Working with Coaches and Performers


I have been revisiting some of my work from the 1990s of late. In this post I share a paper written in my early years as Director of the Centre for Notational Analysis at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education.

In 1993 I was exploring some of the issues around a notational analysis service to sport and presented a paper at a British Association of Sports Sciences’ conference. The title of the paper was Working with Coaches and Performers: Notational Analysis as Liberational Praxis?

My background in social sciences had encouraged me to think about the links between liberation theology and Marxist conceptualisations of praxis and how they might enrich an understanding of sport performance. My thoughts were focused by a remarkable victory in rugby union in 1993 when Wales defeated England in Cardiff (there is a video of the game winning try and conversion here). I was working with the Welsh Rugby Union at that time but was in Amsterdam with the Welsh A team coached by Kevin Bowring. The scenes after the game in Cardiff were euphoric. BBC Wales TV replayed the entire game that night and rescheduled its programs for the rest of the weekend.

In the abstract I submitted to the conference’s scientific committee I noted that:

I am conscious that the reality of such theology and praxis is not always positive and developmental and so a second strand in the paper is the use of the concepts of liberation and praxis as reflective tools to explore the limits of notational analysis.

I present the paper here as a contribution to the discussion of the role of notational analysis in supporting coaches and athletes. I present it as an artefact too for a sociology of knowledge approach to notational and performance analysis.

I have added hyperlinks in this post to facilitate access to references used. There were limited opportunities to hyperlink text in 1993.

Working with Coaches and Performers: Notational Analysis as Liberational Praxis?


In this paper I use terms such as ’empowering’, ‘facilitating’, ‘sharing’ and ‘learning’ to characterise the relationships between notational analysts and coaches and notational analysts and performers. I suggest that by drawing on a tradition of research from outside sport science we can conceptualise the role that notational analysis can play in sport. In doing so I am conscious of Arthur Bolster’s (1983:299) comment that “I recall one teacher defining social science as a remarkably complicated way of talking about remarkably common sense notions”.

Liberational Praxis

A variety of disciplines outside sport science have been attracted to perspectives that challenge dominant assumptions about the philosophical basis of research and academic endeavour. The work of Paulo Freire and Antonio Gramsci, for example, has stimulated considerable debate in educational studies and the social sciences. John Southgate and Rosemary Randall (1981:53) observed some time ago that:

Much current research in the social sciences is concerned with being of some direct use to those who are normally considered to be the ‘subjects’ of the research process … and one of the central problems facing its practitioners is the nature of the interactions between themselves and their ‘clients’, particularly where the research aspires to be a liberatory process for all concerned.

Patti Lather (1986) explored “what it means to do empirical research in an unjust world”. In her work she was committed to praxis-oriented research that she construed as:

the development of a change-enhancing, interactive, contextualized approach to knowledge-building … that is provocative in its implications for both theory, and, increasingly, method. (Lather, 1986:260)

More recently Linda Bain (1989:22) suggested that a goal of research is “to empower those being researched, that is, to provide them with the insight necessary to demystify and critique their own social circumstances and to choose actions to improve their lives”.

It seems opportune (1993) to use such approaches in sport science. I want to address some of the fundamental epistemological and ontological issues by linking them to work underway with two governing bodies of sport.

Despite the absence of accreditation procedures, notational analysts do work with coaches and performers to enhance performance in sport. At best, their venture is collaborative and interdependent. At worst, it provides ample specification of what Paulo Freire (1972) termed ‘invasion’ where values, belief systems, ideology, and cultural norms are imposed in an unequal relationship.

The concepts of liberation and praxis strike me as heuristic foci for aspirations and action in sport for sport scientists, coaches and performers. I believe that whilst liberational praxis is vulnerable to the taunt of ‘mere rhetoric’ it can describe an effective working relationship between researcher and practitioner. As Richard Tinning (1992) has indicated, the concept of praxis has a long history. Although central to Marxist analyses of political change, it was employed by the ancient Greeks to describe critically informed action. Such action has an emancipatory, liberational thrust.

Paulo Freire has been persistent in his exploration of the liberational dimensions of pedagogy and from his work I have drawn the importance to be attached to action linked to an egalitarian vision of human relationships. I am aware that liberational theology acted as an important catalyst for change in some cultural contexts and that the very appeal of such a theology was that it addressed the specific needs of the people. It appears to me that the strength of a liberational appeal is that it is action based and brings about local change: “Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (Freire, 1972).

