Mechanisms and Machineries

Mark Upton has posted his eighth fragment in his compelling discussion of sport systems.

I am fascinated by Mark’s insights. His latest post coincides with the end of my visit to England (and Ireland) after a month of conversations with coaches. Mark’s theme resonates powerfully with the direction of our conversations.

In his post Mark quotes Carol Black on schooling and notes ‘the fallacy of social engineering ’ that is:

the false belief that it is possible to institute a top-down, mechanical structure, impose it on a complex living system, and expect predictable results.

Mark observes of this:

it is unfortunate yet not unexpected that this influences the approach taken to designing “learning”, “education” and/or “development” of coaches, players and other roles in sport.

Mark contemplates how this might be different if we explore an organic approach that Carol proposes:

The key to the development of human intelligence and learning is that it is an organic process, in which a myriad of elements – some seen but many unseen – engage in a dynamic interplay to produce results which are stubbornly unpredictable in both timing and ultimate outcome. (Original emphasis.)

Mark concludes his post with this paragraph:

I’m looking forward to discussing this topic tomorrow with a coach who has been involved in one of the most successful player development environments for the last 20+ years. I sense he is unsettled by the mechanistic approach that sport academy systems are increasingly disposed toward.

I am keen to learn how that meeting went. By serendipity, each of the twenty-four conversations on my current visit have touched upon and sometimes explored in animated depth coaching processes. Our conversations have been five years in the making.

I think I have been exploring Mark and Carol’s juxtaposition of mechanistic and organic approaches to learning, being and becoming. My guide has been Karin Cestina and her thoughts on epistemic cultures:

those sets of practices, arrangements and mechanisms bound together by necessity, affinity and historical coincidence which, in a given area of professional expertise, make up how we know what we know. Epistemic cultures are cultures of creating and warranting knowledge.

She adds “the focus in an epistemic culture approach is on the construction of the machineries of knowledge construction”. (My emphasis.)

I take Mark’s work to be exploring these machineries.

I have not mentioned Karin to the coaches I have met but I have been using two catalysts as variations on this theme for conversation. One was the concept of everywhen and the other was Nigel Redman‘s conception of coaching as a Michelin star experience (discussed recently in another context by Kurt Lindley).

I take everywhen to be the connectedness of all time in the present. Who we were, who we are and who we will be are focused in our present and presence.

I think this allowed us to discuss coach as coach and athlete experience in terms of a Michelin system.

One star: Very good cooking in its category
Two stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour
Three stars: Exceptional cuisine, worthy of a special journey

The combination of both ideas helped us to talk about the processes of coaching and how the coaches in the group might advocate for coach learning environments to address the rich diversity of practice that can emerge from shared and contestable experiences.

I am in Belfast at the moment and am looking forward to exploring the city today. I am particularly interested in the mural art.

Many years ago, a friend at Dartington College of Arts, suggested that the murals had two dimensions: territory and aspiration.

Without pushing this connection too far, I do think Mark’s most recent fragment encourages us to contemplate the pictures we paint about coaching and learning. Mechanisms and machineries have territory and aspirations.

My hope is that by considering how we might frame both differently we can transform coach and athlete experience by creating the opportunities, in Carol’s words, under which “human brilliance may unfold and flourish”.

Photo Credits

The three pictures shared here are:

1. Looking out to sea past the Titanic Museum, Belfast. (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

2. Guido van Helten’s mural at Coonalpyn, South Australia (CNN)

3. The advocate: a Belfast mural. (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

Complex Systems in Sports

Thumbnail picture of the Camp Nou Stadium from end on.An international congress of complex systems in sports is being held in Barcelona in October 2017. The venue is the Camp Nou Stadium.

There is a call for abstracts.

The two-day program includes presentations from:

Scott Kelso (Principles of Coordination)

Wolfgang Schöllhorn (Differential Training)

Rafel Pol (Cons-Training in Team Sports)

Robert Hristovski (Unpredicatability in competetive environments)

Jaime Sampaio (Dimensions of Performance)

Paco Seirul-lo (Closing remarks)

A thumbnail picture of the 1899 Auditorium that can seat up to 400 attendees.There are seven workshops:

Game and performance analysis

Training and learning methodologies


Performance assessment in sport

Developing resilience

Athletes as complex adaptive systems

Interpersonal coordination

News of the conference appeared as the Sante Fe Institute is running its open, online course Introduction to Complexity. When I enrolled, there were 2367 other students following the course.

The syllabus for the course is:

  • What is Complexity?
  • Dynamics and Chaos
  • Fractals
  • Information, Order, and Randomness
  • Genetic Algorithms
  • Cellular Automata
  • Models of Biological Self-Organization
  • Models of Cooperation in Social Systems
  • Networks
  • Scaling in Biology and Society

To complete a week of connections, I received an alert to Mark Upton’s post, Seeking the Edge of Chaos. Mark notes:

I’ve been mashing up these ideas around order, chaos and complexity in a team sport context for a while now…

I have been thinking about these ideas too and this week’s alerts have been a timely reminder about their relevance and evidence of the growing community of practice around them.

This is a different epistemic environment now compared to my first foray in 1996. The challenge remains the same, I think: how do we share the story of complexity in sport settings without it being an abstract concept.

Hosting a conference at the Camp Nou is a great place to accept this opportunity.

A photograph of the entrance to the Camp Nou Experience at FC Barcelona taken by Andrew Booth.

Photo Credit

Camp Nou Tour (Andrew Booth, CC BY-ND 2.0)

#coachlearninginsport Moving from ‘No … But’ to ‘If … Then’ and on to ‘Yes … And’

I was struck by the introductory paragraph in an Esko Kilpi discussion of pattern recognition.

Esko argued:

The way we want to make sense of the world around us often has to do with causality. The question we ask is what caused “something” to happen. There is a variable, the “it,” that happened, that is now to be explained. In scientific study this variable is regarded as dependent. An independent variable, or variables, that cause it are then sought. This is also the if-then model of management. (My emphasis).

He followed up with this paragraph:

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is in effect what self-organization means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.”

By good fortune, I had an opportunity to talk with a colleague about Esko’s post and my interest in using creative, actionable insights to help with ‘If … Then’ game playing opportunities. My colleague has had a long career in the theatre.

We started talking about improvisation and the opportunities for ‘Yes … And‘ relationships.

‘Yes’ is an acceptance of another’s contribution, ‘And’ is our creative response to it. I take this to be at the heart of of Esko’s discussion of the self-organisation of local interactions.

Mark Upton provides a fascinating example of this self-organisation in his discussion of playfulness.

I take the ‘No … But’ part of the title to be characteristic of an instruction where behaviour is constrained. Perhaps it is the start of our teaching and coaching journeys where we feel obliged to share content and prescription.

I am meeting a group of rugby union coaches this weekend and I hope to raise ‘Yes … And’ ideas with them. I think I might start with this sentence:

The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing.

… particularly the ‘not doing’ part. And then use this segment of play from forty-three years ago to trigger conversation.

Photo Credit

Improvise (Andrew, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)