Critical friendship thoughts for #RUOK day: from a sport perspective

Thursday, 14 September, is R U OK? Day in Australia.

I have been thinking about the role critical friendship can play in conversations about personal well-being in sport.

One of the papers that has influenced my thing about critical friendship was written by John MacBeath and Stewart Jardine twenty years ago. It is titled ‘I didn’t know he was ill – the role and value of the critical friend‘.

They start their consideration of critical friendship with this paragraph:

The critical friend is a powerful idea,perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. They are forgiving and tolerant of your failings. They sometimes even love you for your faults. Critics are at first sight, at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. (1998:41)

They explore how this ‘true friendship’ can flourish with and through unconditional listening … and a willingness to challenge.

In five years as a critical friend with a group of thirty coaches, I have tried to learn how to balance listening with opportunities to challenge.

The challenge moments come at times when coaches’ self-esteem is high and the world is a secure place to be. It is not always connected with winning but that adds to buoyancy and openness.

In the five years of the friendships there have been times when listening was the natural thing to do when coaches enter dark places.

All the coaches in the group have a high public profile. The performances of their teams is subject to intense public scrutiny and at the worst of times their personal integrity is under direct and sustained attack. This engulfs their family too.

In good times, coaches and their families have more ‘friends’ than they could imagine. In bad times, the number of friends diminish. It affects the whole family and in some cases leads to their children being bullied at school.

My concern is that as a culture we have normalised the extreme language used to vilify coaches. Sitting with coaches who have entered dark woods affirms the costs of this language.

Back in 2011, Ben Pobjie wrote:

Because I know now the desperate flailing, the horrific suffocation that comes when those black waves come crashing over and you find yourself just about incapable of keeping your head up in the face of the merciless tides. But we’re all capable. We may have to lean on others from time to time, but we don’t have to fall. Tomorrow I may feel them crashing again, and become convinced that none of this is true, but now I have to affirm that it IS. (My emphasis.)

There have been five explicit occasions in my time with coaches that they have been subject to merciless tides. There have been many more times when coaches have not communicated about these tides.

I do infuse my critical friendship with R U OK? thinking. I hope my coach friends feel they can lean on me but despite my offers they sometimes choose not to lean.

R U OK? Day is my opportunity to revisit this paradox of being available, of having ‘unconditional positive regard’, of loving them to bits … and still coming up short as a critical friend.

#coachlearninginsport … silent eloquence

During my travels around England this month, I have been listening to Classic FM.

Each hour in the past week, there has been a promotion of the Woodland Trust’s Big Bluebell Watch that mentions Anne Brontë’s Bluebell poem.

The second verse of the poem starts with these two lines:

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell

Every time I hear those lines, I think about the conversations I have been having with coaches over the last four years in a critical friend project.

Most of the coaches in the group would get stuck into me about being overly romantic in my view of their coaching. However, I do think that the conversations have given me abundant opportunities to share a silent eloquence that comes with their experience and reflection.

There is a melancholy part of the poem too … about times remembered of “sunny days of merriment” when “heart and soul were free”. The poem ends with this verse:

‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

A number of the coaches in the group have lost their jobs in the last four years. Two of them are finding the experience of unemployment particularly hard as they strive to get interviews for new opportunities.

They have silent eloquence to share and will flourish in the light.

That is the paradox in Anne’s poem and in the world of coaching … and perhaps why we need a Woodland Trust project for coaches.

Photo Credit

Tiddesley Woods (Pershore Pictures, Twitter)

Perceptions of Performance


This week has converged for me around conversations about performance.

On Sunday, I was involved in an after action review of my crew’s performance on a fireground.

On Monday and Wednesday, I continued my critical friend conversations with colleagues at the University of Canberra about performance review and preview … and the ownership of a personal narrative about performance.

On Tuesday, I received a link to Scott McLean, Paul Salmon, Adam Gorman, Gemma Read, and Colin Solomon’s (2017) paper What’s in a game? A systems approach to enhancing performance analysis in football.

All of which sent me back to think about performativity. I noted, in particular, Karen Barad’s assertion:

Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real. (2003:802)

By good fortune, I had an opportunity to discuss this contestation, at a regular coffee and pizza unmeeting on Wednesdays at the Mizzuna Cafe at the University of Canberra.

Performance Unmeeting

Each Wednesday takes its own turn. There is an open invitation at noon to come to drink coffee and eat pizza. Our conversations mingle and extend around the interests of those who are there. This week there was a data scientist, a philosopher, a football coach, a CEO of an Analytics company and myself.

By a delightful serendipity, the football coach was one of the eight subject matter experts who informed the development of a systems model of a football match used in the Scott McLean, Paul Salmon, Adam Gorman, Gemma Read, and Colin Solomon paper. Our conversation explored the role of analysis in supporting coaches. My colleague had two questions to ask of an analyst:

  • What do you see?
  • What can I do about it in training?

At which point the data scientist joined in a discussion about performance observation, analysis and robustness. He shared an his experience of using Stephen Toulmin’s (1958) scheme for laying out arguments.

