Boston Park Games

Al Smith
May 27, 2015

One of the wonders of air travel is seeing with new perspective the city you’re leaving behind as you head skyward. I’m writing this on a flight from Boston where I had the considerable good fortune to spend a few days speaking with some of the best sports coaches, scientists and health practitioners in the US at the Boston Sports Medicine Performance Group Summer Seminar and Catapult Performance Directors Forum.

Over three lovely spring days in the capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we heard cutting edge insights from a host of leading practitioners in their fields — Robert Sapolsky discussing his eminent work on stress; Vincent Walsh arguing with conviction that sport is the brain’s biggest challenge; Michael Boyle, Erik Helland and Michael Zarren on sustaining a winning culture in top level sport; Derek Hansen on the search for speed; and many more besides. I was lucky enough to share a series of talks on a variety of topics with a running theme that’s both close to my heart and central to the work we do at myfastestmile — the use of applied complexity and ecological dynamics to help people be their best.

We’ve spent the past 9 months and more arguing that we need a change of direction in high performance sport to bring into check the excesses of data analytics and predictive modelling that seem destined to drag us down a path to production line athletes and instead to put people back at the heart of what we do. It’s a message that seems to resonate with many and one that found a receptive audience with my new friends in Boston. To be clear we’re not advocating for the abandonment of data or predictive analysis, a thought that was brought into stark relief by a coffee conversation at the forum. As is my want I stopped mid sentence to gather my thoughts and my companion completed my opening “I’m moving away from…” by proffering “…science?”. The idea that data equals science is a pervasive one that’s used to pedal all manner of ills and the notion that embracing complexity involves moving away from science is equally pervasive and doubly troubling. Its for this very reason that we’re advocating for the need to scrutinise the uses to which data is currently being put and to move our thinking from complicated to complex, particularly when the task involves supporting the long term development of people with sporting, or any other, talent.

I left the forum with plenty of food for thought but it was on a walk in the park on the banks of the Charles the next day with my partner Rach that my biggest learning moment happened. As we sat by the river to enjoy the view we noticed behind us a group of 8–12 year old lads and lasses organising a game. What ensued was both delightful and inspiring given the challenges I’d spent the previous days discussing.

They’d chosen a patch of grass constrained by a sidewalk and a lake on opposite sides and clusters of trees at either end. To this they added various high cones, low cones and hacky sacks to designate the playing field (I’ve attempted to recreate it below). It took me several plays of careful observation to figure out what was going on but my first lesson was to come before the game had even kicked off. The smallest lad in the group got busy choosing who would be in each of the two teams and with a final flurry of his index finger assigned two fully grown men who’d been sitting unnoticed on the side-lines one to each team. As soon as I realised I was witnessing an activity under some form of adult guidance I knew it was about to get interesting so I apologised to Rach for another bout of mind wandering and got busy watching the game.


I’ve since been told, based on my rough description, that the game was a variant on ‘capture the flag’ so I’ll point you here for the rules rather than bore you with my attempt to describe them. If you haven’t seen the game I can tell you that it’s a strategic team invasion game of the highest order but what impressed me most was the skilled and gentle guiding hand of the adults present. Each time a phase of play was completed they would suggest some changes to the rules based on what they’d seen to try and keep everyone engaged and I have to say they were winning on that front. The level of engagement across all the kids was higher than I’ve seen in many high performance settings, which for me made for a learning environment of the highest quality. Here was a group of kids learning to attack space, defend space, change direction, change pace, fake, read a fake, instigate patterns of play with teammates, read opposition patterns of play, manage their energy levels, girls with boys, girls against boys, younger and older, and all in a setting where there were no debilitating skill differentiators like ball or racket control. By my eye these kids were deep in the learning zone and crucially there wasn’t a measurement technology in sight or a KPI at the ready to constrain their creativity.

Just as I remembered I was now on holiday and in danger of becoming the latest member of the Boston singles scene my final lesson was served up. As Rach and I stood up to leave we walked past the busy jail of our home team, who were on a roll, and witnessed a beautiful piece of theatre when one of the older kids who’d been in jail a while was whinging about how ineffective his teammates were at effecting his release. The wee guy who’d instigated proceedings by picking the teams strolled up with a swagger and was heard to say triumphantly “suck it up!”. With that the lesson was over.

And so as I drift through the clouds and say farewell to Boston I have a roll call of thank you’s to make: to Art Horne a huge thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak at a learning event of the highest calibre; to the other participants at the BSMPG summer seminar and PD forum thank you for your willingness to share and engage in high quality debate about the stuff that matters; to Rach my eternal gratitude for your understanding (albeit wearing thin) of my incessant mind wandering; to the kids hell bent on capturing sacks thank you for reminding me what great learning looks like; and to the two guys who I didn’t have the heart to interrupt because they had their game faces on thank you for being brave enough to stay out of the way of the learning and enabling those kids to find a way to get better.