The outcomes of relationships developed between notational analysts and coaches and notational analysts and performers can resemble what Richard Tinning (1992) regards as transformative practice. He favours a democratic mode of research in which “the participants work out their own solutions to their own problems (and that they employ their own language and concepts rather than those of the ‘expert’) (1992:203).

Such research raises consciousness and leads to practical action. Praxis is the term used to define the fusion of thinking and practice.

I think it takes considerable social skills to facilitate this kind of research. In the next part of the paper I provide two examples of collaborative work with governing bodies of sport. In particular I want to ground my account in the context of a year in which teams with whom i worked experienced peaks and troughs of performance and exhilaration.

Working with Coaches and Performers

In 1993 I was fortunate to work with two governing bodies of sport in Wales. One of the sports, rugby union, has a cultural significance that gives it a national profile in the media and is a subject of everyday conversation. The other sport, women’s lacrosse, is virtually invisible in the Welsh public consciousness. Both are invasive team field games that have exciting performance possibilities.

In both games the coaches of the representative teams hold honorary positions and earn their livings from other employment. Much of their time is spent thinking about, preparing for and delivering coaching foe elite performance. In the case of women’s lacrosse, the coach of the national team was also a playing member of that team (but not the captain).

The link between the Centre for Notational Analysis at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education and the two governing bodies was developed to support excellence in elite performance. I was familiar with and had coached both sports. The Centre received the wholehearted support of the governing bodies for the work undertaken. Notational analysis for both sports was defined closely with the coaches concerned and in the case of rugby union with the Technical Director of the Welsh Rugby Union who acted as the point of contact for the service provided.

The fundamental purpose of this work was to provide coaches, and through them the players, with augmented information about performance. Ian Franks and his co-workers (1983, 1984, 1986a, 1986b) and Mike Hughes (1988, 1993) have identified the benefits to be gained from systematic observation and my work with the two sports was intended to build upon some of the foundational assumptions evident in the literature. My analytical work has been based on real-time hand notation and lapsed-time scrutiny of VHS and S-VHS video. From the outset I was keen to provide data for coaches’ and players’ immediate use. Written accounts in a form acceptable to the coach and visual narratives from video recordings have proved to be the most frequent types of augmented information provided. Both types are linked closely with a convivial working relationship framed by conversation, chat and humour.

As my relationships have developed with these coaches I have become acutely aware of my professional commitment to them and my personal links with them. During 1993 there have been very special moments when weeks and months of work have come together to produce information that the coaches found helpful and occasionally has enabled them to recast their knowledge of performance. There have been moments too when similar volumes of work have been less than helpful.

If I was to evaluate honestly my work over the year I hope I could claim reasonably to have been involved in some for of praxis. Notational analysis can be a ‘pure’ academic endeavour. It can be a most exhilarating form of applied sport science too. This latter form can fuse thought and action. For busy coaches and players the support offered by a notational analysis can liberate by providing information pre- and post-event. In the case of women’s lacrosse team I was fortunate to attend the World Cup in Edinburgh and was able to work with the team during the event as well.

Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (Feuer, 1969: 286) is that:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it. (Original emphasis.)

My feeling is that, at best, notational analysis provides coaches and performers possibilities of change by providing relatively objective information that is over and above any intrinsic information available as a result of the ‘normal’ conduct of their coaching or playing. As such this augmented information (Schmidt, 1991) can ‘liberate’ coach and performer and contribute to enhanced performance.

At worst, notational analysis can block action. By preparing for events with detailed analysis of opponents, for example, coaches and players can be disempowered and their decision-making can be rendered ineffective. I am conscious that in my own work there have been times in the last year when analysis has become an academic exercise and that the liberational potential of the work has been illusory and rhetorical. It is this point I would like to develop in the next section of the paper.

A Word of Caution: Mere Rhetoric?

I am keen to stress that a reflexive approach to notational analysis as a form of liberational praxis must be sensitive to its limits as well as its possibilities. Notational analysts are invisible at present in the structure for accreditation in BASS/BASES and have considerable inroads to make on the established orthodoxies of sport science in the United Kingdom. As a sub-group there are important epistemological and ontological issues to be developed. I do not think that these can be helped by snake oil sales’ pitches by exponents of notation particularly if we profess messages that are vacuous either in intellectual challenge or practical application. Liberation zealousness falls into both categories.

