76 posts

Technology & Data – what is it good for?

Mark Upton
Sep 11, 2015

To avoid the answer given in Edwin Starr’s “war”, what needs to be considered?

Some brief thoughts on the use of technology and data to help people be their best in sport (also relevant to management and organisations in general)

  • Any technology that enables people to connect and share on their terms, when they otherwise wouldn’t have, has great potential to facilitate learning. This is exciting!
  • Let the player/coach/employee/team decide what data & analysis is relevant to help them develop and get better (creating a poweful synergy between autonomy & mastery).
  • traditional performance management systems, as typically used by HR departments and now creeping into sport (eg via EPPP in English Football), promise much but often deliver little value (and at worst become a distraction). This might be in part because of the next point…
  • If using data to constantly and exclusively judge/assess/(de)select/reward/punish/compare people — be careful! A toxic culture, characterised by survival rather than growth mindsets and behaviour, could soon emerge.
  • Related to the above in a team sport, this is even more problematic when the data is based on actions/events in isolation, ignoring the fact relationships and interactions (dynamics) are what need to be understood – on and off the field. Performance Analysis will continue to under-deliver until it is based on a sound theoretical framework of performance/skill acquisition/learning, and understanding of the “psychology of data”. This is the responsibility of both coaches and performance analysts.

When all is said an done, the potential for technology and data to make a positive contribution to helping people be their best is unquestionable. However we must be wary of the fine line that is currently being trod, as a few recent examples have highlighted the threat of doing more harm than good.

To end on a philosophical note… if we keep in mind that trying to control others through use of technology and data should be avoided, then we can progress with great hope and optimism.

better coaches = better players….or do they?


When we think about and discuss ways to enhance player development we often jump straight to coaches/coaching…

“better coaches = better players”

However, an alternative starting point is to understand the learner and (influences on) learning of the perceptions~cognitions~actions required for a particular sport. This inevitably uncovers a multitude of interacting factors (across “time and place”) that will influence the quality of player development outcomes.

Clearly coaches/coaching is one of these influential factors. However, by broadening our minds to consider the entire (complex) system of player development we potentially increase the chances of positive outcomes. Starting with a narrow focus on coaching, often driven by a cause & effect belief between quality of coaching and quality of player development, may in fact limit the frequency of those positive outcomes.

A Perspective on Decision Making During Interactive Behaviour in Sport

Mark Upton
Aug 21, 2015

Like many of my posts, the stimulus for this has been recent conversation & content that I have engaged with. This post provides a perspective that can be considered in relation to a couple of themes…

  • perpetual debate and discussion regarding “technique” & “decision making” – the training & progression of each, understanding how they relate to each other.
  • “decision making”/“brain training”/“cognition” becoming hot topics in sport with plenty of suggestions for testing and training it – usually off the pitch/court.

Ok, on with the show. Watch the video below from about 0:55 onwards….

The clips you see are good examples of decisions having to be made rapidly (on and off the ball) in a dynamic environment with continuous interactions between players and the ball. I would argue players/teams who can function well in these situations are most valuable/successful.

These situations provide context for the text below – some theory & research from Paul Cisek on decision making during interactive behaviour (this is inclusive of, but not specific to, sporting contexts). You will see that the distinction between technique and decision making, in terms of a discrete serial process of a decision first being made and then a “technique” executed to carry out the decision, is brought into question. Instead Paul suggests they are interconnected… which prompts a thought about learning design needing to cater for this (“simplification, not decomposition”). Paul writes…

With respect to decision-making, the evolutionary perspective
motivates us to build theories of decision-making
that are fundamentally aimed at addressing the challenges
of the kinds of decisions faced by our very distant ancestors,
whose behaviour was primarily interactive and not deliberative.
Here, we will take this approach and focus on what may
be called ‘embodied decisions’ — decisions between actions
during ongoing activity.
For example, an animal escaping from a predator is continuously
making decisions about the direction to run,
ways of avoiding obstacles, and even foot placement on
uneven terrain. Of course, humans also engage in such
embodied decision-making during our daily lives, whether
we are walking through a crowd or playing a sport.
Importantly, embodied decisions have properties that are dramatically
different from the economic choices that have
dominated decision theories. First, the options themselves are
potential action opportunities that are directly specified by
the environment — what Gibson called ‘affordances’.
The variables relevant to evaluating these options are overwhelmed
by geometric and biomechanical contingencies and
not merely related to offer values. Consequently, evaluation
of the sensorimotor contingencies becomes the major challenge
for the neural mechanism, whereas pure offer value estimation
is computationally relatively trivial. Second, the options themselves
are not categorical, like button presses in a psychology
experiment. Instead, they are specified by spatio-temporal
information, highly dependent on geometry, and even their
identity is extended and blurry at the edges. Third, embodied
decisions are perhaps the primary and archetypical kind of
simultaneous decision. Animals encounter goods sequentially,
but they are always surrounded by simultaneous action
opportunities between which they must select.
Finally, embodied decisions are highly dynamic. As an
animal moves through its world, available actions themselves
are constantly changing, some are vanishing while others
appear, and all the relevant variables (outcome values, success
probability, action cost) are always in flux. This precludes
any mechanism relying on careful deliberation about static
quantities or estimation of probabilities from similar examples,
because each embodied decision is a single-trial situation
with unique settings. Consequently, the mechanisms that
serve embodied decisions must process sensory information
rapidly and continuously, specifying and re-specifying available
actions in parallel while at the same time evaluating the
options and deciding whether to persist in a given activity or
switch to a new one. Thus, the temporal distinction between
thinking about the choice and then implementing the response,
so central to economic theory and laboratory experiments on
decisions, simply does not apply to decisions made during
interactive behaviour.

