76 posts

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #7

Mark Upton
Jul 5, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6

How do Newtonian and Complexity paradigms manifest themselves within organisations? From a personal point of view becoming aware of these paradigms, and subsequently exploring that question, has been an eye-opening and worthwhile adventure over the last few years.

Jean Boulton…

there is an increasing focus, for organizations, on defining detailed rules, standardizing methods, evidencing and measuring outcomes. The intention is to make the hospital, school, or firm work as an efficient, optimized, well-oiled machine. The belief is that if we tell people exactly what to do and check they do it exactly, then standards and efficiency will improve.

…Newtonian, machine thinking leading to a plan-do-review method for management.

Cliff Bowman…

As someone who has only more recently been exposed to complexity thinking, I can certainly say that it changes how you see the world. It’s difficult to appreciate how much our thinking is bound up within a Newtonian worldview. Once you have understood the complexity view it opens up new and quite challenging insights into the way the world really ‘works’. I have had to rethink what organizations are, the limits to ‘control’, what ‘strategy’ might mean, whether there are optimal ‘designs’ of better systems, etc. But once you start viewing organizations through a complexity perspective you can better understand why change happens, and why it doesn’t happen. You can see that attempts to predict the future are precursors to beliefs that we can control the future.

For me, it seems most professional sport bodies and governing organisations in the UK and Australia (perhaps everywhere?) unknowingly operate from a Newtonian paradigm. Therefore it follows that the actions to formally structure and organise sport in the last 15-odd years would reflect this…and increasingly so. I wonder if any have considered the benefits of limited governance…

“Limited governance is about limiting the governance of a person or organisation in any position of authority, one step at a time. This enables and empowers people to take more responsibility for themselves and each other, and in turn contribute more to the direction of the group as a whole.”

The Netflix story in the post above is particularly intriguing. It runs counter to the idea that we should just focus on, and stick to, The Process…some governing bodies having quickly gained notoriety for their love of a pre-determined process from which they can assign targets, milestones & action plans and then hold people “accountable” for delivering on. However in the complex human systems encountered in sport, there could be multiple and emergent paths that take us in a desirable direction…therefore we need to maintain a degree of experimentation, stay alert for novel opportunities and indeed encourage a degree of failure. Whilst this is nothing new for experienced practitioners with adaptive expertise, perhaps these very practitioners are the ones feeling the squeeze of unlimited governance?

It also raises the question whether investment from sports bodies would be better directed at nurturing adaptive expertise across all layers of a sport system, rather than the outputs of “blueprint thinking” as described by Elinor Ostrom…

“whenever policymakers, donors, citizens, or scholars propose uniform solutions to a wide variety of problems that are clustered under a single name based on one or more successful exemplars”


Sport Systems – fragments of thought #6

Mark Upton
Jun 22, 2017

previous fragments — #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

Yesterday’s fragment looked at some of the hallmarks of bureaucracy and rationalisation & their increasing presence in sports organisations.

“Calculability” was one of these hallmarks and that is pervasive…leading to an obsession with metrics…

A story of a senior management figure in a sport system demonstrated this fetish by demanding that one of their subordinates “just make up a number” so that the progress of a certain initiative could be quantified, thus restoring order and control to the (their?) world.

Along with reporting, the collection and collation of these metrics can easily consume people’s time, which has the, possibly unintended, consequence of realising another trait of bureaucracy – impersonalisation. It does this by restricting the time, energy and focus people have to directly interact and build relationships with each other…horizontally and vertically within and between organisations that need to work together. Ironically, the quality of “information” that comes from these disintermediated encounters is often far richer than the data and colours displayed on a spreadsheet attached to an email.

‘Management by Spreadsheet’ has grown wildly popular since the eighties and nineties:

“Taylorism or Scientific Management is a managerial regression, if you ask me, but unfortunately it’s exactly the Tayloristic approach that prevails in many organizations. Scientific Management aims to monitor and measure everything and if management doesn’t achieve the desired results, they establish even more measurement procedures and invent even further directives. The outcome of this approach is that employees are deprived of their freedom to think and act independently.” – Lars Ulslev Johannesen (source)

The other element that emerges or dissipates with human v spreadsheet interaction is trust. Perhaps more on trust in another fragment.

Encouragingly, two of my colleagues on this blog have recently shared invaluable narratives in this area that could guide us down a more fruitful path…

Sporticus, in his post ‘conversations at the noticeboard’, reflected…

By not paying attention to what was being discussed at the notice board and focusing on the data I thought I was being more objective, more efficient and more scientific. However if we lose contact with the human perspective we limit our ability to genuinely understand ‘our world’ be that physical education, school sport or any other world that involves people. Listening to children talk at the notice board provided me with a wealth of data, through the stories they shared. About all sorts of experiences of PE and school sport, from the obscure to the profound. It provided me with an deeper understanding of the culture of PE and school sport that my department provided.

And last week Jono Byrne, in his post ‘Innovation: The Wrong Trousers’, explained…

It was pretty obvious what was causing the problem. There were too many layers between the people who knew exactly what the AGTs needed to do and the people actually making the things in a factory at the other end of the country.

Thankfully, sense prevailed and a small low-cost experiment was agreed. To cut straight through the intermediary layers, the specialist sub-contractor’s chief designer would be sent to the centrifuge for a fortnight, working alongside Andy, me, and the rest of the test team. Meanwhile, the RAF made 3 experienced fighter pilots available to assist the work.

With the designer now ‘on-site’, Andy and other team members were able to explain the flaws in the existing design. Face-to-face discussions, offering a multitude of simultaneous (but relevant) perspectives on the AGTs proved more effective than communicating via data and ‘test reports’.

