Losing my religion

Jono Byrne
Dec 1, 2016

As a longstanding supporter of Al, Mark and Andrew’s direction of travel with myfastestmile, I was delighted to accept their invitation to play a small part in their ongoing story. Hopefully, my contribution will measure up to the quality and novelty of thought that they’re providing in conversations about the development of sport.

The 12th month of the calendar year heralds a time of festivities for many, but as an unapologetic grumpy old(ish) man I’ve chosen instead to use the onset of Winter as a cue to reflect on a 2016 that has, to many of us, given life to that most famous old Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”

In the political world, the apparent shift from orchestrated terrorist attacks to seemingly ad hoc and self-organised violence directed against urban ‘soft targets’ has confounded security agencies worldwide. In democratic elections in the UK and abroad, a series of unpredicted outcomes has wrong-footed the analysis of pundits and pollsters alike. In sport, some established ‘truths’ have memorably collapsed, with Leicester City FC mocking the notion that only a member of the financially powerful ‘Big Four’ (Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Arsenal) could possibly win the English Premier League in the modern era. Meanwhile, in an Olympic year, we’ve witnessed the bizarre spectacle of simultaneous media critique and elsewhere cheerleading of state-funded and centrally directed high performance sport programmes as a means of delivering medal success.

In troubling times of apparent growing uncertainty, it’s human nature to gravitate towards sources of comforting reassurance; those providers of recipes, models, formulas and maps to ‘guide’ us out of the foreboding forest we feel lost within. Bestselling hindsight-based narratives of the paths purportedly taken by those who went from ‘Good to Great’ appear superficially comforting to the lost, but adopting a healthy degree of pragmatic skepticism is, as ever, a sensible precaution. By contrast, myfastestmile has taken the far rockier and much less comfortable ‘high road’ (apt given Al’s Scottish lineage); choosing instead to promote realistic and constructive suggestions about learning to cope (and ultimately thrive) in an undeniably volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence” (Henry David Thoreau)

Why is it so hard to follow Thoreau’s ageless advice? I took great pleasure recently in getting better acquainted with the increasingly compelling evidence of our collective genetic heritage to a circa 500-strong East African tribe of the first modern humans (the original Homo Sapiens). The ultimate colonisation of the planet by the direct descendants of that tribe suggests that the urge to explore a path ‘beyond the horizon’ is a vital part of what it means to be human. Whilst that may be true, it’s self-evident that the great migration outward from the ancestral human homeland must have been punctuated by ‘waypoints’; opportunities for groups to ‘settle’ in newly discovered habitable land. Logic suggests, therefore, that most of us are likely descended from those ‘safety and comfort seeking settlers’; perhaps, then, our collective fear of uncertain futures is understandable. What is maybe less forgivable is our oft displayed intolerance of present day ‘heretics’ who echo the spirit of those ancestral pioneers who chose to ‘push on’ to the next horizon of human possibility.

So, what is to be my small contribution to the expanding landscape of progressive thinking in sport that is being painted by myfastestmile? In the near term, I’ll be providing some reflections on my long and intimate relationship with that (sadly corrupted) corporate buzzword of choice “innovation”. In the forthcoming second part of this blog, I’ll offer some thoughts on how and why innovation frequently fails to meet its grand promises; later, in part 3, I’ll offer some modest proposals on how we might ‘do innovation’ in a more realistic and constructive manner.

An overnight success (but 10 years in the making)

In pondering my possible longer-term part in the myfastestmile story, I’ll conclude for now with a further thought on this curious year of 2016. Back in March, American rock music giants REM celebrated the 25th anniversary of their breakthrough 1991 album ‘Out of Time’. As an insufferably ‘alternative’ teenager at the time, I was a committed fan of the band’s extensive (but little known) 1980s ‘alt-rock’ back catalogue; comprising no less than 6 studio albums recorded in the 10-years prior to ‘Out of Time’. REM’s stratospheric ascent from ‘indie’ obscurity defied prediction at the time, and as a pretentious ‘student type’ who took comfort from carving out very personal pop culture niches, I remember feeling ‘robbed’ at losing one of my secrets to a mob of late arriving ‘bandwagon jumpers’.

Notwithstanding the intrinsic value in poking fun at the absurdity of my youthful self, the REM story sits neatly with the core narrative of myfastestmile.

Can the ascent to ‘elite’ performance really be predicted from early career outcomes? Is early success a pre-requisite of later success? How do we encourage the patient apprenticeship of skills and craft as necessary foundations of longer-term excellence?

Like REM’s Michael Stipe all those years ago, I’ve recently found myself (as a former ‘sports scientist’) to be ‘Losing My Religion’. I’m fortunate to have discovered the pioneering folk of myfastestmile as I part company with ‘safety seeking settlers’ and venture towards a new horizon of possibility for sport.