(I have used footage from a football match in a previous post that reinforces this last point)

Even at the neural level, where in the past there has been a tendency to allocate decision making to certain regions of the brain and execution/action to others, Paul reveals things are far more interconnected than previously believed…

Decision making does not appear to be localized within particular higher cognitive centers. Instead, there is growing evidence that decisions, at least those reported through action, are made within the same sensorimotor circuits that are responsible for planning and executing the associated actions.

Perhaps the most practical value for sports and coaches will come from furthering our understanding of decision making at the scale of the “brain-body-environment” system as a whole, more so than looking at components of this system in isolation. Resultant insights will hopefully lead to more effective learning design/spaces that enhance players ability in time-constrained & dynamic situations.


Cisek P, Pastor-Bernier A. 2014 On the challenges and mechanisms of embodied decisions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369: 20130479.

Cisek P, Kalaska JF. 2010 Neural mechanisms for interacting with a world full of action choices. Annu.Rev. Neurosci. 33, 269–298.

Mark O’Sullivan – Coaching & Learning


Mark is a youth coach in Stockholm, works for the Swedish FA in a coach education capacity and has an eclectic background that has contributed to his learning journey. Al and I thoroughly enjoyed “hanging out” with Mark and look forward to further opportunities to do so!

You can check out Mark’s blog here (highly recommended!)…

A Visit to the Park

Mark Upton
Aug 20, 2015

Recently I was down at our local park, participating in a family game of 2v2 football involving my son, partner and sister. In another section of the park a young boy (probably around 9/10 years of age) was being put through his paces by an adult (presumably his father) who had designed a couple of elaborate football drills involving many cones and poles.


I observed the boy closely for a while — his engagement level seemed ok, but I wouldn’t have said he was totally immersed and focused on the task at hand. Clearly the adult was calling the shots. I couldn’t help but contrast this with our game and the experience my son was involved in. He had created the rules for the game and was immersed in it as though it was a Champions League final.


A bit later the young boy was released from his drills and wandered past us. I noticed him glancing over at our game a couple of times, with what could be best described as a wistful expression (I would have invited him to join us if we weren’t about to finish up ourselves). Curious as to where he was headed, I kept an eye on him. He wandered to the playground and started to explore the equipment on offer, seemingly grateful to discover such a precious space where his autonomy and agency could be restored.

Developing World Class Potential

“we need doubt – it makes us think”

Mark Upton
Aug 14, 2015

In mid July I was fortunate to contribute to the English FA’s Youth Development Phase conference at St Georges Park. As much as I hope to provide value for others in my sessions, I’m equally eager and curious to learn from others at these events. I wanted to share some thoughts from one person I came across there who I found engaging and inspiring.

María Ruiz de Oña has been a psychologist and coach developer at Athletic Bilbao for almost 20 years, with a primary focus on helping coaches create the best environment for the development of talented young players. She happened to attend my session on “managing players learning in practice” and I think some of my ideas resonated with her based on our discussions immediately after.

I was really looking forward to her session in the afternoon on “developing world class potential” and she did not disappoint with a captivating and unique style. I made a few reflective notes that I wanted to share with you…

María used a very interesting activity to begin her session. She had the front of the room cleared of tables to create a “space” that might represent an academy. She then invited people into the space to represent different agents that act in the space (ie players, coaches, administrators, parents, other clubs) and also events (matches, training sessions etc). By having people move around the space and responding to other people movements, María created a very effective visual example of how an academy is actually a complex system — many interconnected parts (people) influencing each other. Her message was the need for coaches to be aware of these dynamics taking place and how they, at different timescales, will influence player development. Managing these dynamics is a key skill of the coach — and many of them occur off the pitch and have little to do with the technical aspect of football.

Here are some other notes I made and have expanded upon…

  • the environment needs to be a very positive one, but at the same time be quite clear about the purpose of talent development.
  • quite a few good things on change, which I’m sure she has been challenged by on a regular basis given her role and way of thinking! “Everybody wants to change others, but nobody wants to change themselves”. Whenever we change, we lose something that was probably creating a level of comfort. This is why there is resistance to change. Genuine change will, and should, lead to confusion/doubt for a while. The willingness for change is based on a certain desire for what the future might look like combined with a dissatisfaction with the present.
  • espoused values (I’ve blogged on this recently) – we say the player is the most important thing, but that is not necessarily reflected on the pitch and by the coaches actions.
  • for the prospective coach, the starting point is not “do I feel ready?”, but “do I understand how to develop players and the environment I will be working in?”
  • a coach needs to learn to observe, and “see” what cannot be seen (the dynamics mentioned earlier).
  • if we want to produce players with high confidence, we need to create challenging environments (rather than make them feel safe with predictable and repetitive practice activities — this generates “false” confidence).
  • related to the above, if the coach has fear, the tasks created for players will be too easy. The coach will not be comfortable with messy, nonlinear learning. This “fear” could come from insecurity in their role — I think a huge problem in academy football in the UK and probably other places.
  • “we need doubt – it makes us think”. This was my favourite quote from her session! If we think we know everything, then we are limiting the players development. I spoke with her after the session about this and we both agreed that the common belief is coaches needed to model absolute certainty and belief to their players. No, she doesn’t buy that. She would allow players to see that the coach has doubts, but that it is leading to thinking…learning – this is modeling learning for the players.
  • developing talent will always challenge and demand more of you – more than you know at the present time. Too often we look for the quick fix/secret recipe – no!!!

It was an absolute delight to hear from and speak with Maria. Her passion, openness, intellect and quiet determination are admirable traits that I suspect are not uncommon in people involved in player development on the continent. The outcomes they achieve do not happen by chance…