Our roots in stories

In sport, we are awash with data. A fundamental challenge for us is how we deal with these data in our everyday practice. We are trying to make sense of exabytes of data to provide a service.

I think an answer may lie in our roots as story receivers and tellers. In analytics, our relationships with coaches, players and other support staff requires us to share stories about performance. Neil Lanham (2013) points out “stories, in their natural setting, are vitally important to human understanding because they are the tools of wisdom”. He adds that the “naturally formed mindset is acutely observational, it sees metaphoric story in almost every happening, and has the language to form and relate it” (2013: 152).

Neil is an analyst and an oral historian. The combination of both domains has enabled him to think carefully about how we share and record messages. Like Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (2015), Neil has looked carefully at individuals at work and “to see how work connects with other aspects of their lives”.

Our roots in stories enable us to connect with others and establishes trust. Through our story abilities, we are able to connect practice with the innovation and transformation that is going on in the world of sport.

With experience we build our stories with thick description. In doing so, we engage in ethnographic, qualitative activities in which stories unfold. This enables us to make more permanent our analysis and allows us to discuss how we do share and the impact we have as analysts.

Clifford Geertz sees this thick description as an interpretive act in search of meaning. His approach resonates strongly with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s view that reality is socially constructed and that the sociology of knowledge must analyse the process in which this occurs (link).

I see this qualitative dimension as vital as we seek to employ more and more Insights scientists (link). Particularly when we encourage them to produce compelling, insightful reports that can and might be triggered by data visualisations. This is where ‘science’ meets story telling and the impact we have is defined by the ways in which we share.

It is a time when we as analysts become autoethnographers and we are able to link our biographies with the insights we are sharing. As John Tetnowski and Jack Damisco (2014) (link) suggest, it is a methodology “that gets at the inner feelings and interpretations of someone involved in the phenomenon being studied”.

It enables us to transform our practice by celebrating our qualitative roots in stories.

Photo Credit

Appears Backward (Brian Talbot, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Hill and slope (Marco Forno, Unspash)

One of those memorable days

The University of Canberra held its graduation ceremony at the Australian Institute of Sport Arena on Wednesday, 9 October 2019 (link). It is a memorable day for everyone concerned and a day for families to celebrate together.

It was that kind of day for Finn, Paul and Robin. All three graduated as Doctors of Philosophy of the University. It was a perfect setting for them. Each of them had spent a great deal of time at the Institute in their professional lives and in a sense I thought the day was about them coming home.

It is a day that lives in everyone’s memory and that is talked about proudly and modestly.

Finn Marsland

Finn’s thesis title is Macro-kinematic performance analysis in cross-country skiing competition using micro-sensors. His research “lays the groundwork for future research and practical applications, which could include daily training monitoring, course profiling, evaluation of sub-technique efficiency, and similar algorithm development for the Freestyle technique”. For me it was a wonderful example of a coach thinking about and transforming performance (link). In the process, Finn produced a number of much-cited papers.

Paul Perkins

Paul’s thesis is titled Can a modified, low-risk form of boxing achieve significant communiity uptake? (Link). The completion of the thesis marked a special journey for Paul. He was able to combine his love of movement with an increasing discovery of academic rigour. Like Finn and Robin the process of becoming a Doctor of Philosophy changed Paul. In partnership with his primary supervisor, Allan Hahn, Paul produced a number of papers that enriched our understanding of movement in general and box tag in particular.

Robin Poke

The title of Robin’s thesis is A Narrative History of Australian Rowing 1770-2016 (link). It represents the culmination of a five decade involvement in rowing in the United Kingdom and in Australia. Robin came to the graduation day after a morning row on Lake Burley Griffin with his colleagues in a Masters’ boat. His thesis is to be developed into a two volume history of rowing to be published in late 2019.

Professor David Pyne took the pictures of the happy graduates. I was unable to be at the ceremony but I was able to doff my hat to each of them in my absence. David and I were delighted to be part of the day physically and vicariously. It is one of those days that stays forever. As do the smiles and joy the ceremony brings to graduates and families.

It is one of those memorable, special days.


A friend has shared with me a profile of Béla Guttmann from the Daily Mirror on 27 September (link). The profile is titled Revolutionary coach who survived Nazi labour camp to become world’s first superstar manager.

I did not know of Béla’s story until my friend’s alert. I had watched his Benfica team play in the 1960s. There is a very helpful biography of Béla in Wikipedia (link). Earlier this year, Sarah Kemp (link) wrote “his passion and innovation saw him introduce great tactical formations and disseminate them around the globe”.

This “passion” fascinates me and links Béla to other coaches I have looked at including Valerij Lobanovs’kyj (link) in the Ukraine and Graham Taylor in England (link).

The Daily Mirror article is written by David Bolchover. David is the perfect author for this piece. He knows Béla’s life closely from his work in the biography The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory (2017).

David observed of Béla:

His tactical acumen, his ideas on diet and fitness, his approach to man management, the way he handled the media to gain advantage – all these would be considered standard among top coaches now. Back then, they were ground-breaking.

I do think these characteristics were shared by a number of coaches at that time. What fascinates me is how their cognitive sense of performance was shared and how what they had to share transformed lives.

This has a great deal to do with their perceptions of coaching and the actions coaches take. Wikipedia notes that before the Second World War, Béla coached teams in Austria, the Netherlands and Hungary, In the 1938-39 season he won his first league title in Hungary with Újpest FC.

Thereafter, Béla’s coching career moved from Hungary to Italy to Brazil and on to Portugal. David said of this journey “having lived and worked in 14 countries and coached 20 clubs, Guttmann was not just the ultimate survivor but very much the founding father of a now globalised game” (link).

This founding father label has a great deal to do with observations that Sarah Kemp makes about Béla’s time as a coach at his first post-war club Vasas in Budapest (where he was paid in food):

Here he showed his talent for finding young talent in Gyula Szilagyi who scored 300 goals in 15 years. It also showcased his uncompromising nature when talking about his principles.

This ability see a performance profile in players distinguishes coaches. It is interesting that late in his career Béla met and worked with a young Eusébio at Benfica and with whom he won a European Cup as well as the domestic league and cup titles. Sarah Kemp notes of this time “he promoted young talent. Talent he could mould and work with”.

The conclusion to Sarah’s article draws in David’s observations about Bélas life story that combines survival and great coaching. Sarah writes:

Bela Guttman was a remarkable man. Born in an era where many of his family and friends were eradicated for being born Jewish his survival is miraculous. To have come back with all the uncertainties of being a Holocaust survivor. It made so many crumble. He used his tenacity and charisma to be the first coach who would dominate the club he trained and bring them unprecedented success. Clough, Shankly, Ferguson, Mourinho and Guardiola can all trace their success to the one who inspired them – Bela Guttman.

Photo Credits

Bela Guttmann with Mario Coluna (Daily Mirror)

Mastermind (Mastermind)

Bela Guttmann coaching in Austria (The Times of Israel)