2020: A time of uncertainty & risk. Time for the team behind the team to step up.

The last few months have seen some challenging circumstances, both in life and sport.

Periods of deep uncertainty that have, at times, shown no promise of an end in sight. Colossal life challenges, comparisons with war time, lockdowns, and not forgetting those who have tragically lost their lives.

Whatever the outcome in the future, the past few months have undoubtedly changed our worlds – forever.

Whether we see it or not, there are many parallels that can be drawn between life and sport. Teamwork, camaraderie, a fast paced and dynamic environment, where thinking fast, and slow, can help determine the outcome we strive for, whatever that may be.

As a performance scientist, the current challenges within the profession are like nothing we’ve ever experienced, and it’s likely we will never see them again. But, it has also been a time of great reflection.

The game of football (soccer) is relatively simple, and adored by billions globally. Two teams attempt to kick a spherical object into a designated area, more times than the other team to win.

Paradoxically though,  performance science is a multitude of complexities that may (or may not!) have a role in increasing the probability of winning.

In his book Behave Robert Sapolsky ,  discusses how when we are faced with multifaceted and complex phenomena such as human behaviour, we use a certain cognitive strategy to break down the individual facets into buckets of explanation. This leads us to categorical thinking. 

For example, let’s take Lionel Messi vs Xavi and their ‘work rate’ as discussed by Fergus Connolly’s in his excellent Game Changer book, and was the feature of Isaiah Cambron’s 2013 article for Barcelona Football Blog.

Whilst comparing distances covered by certain players over a few games, Cambron noted that Messi covered 44,027m in 482 minutes, scored five goals and further contributed with three assists. However Xavi, the midfield genius, contributed with 56,552m in 441 minutes. If using total distance as the only metric, then Messi would be preferred player over Xavi.  Messi appears to have played more minutes, but seemingly less ‘work’.

Dig a little deeper and contextualise these statistics, and a different picture emerges. Divide Messi’s lower distance by the higher number of goals and assists – and he is by far the more effective and efficient player. Furthermore, Messi’s m/min (91.34) was less than that of Fabregas (136.88), Jordi Alba (131.31) and many others. Over the same period of time, the only goalkeeper in the analysis by Cambron, was Celtic’s Fraser Forster who incidentally, covered 32,671m and 50 m/min respectively. Make of that what you want.

This poses a question – if we work in buckets or silos as performance staff – are we missing vital clues within the performance puzzle? Do we end up becoming victims of categorical thinking?

Sapolsky argues that it is no bad thing to put facts into these “demarcated buckets of explanation” as it can indeed help you better remember the facts. However, as he explains, it can also wreak havoc in your thinking about the facts.

As the past few months have progressed working procedures have changed exponentially, we are in the somewhat unknown as to when or how, or even if, respective seasons across the world will restart.

This has led to many challenges. We have seen so much uncertainty in our daily lives, and those of our players, you would think that uncertainty doesn’t exist. But it does. The world is uncertain, sport is uncertain. Science doesn’t give us all the answers, but it does allow us to somewhat reduce uncertainty.

It is human nature to avoid uncertainty in the best way possible, even if this leads to us being wrong. Certainty is a comfortable place to be. We want to be comfortable. We are, after all , simply human.

However, working with athletes in these times, and the potential restart of some leagues has left us with a risk factor too. Just to add to our woes!

But the world is generally full of uncertainties, and it has changed in many ways since the COVID19 outbreak began in late 2019.

When we consider risk, we assume to know all of the facts, the consequences of our actions, or maybe those of others and/or alternative ways of working to minimise risk to our players when bring them back into training/match scenarios. It’s like starting again, with maybe a higher risk because of the lack of training time in the last few months, which brings uncertainty to the table. Who knows?

As practitioners, this world of uncertainty brings a sense of many unknown unknowns. Risk we look to minimize, whatever it may be. Uncertainty, as the last few months has shown, has given us other things to think about. Things have happened unexpectedly, maybe I was naive, but personally I didn’t think it would take this long.

Maybe I have been lucky, here in Utah, and should count my blessings that I haven’t been in London or NY, where lockdown has been the norm for the last 6-8 weeks or so.

During the uncertainty, it has been nigh on impossible to calculate the exact risk to our players. There are now, more than ever, variables/risks that we would have probably never considered 6 months ago. But we still need to make decisions. Based on what we know, and what we don’t know – and that is no mean feat at all.

Screenshot 2020-05-13 at 15.25.59

Whatever uncertainties or risks we face in the coming weeks/months, it us down to us practitioners to continue to provide the our players with the best possible environment to flourish. As difficult as the past few months have been, we must understand the risk or uncertainty that is involved in the coming weeks and months. This will involve many decisions, some that we may never thought of before.

When we know the risks, we can make informed choices based on logical and statistical thinking.   When the risks are unknown, and uncertainty is paramount, then heuristics and intuition may drive the decision process.

However, if the last few months has taught me one thing,  it’s that decisions aren’t really made one or the other, but more likely to be that of both risk and uncertainty.

Thus, working outside of silos, decreasing categorical thinking and coming together to become one team, may just help with the risk and uncertainty that we have been facing, and at present continue to face.

Stay safe people!


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