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born of frustration

Al Smith
Oct 6, 2015

“stop, stop talkin bout who’s to blame, when all that counts is how to change” Born of Frustration by James

England’s recent failure to progress beyond the “group of hell” at the Rugby World Cup has prompted the usual round of recriminations but perhaps more surprisingly a significant number of calls for restraint and balance in assessing the progress made by Stuart Lancaster’s England side and the future of a man who appears to be universally liked within the game.

It is doubtless of little solace to Lancaster and his side that judgement has fallen somewhat kindly on them in the immediate aftermath of their very public purging as their ambitions were bent on a very different ending. So quite where did it all go wrong? Did the players simply need to be better coached or are there deeper issues at play in the way that players are developed in the English game? If coaching and learning are indeed at the heart of the answer, then the problem is a complex one that won’t lend itself to the usual recipe of solutions.

Whilst Lancaster has been rightly commended for the seismic shifts he’s made to the culture in his England side the reality is that these changes are in large part disconnected from the rest of the game. It would not have done for the England coach to suggest that a home tournament be no more than a stepping stone on a longer, tougher and more fruitful journey to sustainable success but this is just the predicament that England Rugby now finds itself in and the decision about what to do next could not be a more important one.

Players are the product of the culture from whence they came and this current crop of England stars were bred in a wider sporting world that has dazzled with data but has been largely bereft of beauty. To turn that ship around requires equal doses of foresight and fortitude as well as a recognition that future solutions must be born of and fit for people operating at all levels of the game and must celebrate a diverse culture that includes thriving provincial rugby clubs as well as players who are thriving overseas.

The route to an answer for rugby, or for any other of England’s troubled sporting teams, does not however lie in the abandonment of the analytical advances that have given us new insight into the workings of the human body, the interaction of man and technology or the biases that bewilder our best judgement. Data in itself is not the issue but in its wielding there are problems a plenty. The illusion of certainty that comes with the worst abuses of data analytics can be a powerful force for authoritarian control and the protection of historical hierarchies by those compelling people to subordination and compliance with the allure of the algorithm. Its tempting even to suggest that this is a problem predicated on patriarchal power given that the growth of women’s team sport (exemplified most recently by the success of the England Hockey team) seems better adapted to the need to balance art and analytics, but that is perhaps an argument for another day. Whilst many cultural barriers to change remain deeply entrenched, it is becoming clear that even in the most ambitious of data driven performance domains common sense and human holism are returning to the fore.

In the wider context of sport development in the UK, the question that must be addressed is whether young players are layering the right kind of learning on to the storybook of experiences that they are led through as they journey the ranks of their sport. To meet this challenge, leaders must keep one eye on the present and one eye on the purpose for this is where learning meets its destiny. It is increasingly apparent that the long game here requires a different kind of thinking to the prevailing view as this is a challenge akin neither to pyramid building nor the provision of public transport despite a common need to see past the immediacy of what happens next and into an ambitious version of the future.

For too long the solutions to the human challenges of our times have been drawn from the toolbox of the mechanical makers who figured out how to execute a perfect plan with precision processes to deliver products rather than develop people. However, there is now a new kind of maker in town with both the attitude and the aptitude to meet the prevailing needs of the social age. The future of learning deserves to be co-created by passionate people who put holism and humanity at the heart of what they do.

Whether the decision makers who pass permission to those who seek to shape that future for sport recognise the need to turn and meet the prevailing tide or choose to bunker down and protect what looks distinctly like a crumbling edifice to the ways of the past will in large part write the history of the likes of Lancaster and his men. We can only hope that they’ll be remembered for the right reasons.

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