However, I am concerned that notational analysts avoid the pitfalls of scientism identified by Bryan Appleyard (1992) in his discussion of science and the modern person. He contends that:

An important part of any case is that, whether we or more modest scientists like it or not, science possesses an intrinsic domineering quality. This kind of triumphant scientism is built into all science. Opposition tends to be subdued and demoralized to the point where we can no longer identify the damage done by these populizers. (1992: 2)

I believe that praxis is a touchstone for the flourishing of notational analysis and an antidote to ‘triumphant scientism’.

A Pragmatic View

Raymond Williams (1976: 203) notes in his discussion of the term ‘pragmatic’ that its meanings include “practical and useful” as well as:

a dignified alternative to unprincipled or timeserving, especially in political movements which profess a set of beliefs and which decide, under pressure, to neglect, discard or betray them, but with a show of skill and intelligence.

In this paper have suggested that notational analysis is practical, useful and a dignified activity. It can offer liberational praxis in close working relationships with coaches and players. There is always a danger that as notational analysts we can take ourselves too seriously and that ‘scientism’ renders liberational praxis mere rhetoric. Without a reflexive approach to notational analysis we might just become the antithesis of what we want to achieve in sport science.


Appleyard, B, 1992. Understanding the Present. London: Pan Books.

Bain, L, 1989. Interpretive and critical research in sport and physical education. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 60(1), 21-24.

Bolster, A, 1983. Toward a more effective model of research on teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 53(3), 294-308.

Feuer, L (ed), 1969. Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. London: Fontana.

Franks, I & Goodman, D, 1984. A hierarchical approach to performance analysis. Science Periodical on Research and Technology in Sport. Canada.

Franks, I & Goodman, D, 1986a. A systematic approach to analyzing sports performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 4, 49-59.

Franks, I & Miller, G, 1986b. Eyewitness testimony in sport. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 9, 39-45.

Franks, I, Goodman, D & Miller, G, 1983. Analysis of performance: qualitative or quantitative? Science Periodical on Research and Technology in Sport. Canada.

Freire, P, 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.

Hughes, M, 1988. Computerised notational analysis in field games. Ergonomics, 31, 1585-1592.

Hughes, M, 1993. Notational analysis of football in T Reilly et al (eds) Science and Football II. London: E&F Spon.

Lather, P, 1986. Research as praxis. Harvard Educational Review, 56(3), 257-277.

Scmidt, R, 1991. ‘Frequent Augmented Feedback Can Degrade Learning: Evidence and Interpretations’ in J Requin & G Stelmach (eds) Tutorials in Motor Neuroscience. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Southgate, J & Randall, R, 1981. ‘The troubled fish: barriers to dialogue’ in P Reason & J Rowan (eds) Human Inquiry. Chichester: J Wiley & Sons.

Tinning, R, 1992. ‘Action research as epistemology and practice: towards transformative educational practice in physical education’ in A Sparkes (ed) Research in Physical Education and Sport. London: Falmer Press.

Williams, R, 1976. Keywords. Glasgow: Fontana.

Photo Credits

Feedback Loop

Scotland v Wales 1983

Home Ground, Home Advantage

I have been thinking about home a great deal lately.  In May I wrote about my hometown memories and the experience opened me up to other narratives about home. Three items (see Talking About Home below) have attracted my attention recently just at a time when I am talking with coaches about planning their competition programs. These coaches are involved in ‘home’ and ‘away’ fixtures and we have been discussing what home advantage might mean in performance terms.


There is a fascinating research literature about home advantage. In the last decade there has been discussion of: Association Football (2010, 2009, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2006, 2005a, 2005b, 2004a, 2004b, 2003, 2002a, 2002b), Basketball (2010, 2008a, 2008b, 2007), Netball (2010, 2004), Baseball (2010), Volleyball (2009),  Rugby Union (2008, 2007) American College Football (2006), Australian Rules Football (2005), Rugby League (2005), Skiing (2003), Summer Olympics (2003), Winter Olympics (2001).

There are papers about home disadvantage in tennis (2009) and ice hockey (2007) too.