The philosopher, who was in another conversation, caught the word ‘argument’ and joined in an exchange that engrossed the whole table for the next half hour.

I have been asked ‘when does an unmeeting end?’. At the University of Canberra it occurs either when we have exhausted a conversation or more usually at the end of the free one hour parking place. Wednesday was that kind of day. We had run the argument to a natural conclusion and the time was up at parking.


Stephen Toulmin’s (1958) scheme for laying out arguments involves the clarification of:

  • Claim
  • Grounds (Data)
  • Warrant
  • Backing
  • Qualifier
  • Rebuttal

I am midful that Bart Verheij (2005) has elaborated on Stephen’s scheme but I have not included his clarification of defeasible argumentation here. I think this will be a fertile topic for subsequent posts.

In Stephen’s work:

A claim is “a statement that you are asking the other person to accept. This includes information you are asking them to accept as true or actions you want them to accept and enact”.

Grounds are “the basis of real persuasion and are made up of data and hard facts, plus the reasoning behind the claim. It is the ‘truth’ on which the claim is based.”

A warrant “links data and other grounds to a claim, legitimizing the claim by showing the grounds to be relevant. The warrant may be explicit or unspoken and implicit”.

The backing for an argument “gives additional support to the warrant by answering different questions”.

The qualifier indicates “the strength of the leap from the data to the warrant and may limit how universally the claim applies. They include words such as ‘most’, ‘usually’, ‘always’ or ‘sometimes'”.

“Despite the careful construction of the argument, there may still be counter-arguments that can be used. These may be rebutted either through a continued dialogue, or by pre-empting the counter-argument by giving the rebuttal during the initial presentation of the argument.”

In deference to our unmeeting, I thought I would apply Stephen’s approach to the (2017) paper What’s in a game? A systems approach to enhancing performance analysis in football.

Deciphering Research

Many years ago (1982), I was very impressed by Gerry Rose‘s approach to deciphering sociological research. He was my methods tutor at the London School of Economics and his course used the draft of his book on deciphering as the reading material for the course. Each week was a chapter.

To my knowledge, he did not use Stephen Toulmin scheme, but my thoughts about using Stephen’s approach to deciphering the football paper owes much to the insights Gerry shared with me all those years ago.

My reading of the papers is:

  1. Despite more than five decades of research in this area, current football Performance Analysis (PA) methods remain beset by various issues, including a lack of standardised operational definitions, a lack of match context, and the discrete measurement of isolated variables.
  2. Previous PA research has had only a minimal impact on practice.
  3. Football match performance has not yet been described in its entirety.
  4. There remains a substantial number of features that need to be defined and measured in football PA to ensure that the data are of benefit to practitioners
GroundsThree major contributions to PA research were identified in the current study.

  1. The analysis confirmed that the game of football is indeed characteristic of a complex sociotechnical system.
  2. A substantial contribution of the analysis is that it has identified aspects of performance, considered by the elite level football Subject Method Experts as important to optimal match performance, that are not currently measured (e.g. adaptability, communications), where existing knowledge is minimal (e.g. tempo, regaining possession), or where the investigated variable is not currently measured in the appropriate context (e.g. area of the pitch where important actions occur).
  3. The WDA revealed a substantial gap that exists between current football PA literature and the measures that are useful to coaches in everyday practice.
WarrantA different approach is needed to advance the current approaches used in PA for football. In particular, the novel measures identified in the current study require new measurement techniques, and the complexity engendered during football matches requires an integrated approach that considers multiple aspects of performance.
BackingRecent comments from researchers have indicated the need for a multi-disciplinary approach for the development of sport science. Applying Human Factors methods to football research helps to address this issue, and can be used to examine the complexity of football and some of the gaps in existing PA methods. Furthermore, we have identified that a research-practitioner gap exists that needs to be addressed in order for PA research to be beneficial in everyday practice for coaches and practitioners. Lastly, several new PA functions and measures have been identified, which in the opinion of football experts, has the potential to advance our understanding of PA in football.
  1. In our opinion, to align research and practice more closely, the integration of sport scientists and football experts is required to fully understand PA in football.
  2. We hope that this article provides the impetus to bridge this research-practice gap.

I have not included a rebuttal section here.

Excessive Power

I did not introduce Karen Barad’s assertion about performativity as “a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real” into our conversation on Wednesday. But much of my week has been about this contestation.

Just as I was completing this post, I received an alert from John Kessel about a New Yorker article written by Elizabeth Colbert, Why facts Don’t Change Our Minds. Elizabeth writes:

Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.

Which seems like a cue to let her and Elizabeth to know about Wednesdays at Mizzuna’s … and Scott, Paul, Adam, Gemma, and Colin.

Pizza anyone?

Photo Credit

Air Tanker (Paul Jenks, Twitter)

Hit by a car (Nationaal Archief, no known copyright)

Cyclists crossing a closed railway crossing (Nationaal Archief, no known copyright)

Getting ’em up (The US National Archives, no known copyright)