distinct from predict)
  • Guide data collection
  • Illuminate core dynamics
  • Suggest dynamical analogies
  • Discover new questions
  • Promote a scientific habit of mind
  • Bound (bracket) outcomes to plausible ranges
  • Illuminate core uncertainties.
  • Offer crisis options in near-real time
  • Demonstrate tradeoffs / suggest efficiencies
  • Challenge the robustness of prevailing theory through perturbations
  • Expose prevailing wisdom as incompatible with available data
  • Train practitioners
  • Discipline the policy dialogue
  • Educate the general public
  • Reveal the apparently simple (complex) to be complex (simple)

These encapsulate the freedom to doubt (Feynman, 1955). Joshua concludes:

the most important contribution of the modeling enterprise—as distinct from any particular model, or modeling technique—is that it enforces a scientific habit of mind, which I would characterize as one of militant ignorance—an iron commitment to “I don’t know.” That is, all scientific knowledge is uncertain, contingent, subject to revision, and falsifiable in principle. (This, of course, does not mean readily falsified. It means that one can in principle specify observations that, if made, would falsify it). One does not base beliefs on authority, but ultimately on evidence. This, of course, is a very dangerous idea. (2008: 1.16)

Both of the references shared by Mark are excellent prompts to reflect on how we address the interrelatedness of sport behaviours. I thought Joshua’s help in sharing openly what we do juxtaposed two fascinating second order conversations: ‘freedom to doubt’ and ‘militant ignorance’.

Photo Credit

Coaching as a humble vocation


I have the good fortune to meet and spend time in the presence of coaches.

I have been in England for the last three weeks and have caught up with a number of coaches. It has included a knife, scissors, paper meet up with Russell Earnshaw.

I have been reflecting on this conversation in the light of responses to the podcast recorded by Russell.

Two responses in particular have been provoking (in the stimulus sense of the word) me.

The first … “so what is world class coaching?”

The second … “what about coach development?”


A conversation with a coach crystallised my thinking about answers to both questions.

This coach shared a story about an experience as a coach more than a decade ago. It involved the unlikely setting of Thirsk racecourse.

The coach was driving round England and meeting up with individual players. There was one player to meet and it was proving difficult to arrange a time. The player was a primary school teacher and could only find time on a Thursday night at 8pm and she would have an hour before she drove back and hour to her home. The coach had a 400 mile trip home after the session. He had no funds for a hotel stay and needed to be back at work at 9am the following morning.

Why Thirsk? The racecourse kept floodlights on until 9pm and there was a set of goals inside the race track. The bonus that night was that there was a torrential rainstorm.

The session went ahead. Player and coach were soaked and exhausted. Within the session the coach picked up a technical issue and suggested a change. It did not go well and they both moved on to another activity.

Ten years on, the coach and player were sitting in a World Cup Final dressing room after winning the world cup. The player said “It does not get much better than this”. The coach said “What, even better than Thirsk?”.

It was the most wonderful moment of laughter and tears.

Humble Vocation

I wrote to my two friends who had asked me the questions after my Thirsk moment.

Dear …

On all my travels since our conversations, I have been thinking about coaching.

I want to challenge ‘world class’, ‘world leading’ and ‘best practice’ labels and claims.

My thoughts:

  1. Our calibration against these titles can only ever be partial.
  2. Practice is changing continually.
  3. We can champion modesty.

So, I think we should just talk about coaching and the personal relationship each coach has with her or his athletes.

I want to stop using coach ‘development’ too and talk about coach learning.

As each of us coaches more, we learn about coaching. Each of our journeys as a coach is different. There is a danger I think that we link ‘development’ to a coaching award system and progression.

All my conversations with coaches address an essence of being a coach.

I am hopeful that this approach leads me to talk with coaches about their own and the athletes in their care flourishing.

As coaches we try to learn more and reflect on our practice. We have great moments but we also know we have poor sessions.

I do think that ‘great’ coaches are profoundly humble and modest. ‘Good’ coaches are on the way there but have not made that final journey to invisibility.

When we are in the presence of great coaches we do not need other labels. These coaches do not see themselves as great coaches they describe themselves as coaches.

Their journey is a journey into contemplative silence. In their presence, we learn profoundly and are transformed. Life is never the same again. I am thinking of calling this a Thirsk Experience. (I am writing a blog post about it.)

I think this places coaching in a humble place and positions it as a vocation.

My warmest wishes

Photo Credit

Thirsk Racecourse (dvdbramhall, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

European Football Season 2018-2019

Six European Leagues

Last season (2017-2018), I followed teams’ performances in 6 European Leagues (EPL, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Serie A, Eredivisie, and Primera).

The median profile of a European league champion was an 81% win record and 90 goals scored. The median points gap between first and second in these leagues was 15.

The range of win % was from Barcelona (74%) to Manchester City (83%).

Juventus scored the lowest number of goals (84), PSG the most (108).

PSV Eindhoven won the Eredivisie by 4 points, Bayern Munich the Bundesliga by 24.

English Premier League

I have some naive priors for the 2018-2019 season in the EPL.

  • A team scores first and wins = 0.63 (at home 0.42, away 0.21)
  • A team scores first and draws = 0.18 (at home 0.07, away 0.10)
  • A team scores first and does not lose = 0.81
  • A team scores first and loses = 0.11 (at home 0.05, away 0.06)
  • No goals are scored in the game = 0.08


My priors have no weights. During the season I will be keen to see how these macro indicators perform. An important indicator for me is scoring first and not losing.

In Europe last year, the figures for the five other leagues were:

  • Primera = 0.84
  • Ligue 1 = 0.83
  • Bundesliga = 0.82
  • Serie A = 0.80
  • Eredivisie = 0.78

My feeling is that the champions in each of the leagues must come from a bandwidth of probability of scoring first and not losing of 0.78 to 0.84.