In a study of professional sports  between 1876 and 2003 (Pollard, 2005), the author notes that:

The highest levels of home advantage for all sports were in their early years of existence. Home advantage in ice hockey, basketball and football in England has declined over the last two decades. In baseball there has been very little change over the last 100 years, with home advantage consistently lower than in other sports. There was a large drop in home advantage in football in England following the 7-year suspension of the league during the Second World War. The trends and changes provide some evidence that travel and familiarity contribute to home advantage, but little in support of crowd effects.

Randall Smith (2003) observes that:

Home teams win over 50% of sporting contests. The sociological appeal of this is the assumption that home advantages are partly the result of the support fans provide, with the collective inspiring teams to performances above normal achievements. Recent changes in professional sports suggest that home support may not be as strong as once expected as structural conditions producing the home advantage have shifted. Distancing of players from fans via free agency and rapid salary escalation, coupled with marketing designed to create national publics, can produce declines in the home advantage. Levels of home advantage have decreased over 20 years, and now, an increase in crowd size reduces the home team’s chances of winning. Teams can still garner support from home crowds, but professional sports are less likely to be representations for local communities; the social bases of the home advantage have been eroded by economic forces and league marketing.

Talking About Home

The three narratives that focused my thoughts about home recently are:

Slumming It

Kevin McLoud’s visit to Dharavi has been screened in Australia in the last month. The program theme is described by Channel 4:

To understand Dharavi, Kevin fully immerses himself in the environment, living and working with the locals, sampling life in the pottery area and discovering the extraordinary sense of spirit and community despite the hardships. He explores this industrious square mile, meeting bakers, cobblers and suitcase manufacturers, all thriving as part of the 15,000 one-room industries contained in this slum. But, despite the area’s apparent successes, Kevin finds Dharavi is to be redeveloped and razed to the ground.

My Fear of Poland

ABC Radio National’s 360 documentary series included a program from one of its own staff members, Natalie Kestecher. This is the description of the program from the Radio National website:

A very personal journey through Poland, from a festival of Jewish culture in Warsaw to a tiny village in the south-east of the country. This is a story about fear and memory, hope and delight. Last year producer Natalie Kestecher visited Poland for the first time. It was a trip that she’d been planning and postponing for years. As the daughter of Polish Jews who’d lost so many family members during the war she had mixed feelings about going there. Natalie’s journey begins in Warsaw where she meets Poles with an interest in Jewish culture and Jews who have only recently ‘come out’ as Jews. She also speaks to the chief Rabbi of Poland. Her ultimate destination, however, is a tiny village in the south-east where her family and other Jews once lived. In this very personal audio essay Natalie tries to make sense of the Jewish absence and encouraging re-emergence in Poland today.

This is a link to the podcast of the program. After listening I did think it was a moving story about fear and memory, hope and delight. It helped me understand some of my feelings about home.

Home Stories

Shortly after hearing Natalie’s program I managed to hear the By Design program about the 2010 Sydney Architecture Festival’s Home Stories event. Home Stories involved “six people sharing their stories of house and home in the grandeur of NSW Government House on the harbour’s edge, complete with champagne and finger sandwiches”.

I was particularly interested in Larissa Behrendt‘s presentation in which  she “described the complex concept of home in contemporary Aboriginal culture, and the way one’s sense of place is connected to one’s sense of home and of self”.  She shared her story her father “removed from his family as a child, discovering and connecting with the places of his family as an adult: sites of birthing, of massacres and of removal, and how he passed this on to his daughter. She argued that the complex emotional architecture of our lives is what creates our home”.

I was fascinated too by Richard Leplastrier‘s discussion of “the words we use: ‘house’ is both a noun and a verb, ‘one’s abode’ is from the verb to abide, to bide time, the place you spend time, ‘dwelling’ a welling up of time like water, the Scandinavian ‘hus’ meaning a husk, or an outer casing for life.  He described home as a place where we belong, where we can be for a long time- and that belongings are where the problem starts”. This profile provides some more information about Richard’s work. I really like that Richard “eschews publicity and his built works are secret treasures to be discovered only by those privileged enough to be introduced to them. His sensitivity to issues of culture and place and his accumulated wisdom in the design and making of architecture is gently revealed though his tutorial sessions in the design studio”.

This is the link to the podcast of the By Design program. Larissa and Richard’s talks are in the podcast.

Home Ground and Home Advantage

The serendipity of contemplating a season’s competition in sport, seeing Kevin McLoud’s programs on Mumbai and listening to Larissa and Richard has been a wonderful opportunity to think about home and the feelings I have for home. I am starting to appreciate the sentiments Larissa expresses about being in and out of country and am transforming my understanding of our spiritual relationships with place and space.

