Netball, shoals of fish and visualising performance

Last Friday, I was in Dublin at #HPX17.

I had just heard Joe Schmidt open the conference. I was about to present an hour later so I edited my presentation after reflecting on some of Joe’s points.

I thought I would check my email feeds to see if anything else might need considering. An ABC article about Australian netball by Joel Werner and Jonathan Webb led me to tweet this:

I am instantly attracted to whatever Lisa Alexander (coach) and Mitch Mooney (analysts) do in netball but I did need to resist the temptation to delve with just 45 minutes before my presentation. I did add a link to the ABC article in one of my concluding slides and mentioned evolutionary algorithms as a one-liner for the audience’s consideration.

The title of my talk in Dublin was Performance Analysis and Data Analytics: Are We There Yet?

Almost a week later, I am back at the article. The day after Australia has taken a 3v0 lead against New Zealand in the Constellation Cup netball series.

The ABC article discusses Mitch’s interest in collective behaviour. I have had a long term interest in ethology and my posts have included discussions about starlings, sticklebacks, wildebeest, zebras and rhesus macaques.

Mitch’s use of a Voronoi visualisation caught my attention. (It appears as a gif in the ABC article.)

I am delighted Mitch and Lisa shared their thinking so openly. I am hopeful that this article might trigger lots of conversations about:

  • Ethological insights into performance
  • Coach analyst relationship
  • Visualising and sharing data

These issues are embedded in my single slide in Dublin. Now I have lots of time to unpack them.

Yesterday I was writing about the visualisation of boxing data. Today it is netball.

I am hopeful that both Matthew Sankey and Gregory Voronoi have a place in our sharing of stories.

Photo Credit

Coaches watch at the AIS (Teresa Tan, ABC)

Status and Impact


My friend, Gordon, has been following up on research articles for coaches.

One of his finds today is a SportsCoach UK summary of How a Coach’s Reputation Influences Player Behaviour. (A copy of the paper that prompted the summary can be found here.)

We have been exchanging ideas about the leadership and followership dimensions of two workshops I am facilitating at an ECB Conference this week at St George’s Park.

I have been working through some ethological studies of leading and following. One of the studies I am looking at is exploring the impact of personality on animal social behaviour.


Jolle Jolles was the lead author in the paper. His research aims “to understand individual differences in animal behaviour and how this affects the structure and functioning of social groups” and to increase “our understanding of the boldness and sociability personality traits and their role on leadership and group movements”.

Jolle and his colleagues have looked at the role of previous social experience on risk-taking and leadership in three-spined sticklebacks. Within his research, Jolle is looking at boldness and shyness as traits.


Enter Gordon and the paper on Reputation. The research report summarised a study by Andrew Manley and his colleagues of 35 players recruited for one coaching session. The group was divided into three sub-groups.

Research 1

The observations of the players in the session revealed that:

  • Players who thought the coach was experienced spent significantly more time gazing at the coach.
  • Players who thought the coach was experienced put in the most effort (they completed significantly more drill-specific activities on their own, spent less time standing still and retrieved the ball quickly on significantly more occasions).

Andrew and his colleagues posit that “expectancies based on positive information may be more powerful than negatively framed expectancies, and can be harnessed by coaches as a means of developing effective relationships with their athletes”.



These readings have prompted me to go back to look at Erving Goffman’s (1963) book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. In it he observes that ““an individual who might have been received easily in normal social intercourse possesses a trait that can obtrude itself upon attention and turn those of us whom he meets away from him, breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us.”

I take this to be the force of Andrew and his colleagues’ research on coach reputation.

This stigma has social costs. Another ethological study draws attention to the health impact of these identity and reputation issues.

Jenny Tung and her colleagues propose that social environment is associated with gene regulatory variation in the rhesus macaque immune system.

They point out that:

  • In humans and other primates, adverse social environments often translate into lasting physiological costs.
  • Dominance rank results in a widespread, yet plastic, imprint on gene regulation, such that peripheral blood mononuclear cell gene expression data alone predict social status with 80% accuracy.
  • These results illuminate the importance of the molecular response to social conditions, particularly in the immune system, and demonstrate a key role for gene regulation in linking the social environment to individual physiology.

