10 posts

too many cooks

Al Smith
Sep 1, 2015

We’re very happy to announce that we’ve been joined by another co-creator at myfastestmile. Andrew Gillott is a coach developer par excellence who brings with him a wealth of experiences, a dapper dress sense and a silver tongue for storytelling. We’re delighted to have Andrew onboard and took the opportunity to have a chat with him about the past, present and future of coach development. As you’ll see below, its fair to say we share a concern that there are too many cooks in the kitchen so we’re looking forward to bringing another chef to the party to see what creative concoctions we can conjure up together.

In part 1 of a 3 part hangout we chatted to Andrew about formal coach education:

In part 2 we discussed the current state of play in coach development:

In part 3 we began to explore what the future of coach development might look like and will look forward to many more such discussions as we tackle the challenge of playing our part in shaping that future:

This shit is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Al Smith
Aug 15, 2015

I recently enjoyed the privilege of sharing some time in the competition arena with a fine coach whose development I currently have the good fortune to be supporting. Whilst we were discussing the nuances of constraints based learning approaches to the task of developing performance under pressure a pearl of a learning moment arrived in somewhat unexpected form.

After a shaky qualifying and in the midst of a collapsing time window with the final fast approaching it transpired that one of the coach’s athletes had misjudged their dietary requirements and risked entering the performance arena inadequately fuelled for the task ahead. With little time for deliberation and limited options available at the venue a quick dialogue led to the suggestion that the athlete consume a banana (or part thereof) to provide sustenance for the final with minimal risk of gastric upset and a low glycemic load to avoid an insulin spike.

This may seem an innocuous event and a simple lesson in organisational planning for both coach and athlete, who incidentally went on to win the final, but for me it was the perfect opportunity to explore the use of contextual perturbation of task constraints as a vehicle for learning and development. Where some perhaps would have seen the chance to reinforce a scripted behaviour based on a large dose of scientific determinism – ‘next time make sure you plan to bring a banana and eat it x minutes before your final to optimise the management of your blood sugar levels’ – I was more interested in the opportunity for the coach to help the athlete to learn a valuable lesson about the principles at play in effective decision making within the high pressured uncertainty of the competition arena.

Q for the athlete: the next time something perturbs your eating plan during a competition what do you need to have learned and practiced to be better prepared to make a decision on the fly that fits the prevailing circumstances?

Q for the coach: how can you make use of opportunities in training and competition to perturb the learning environment to challenge this athlete to become a better decision maker regarding their dietary management in ways that will ready them for the dynamics of the competition arena?

Q for myself: When is a banana not a banana?

A: When it’s the current solution to the ever changing problem of performance readiness.

a complex cup

Al Smith
Jun 5, 2015 

I recently had the good fortune to deliver a talk at a great sports performance seminar in Boston about my journey into complexity and used Dave Snowden’s cynefin framework as a way of sharing with people the changes in my thinking over the years in high performance sport and the systems that shaped them. Following the seminar I was contacted by a participant to ask for some clarification so thought I’d share the response more widely as it may be helpful to others.

“Although I presented my journey as moving from simple to complicated to complex, with some occasional chaos thrown in, Snowden’s framework itself is not a linear model or for that matter a categorisation model. He describes his model as a sense-making framework that helps you to perceive what’s happening in a given situation and then act accordingly. For example when I make my morning coffee the following may happen:

– I want a milky coffee so I make the decision to add milk to my brew as it always makes my coffee milky. This decision is self evident and based on SIMPLE sense-making.

– I like a well brewed coffee so I make the decision to brew 14g of coffee in a 2oz shot over about 23s at 94C and 9bar. This decision is informed by analytical reasoning and expert guidance and as such is based on COMPLICATED sense-making.

– I’m a curious kind of guy so I wonder how each bean in my grind might influence the flavour profile of my coffee but I have no means of extracting the grinds of a single bean from the resultant coffee puck so decide it’s okay not to know. This decision is informed by the random nature of the situation and as such is based on CHAOTIC sense-making.

– most of all I like a flavoursome coffee so right now I’ve opted for freshly ground Yirgacheffe beans, harvested by a farmer on the Ethiopian high plains where coffee originated and prepared by an artisanal roaster. This decision is informed by a vast array of temporal and situational factors that dynamically interact to influence the emergence of patterns of behaviour that are inherently uncertain and as such is based on COMPLEX sense-making.

– and so to borrow form the late, great Dr Martin Luther King — before I leave for work in the morning I’m beholden to all forms of sense-making.

A more articulate description of the cynefin framework from Dave Snowden himself can be found here:

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All that said another thing Snowden talks about is the propensity for people to have a default sense-making view. This is what I was referring to in my talk as I believe that lots of people, as I myself did, travel form simple to increasingly complicated sense-making as they journey through their careers but may have the good fortune to come to see the world as complex if the opportunity presents itself.”

At myfastestmile we believe we need a good deal many more such opportunities for a great deal more people so have set our stall out to share widely the benefits of taking a complex view of the process of helping people be their best.

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.