I hope that when I do discuss with coaches and athletes what home ground means for performance I can develop a shared understanding of roots particularly as sport is changing the connections it has with communities.

Photo Credits

Shadow City

Dharavi Warehouse

Performance at Sea Level and at Altitude at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa

I monitored the performance of teams at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. I was interested in goal scoring performance at sea level and altitude and summarised the data in Goals Scored at 2010 FIFA World Cup Venues.

Watching the 2010 Football World Cup took me back to the 1995 Rugby World Cup (RWC) in South Africa. I was a member of the Welsh Rugby Union’s management team at the 1995 RWC and was there as a performance analyst. It was the last tournament at world level before the professional rugby union era. Invictus dramatises some of the events at that RWC. It remains the only RWC tournament to be played in part at altitude.

I have revisited performances at the 1995 RWC and present some data here about points scoring performance at sea level and altitude. There were 32 games played at the 1995 RWC, 24 Group Games and 8 Knockout Games. The results from these games can be found here.

These are the data from the games played (averages with .66 and .5 are rounded up and averages with .33 rounded down):

Qualifying Stage: Total Points Scored Each Game

Sea Level (Groups A and B)

Points Scored

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Total Average
East London 60 58 56 174 58
Durban 42 47 66 155 52
Stellenbosch 45 45 45
Cape Town 45 29 74 37
Port Elizabeth 37 38 20 95 32

Altitude (Groups C and D)

Points Scored

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Total Average
Bloemfontein 67 78 162 307 102
Rustenberg 89 72 40 191 64
Johannesburg 62 43 47 152 51
Pretoria 48 46 41 135 45

Note: Japan played all three pool games at Bloemfontein. New Zealand scored 145 points in the game against Japan. Cote d’Ivoire played all three pool games at Rustenberg and conceded 89 points to Scotland in their first game.

Knockout Stages: Total Points Scored Each Game

Sea Level

Points Scored

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Total Average
Cape Town 47 74 121 61
Durban 48 34 82 41


Points Scored

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Total Average
Pretoria 78 28 106 53
Johannesburg 56 27 83 42

Qualifying Stage: Total Points Difference Each Game

Sea Level (Groups A and B)

Points Difference

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Total Average
Stellenbosch 39 39 39
Port Elizabeth 31 16 20 67 22
East London 24 6 6 36 12
Durban 6 7 22 35 12
Cape Town 9 13 22 11

Note: only one game was played at Stellenbosch. Australia defeated Romania.

Altitude (Groups C and D)

Points Difference

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Total Average
Bloemfontein 47 22 128 197 66
Rustenberg 89 36 18 143 48
Pretoria 28 36 3 67 23
Johannesburg 24 25 1 50 17

Note: Japan played all three pool games at Bloemfontein. New Zealand scored 145 points in the game against Japan. Cote d’Ivoire played all three pool games at Rustenberg and conceded 89 points to Scotland in their first game.

Knockout Stages: Total Points Difference Each Game

Sea Level

Points Difference

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Total Average
Durban 24 4 28 14
Cape Town 3 16 19 10


Points Difference

Venue Game 1 Game 2 Total Average
Johannesburg 28 3 31 16
Pretoria 18 10 28 14


Sport Science support for rugby union performance was emerging in the mid 1990s. There is very little digital literature available on the support players received in the early years in the 1990s. From personal experience the biggest development was in strength and conditioning support. This situation was transformed by the professionalisation of the game after RWC 1995 and there was an explosion of interest in supporting athletic performance thereafter. 

Ronan O’Carroll and Donald MacLeod (1997) presented some findings on the Scottish rugby team that participated in the 1995 RWC (Scotland played all three of its RWC at altitude in Group D). Michael Hamlin and his colleagues (2008) note that “Repetitive explosive power (∼−16%) and 20-m shuttle performance (∼−3%) decreased substantially at altitude compared to sea level. Acclimatisation to hypoxia had a beneficial effect on sub-maximum heart rate and lactate speed but little effect on other performance measures. In conclusion, 1550-m altitude substantially impaired some measures of performance and the effects of prior adaptation via 9–13 sessions of intermittent hypoxia were mostly unclear.” (Some related articles here.)

Ross Tucker (2010) has provided further insights into playing rugby at altitude (see here also).