In the introduction to their paper they note:

Social status in nonhuman primates is encoded by dominance rank, which defines which individuals yield to other individuals during competitive encounters. In settings in which hierarchies are strongly enforced or subordinates have little social support, low dominance rank can lead to chronic stress, immune compromise, and reproductive dysregulation.

Leading and Following


Gordon’s find and my ethological ramblings do raise some fundamental issues about leading and following.

They have encouraged me to think about ascribed and achieved status too.

The ECB Conference is a great place to consider these issues. The theme is Leading to Performance.

Photo Credits

Feeding the Fish (Jolle Jolles)

Board Meeting (Nosha, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Peleton (Andrew Sides, CC BY-NC 2.0)

On the Bus



I am looking forward to facilitating a workshop on Day 2 of the ECB’s Leading to Performance Conference this week.

This workshop is planned for support staff.

I chose the title On the Bus to convey my sense of the journeys support staff make with sport coaches.

I am going to use these slides to frame the workshop discussions. I have drawn this Mindmap to summarise these slides.

The workshop is linked to an In Transition workshop on Day 1 of the Conference.

Leading and Following


As I have been preparing for the workshops I have been thinking about leading and following.

I am using a quote from Robert Jerry in both workshops:

For the leader to inspire and lead, however, the followers must be willing and able to be inspired and be led. In fact, followership may be viewed as a form of leadership … followers must adopt some characteristics of leadership when embracing the role of follower …

This dynamic interplay of leading and following has come to the front of my thinking through the work of one of my PhD students at the University of Canberra, Jo Gibson.

She has prompted me to look at ethology too. I have been revisiting studies of fish, birds and wildebeast.

In 2010, Andrea Cavagna and her colleagues wrote about the scale-free behaviour of starlings. They observe:

The change in the behavioral state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is. Scale-free correlations provide each animal with an effective perception range much larger than the direct interindividual interaction range, thus enhancing global response to perturbations. Our results suggest that flocks behave as critical systems, poised to respond maximally to environmental perturbations.

More recently, Lucy Aplin and her colleagues have social foraging and collective behaviour in wild birds. They report:

within groups, individuals with more reactive personalities behave more collectively, moving to within-flock areas of higher density. By contrast, proactive individuals tend to move to and feed at spatial periphery of flocks …

Lucy and her colleagues link to a paper I had read as part of my Coach as Leader post at the outset of the ASADA investigation into Essendon. Shinnosuke Nacayama and colleagues (2013) in their study of stickleback fish found that:

irrespective of an individual’s temperament, its tendency to follow is malleable, whereas the tendency to initiate collective movement is much more resistant to change. As a consequence of this lack of flexibility in initiative, greater temperamental differences within a pair led to improved performance when typical roles were reinforced, but to impaired performance when typical roles were reversed.

In a more recent paper on the behaviour of sticklebacks, Jolle Jolles and his colleagues (2014) report:

Overall, the behavior of relatively bold fish was more consistent across the stages, whereas shy fish changed their behavior more strongly depending on the current context. These findings emphasize how the history of previous social interactions can play a role in the emergence and maintenance of social roles within groups, providing an additional route for individual differences to affect collective behavior.


Jo Gibson’s work on leadership and followership has taken me to Karen Barad’s discussion of quantum entanglement. I will not be discussing this in the workshop but I will have it in mind as I discuss being On the Bus.

Ethology and quantum physics seem natural partners for the theme of this year’s ECB Conference … and for an understanding of the dynamics of group behaviour.

The title of the workshop is prompted by my memories of reading about Lenin’s thinking about the Revolution in Russia. I think he said revolutions are determined by whether you catch the train … or the bus. You have to be there to be part of the transformation.

I am hopeful that the workshop will explore how we adapt in social settings and perhaps have the opportunity to be part of the transformation of performance by being in the right place at the right time.

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Photo Credits

Manor House (Nico Hogg, CC BY-NC 2.0)

IMG_2411 (Dan Townsend, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Observing (Jerrold Bennett, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)