Thursday, 8 March 2012

Darwin and coaching

I remembered reading a particular passage from Darwin's Origin of Species some years ago. Darwin wrote his masterwork at the age of 50, summing up decades worth of observation. In Species, he describes just how incredibly rare it is to be a good animal breeder. He used the example to show, self-evidently- even a few generations of breeding livestock can make a difference. But he reminds us the differences are small, very small, and only a few select individuals have the talent. A breeder may see only a handful of generations of animals in his own lifetime. This passage really stuck with me; I had never thought  how hard it might be to look at dozens of animals and spot the one or two that stood out as 'special'. Here's what he wrote:

The great power of this principle of selection is not hypothetical. It is certain that several of our eminent breeders have, even within a single lifetime, modified to a large extent some breeds of cattle and sheep. In order fully to realise what they have done, it is almost necessary to read several of the many treatises devoted to this subject, and to inspect the animals. Breeders habitually speak of an animal's organisation as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please. If I had space I could quote numerous passages to this effect from highly competent authorities. . . .

What English breeders have actually effected is proved by the enormous prices given for animals with a good pedigree; and these have now been exported to almost every quarter of the world. The improvement is by no means generally due to crossing different breeds; all the best breeders are strongly opposed to this practice, except sometimes amongst closely allied sub-breeds. And when a cross has been made, the closest selection is far more indispensable even than in ordinary cases. If selection consisted merely in separating some very distinct variety, and breeding from it, the principle would be so obvious as hardly to be worth notice; but its importance consists in the great effect produced by the accumulation in one direction, during successive generations, of differences absolutely inappreciable by an uneducated eye--differences which I for one have vainly attempted to appreciate. Not one man in a thousand has accuracy of eye and judgment sufficient to become an eminent breeder. If gifted with these qualities, and he studies his subject for years, and devotes his lifetime to it with indomitable perseverance, he will succeed, and may make great improvements; if he wants any of these qualities, he will assuredly fail. Few would readily believe in the natural capacity and years of practice requisite to become even a skillful pigeon-fancier.
Then I wondered if a similar principle applied to the difficult nuances of coaching athletes. I do not mean to make a direct correspondence, as if coaches are breeding athletes (goodness, I hope not). But the basic idea of spotting talent that's hard to measure is relevant. Importantly, and perhaps very much unlike a breeder, they cannot choose you athletes from birth, nor trade them at will or dispose of the 'weaklings'. A coach must develop the talent and has exactly one generation to work with. Given the keys to a Volkswagen a coach must come back with a Porsche. The coach of David Rudisha, Colm O'Connel, recently described that subtle ability to communicate success during a BBC interview:
I kind of have an eye for it and I have a gut feeling for the person. Over the years I have developed a sixth sense and that ability to bring the best out of somebody. You look at personality, you look at running technique, you find out are they prepared to become successful athletes, to make the necessary sacrifices, and are they patient?

I just finished watching Moneyball, wherein the movie recounts when in the early 2000s the Oakland A's discovered you could replace years of gut instinct from scouts -breeders in the world of baseball- with a computer model. Even the team coach is more or less benched during their experiment. My guess is the movie overplayed the degree to which pure stats can predict individual success. Significantly, baseball is full of stats. No new stats were invented while playing 'moneyball' as far as I know, rather the GM Beane found some metrics were overplayed while others underrated (when correlated with salary). Given similar-salaried teams using the same sabermetrics, I imagine scouts have an important role identifying the more subtle differences in players that otherwise match well on paper. And if trading players is not an option, and must use the team you already have, the point of those metrics is moot. Metrics, even good ones, never say how they got that way. What does Moneyball say about developing talent? The unspoken irony in the film is that once Beans assembles his team he discovers these players still need to practice, analyze, and improve their game in order to win.

Running is stat-poor (the words 'sabermetrics' and 'run' don't come together outside of baseball), which is why scientists are so desperate to uncover metrics like VO2max, MAXLASS, Galvanic resistance, etc. Not being much of a team sport either, your relative contribution is rather zero-dimensional (Just adding up scoring points in XC running for example. I know team tactics exist, but they do not show up well on paper save for some possible clustering). Running is a very 'pure' sport in that subtleties count for a lot. Your only true metric is your race time, which is like knowing your golf score without knowing the unit divisions. As an aside, I have found one interesting metric not often (properly) discussed outside journals, but I will save that for another post. Spoiler alert: It's not going to change how the game is played.

But just to make things more interesting, perhaps runners could engage in more races where team play had an important role. Imagine two track teams each of five players -or whatever- starting on opposite sides of a 200m or 400m oval. Two rules:

1) The last man must stay within 10 meters of the first
2) They must run until one team catches the other (leader on team X passes last on team Y)

A running race without a time goal, what fun! Like a bike pursuit race but easier to host. A hundred new strategies emerge (kickers, endurance guys, pace adapters) Will endurance win over speed? Other rules could be also added or amended, making a point tally in a given lap total. You could even try doing away with rule #1. Who knows, if this pans out we could be trading runners like baseball players. 

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