If increasing bureaucracy in sport systems threatens to impersonalise & engineer our existence in sport, perhaps more than ever we need to RE-personalise life in sport…

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #5

Mark Upton
Jun 20, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4

Formal organisations in sport systems (governing and funding bodies) have grown in number and size, and are seemingly unaware of the malaise created by the increasing bureaucracy and rationalisation linked to that growth…

“The more bureaucracy you put between the administrative decision-makers and the athletes the worse it can get. Unfortunately one of the major traps I have seen over the last 45 years of coaching is the proliferation of bureaucracy”

Kelvin Giles

Manifestations of Max Weber’s accounts of bureaucracy and rationalisation are relatively easy to find in sport systems…


I wonder what contribution this is making to the unhealthy state of many sport systems, particularly those striving for so-called “high performance” on the field of play? Who/what does it afford opportunity, and conversely, who/what does it drive out?

So what to do? As I’ve recently embarked on a project that will shift a sports system towards an alternative approach, this idea from Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini resonates…

Imagine an online, company-wide conversation where superfluous and counter-productive management practices are discussed and alternatives proposed. The output of such a conversation wouldn’t be a single, elaborate plan for uprooting bureaucracy, but a portfolio of risk-bounded experiments designed to test the feasibility of post-bureaucratic management practices.

Seeking the Edge of Chaos

Mark Upton
May 10, 2017

Below is a nice little primer on the “edge of chaos”, revealing that it is here where a system (player/team/club/national sport) can be most adaptive…

I’ve been mashing up these ideas around order, chaos and complexity in a team sport context for a while now…


This illustrates the idea that excellence in team sport learning and performance can be attained along a continuum and may be optimal right at the edge of chaos (the “adaptive zone”). Where that edge is will likely vary from one system (player/team) to the next, and is dynamic. Figuring out where to draw lines in the sand (constraints) at any moment in time is an on-going puzzle.

“for a given system the region which lies between order and disorder provides an optimal environment for learning and adaptation” (Cowan & Pines)

It has been a fascinating personal and shared journey understanding and applying these theoretical ideas in team sports (unknowingly at first!). I’ve observed first-hand that this way of viewing the world is already, or more readily, adopted in certain countries/regions. For example, FC Barcelona have recently shared their intention to use these ideas (complex systems, ecological approaches, coordination dynamics) as a framework to increase understanding, share knowledge and support coaches into the future…


In a practical sense this is about exploring the space between the extremes of “just let them play” and “drill everything in isolation until it becomes ingrained”, understanding the wider socio-cultural dynamics that swirl around and influence us, and coming to terms with the decision making and adaptive expertise required from coaches when inhabiting this space.

Starting next month, Richard Shuttleworth and I are very much looking forward to the opportunity to support a select group of coaches with this exploration…

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #4

Mark Upton
Apr 26, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3

James Vaughan responded to the theme of “intentions” in fragment 2 with the following…

“basic human values theory suggests that every culture & every person contains the full spectrum of values (intentions / goals) but some values are primed & embodied more than others. Often extrinsic values (e.g status) outweigh intrinsic (self-direction). I’m not sure if this idea is useful or not? But the more we value/act on extrinsic values the less we value/act on intrinsic. I feel like it might a useful way to think about the system disposition and the people’s behavior within the system?”

The idea that the more we act on extrinsic values the less we act on intrinsic…I wonder if that is also the case collectively – others acting on extrinsic values influences us to do the same. That might be what James is suggesting when he speaks of the “system disposition”. These positive feedback loops (not necessarily positive as in desirable, but positive in the sense of amplifying/spreading) dispose a system to evolve in a particular direction, which may not be the intention of any single person in the system.

Linking this in with fragment 3, what happens when the extrinsic motives concerning financial profit, that may have lead us to Youth Sport™, are then embodied in the very participants of a sport themselves? What if the young players with “potential” come to see their sport primarily as a vehicle for financial profit and status? What remains of that sport? What and who suffers?

Among many things, I have a feeling quality suffers. On another platform Larry Paul is in the midst of producing a wonderful series of posts on “Looking for Quality in Youth Soccer”, riffing on Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (unfortunately Pirsig passed away this week). In Chapter 2 Larry asks What is Quality?

What is Quality is not a rhetorical question. It gets to the heart of the matter about what is Good and worthwhile on the largest scale. Youth soccer is overrun with organizations that employ synonyms for Quality like Elite, Premier, Academy, and Excellence yet are not accountable for what that means. Certainly there’s the “we use___” or “we emphasize____” but these are just “the things that have it.” The failure to define what Quality is the primary cause of youth soccer’s suffering from the maladies of affluenza and the Lake Wobegon effect. How can one be Good if one can’t say what Good is? And if everyone in the sport is allowed to claim Quality as their own how can a third party judge between competing models?

fragment #4 complete

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #3

Mark Upton
Apr 25, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2

The previous fragment considered the coaches dilemma – do what they consider best for the athlete, or protect the income derived from engaging with that athlete. A dilemma perhaps created and engulfed by socio-cultural, political and economic forces.

Should the empathy for this coach extend to others in sport systems, youth sport in particular, who are seeking to generate profit by whatever means possible with no genuine care for the needs and interests of the sport participant(s)? Probably not.

In this regard I’ve been considering sport systems as similar to troubled Education and Health Systems.

I came across this tweet from Harold Jarche

…and a couple of days earlier this one from Henry Mintzberg

Are we already at Youth Sport™? Certainly adult performance contexts have been for some time. Yet increasingly child and youth sport? And what does it say about a society that allows its children to be treated as commodities in a bid to maximise financial profit for adults?

It has been suggested that maximising shareholder value is the world’s dumbest idea – doing so at the expense of young people’s experience in sport may not just be dumb, but quite possibly dangerous and destructive.

fragment #3 complete