Archive for the 'training' Category

I’ve been interested in the concept of athletic injury — why it happens and how to avoid it — since my early attempts at distance running went wrong. My failure to properly manage the progression from half- to full-marathon training scuppered my enjoyment at the full distance and cost me no small amount of time, money and pain at the physio clinic.

Last year I asked the London Marathon folks how many places they allocate each year, and how many drop out before the day, but answer came there none. Many runners, I’m sure, tough it out on inadequate training and recovery, just as I did in 2005, with a virus or other illness that seems marginal in the context of the joy of getting a place in this massive mobile folk festival, or the sense of obligation to one’s sponsors. The latter, of course, is very powerful.

But during all my middle-aged attempts at higher fitness, I think the most interesting concept I’ve come across appeared just the other day in the sports science newsletter Peak Performance:-

There is a price to be paid for developing specific robustness, and it goes some way to explaining how highly trained athletes can still be susceptible to injury. As training and strength progress we become increasingly adapted to the stimulus our body expects. However, high levels of adaptation to a familiar stress may conversely leave you potentially fragile to an unexpected stress. And as the highly adaptable and complex being that you are, it is often tiny unexpected stresses that may prove catastrophic. This is referred to as the robustness-fragility trade-off.

The concept is new to me, but presumably it will not be to those familiar with complex systems, be they biological or technological. I’m guessing here that it should also resonate in the workplace, school, the home and even the family. The more we become good at the specific skill, task, business or market orientation, the more vulnerable perhaps we are to some not entirely distant butterfly-wing flap – the tooth that cracks while biting on nothing more than a lettuce leaf.

Well, I’ve heard in business the suggestion that the big non-linearities are kind of unavoidable, and that their impact will be evenly distributed, so there is not much competitive advantage in laying down tools and tinkering in some other less defined direction, which is what the Peak Performance article advocates for physiological purposes.

I think they are telling us to do a bit more than just cross-training, the benefits of which are well-documented, but try and incorporate a range of movements into your life and workouts. For example, the article recommends introducing a “bandwidth of variability” in the way we run or exercise, and do things that challenge our coordination.

For runners (which is mostly where my interests lie) exercises like skipping and even hopscotch are recommended. It seems a far cry from what we conceive of as the serious business of piling on the miles.

Perhaps a bit more corporate hopscotch, and some of our currently endangered institutions might now be looking a little less vulnerable? But I doubt the stock analysts would be able to reduce it to a metric for discussion, so it is only through the wisdom of failure that most managers are likely to allocate any time or resources to such a pursuit.

The difficulty is that we prefer to focus on the task in hand and see ourselves progress directly at the sport or discipline in which we will be measured. The greater discipline required to step back and spend a little bit of time filling in the gaps seems to come at the cost of specific progress on that road to greater robustness in our chosen sport or business endeavour. That less-travelled training road is also likely to leave us feeling that we are falling behind our colleagues or competitors.

For example, if the choice exists between dropping some miles on the training path and some core stability training, the closer to an event the more likely that non sport-specific activity is going to be foregone if there is some other pressing work or family responsibility.

Very early readers of the Knackered Hack will recall my focus on rugby player Jonny Wilkinson‘s return to competitive sport, and his own comments on the mismanagement of his early training regime.

Up to now I have perhaps not had the strength to make these tough decisions because I always believed the toughest decision was to stay on the field and “tough it out” for an extra hour or so. The tough decisions for me now are about getting the most out of my training while still being able to rest and recuperate for the weekend’s game. I still train numerous times every day but I try now to train better and smarter, which does not necessarily always mean longer.

It is for this reason that, rather than focus on a specific event goal like the marathon, my training approach is now holistic, trying to put together some of the things I’ve learned over the past several years. This may mean a slower, more varied route to robustness. All that said, my opinion of my current regime is that it is still too monotonous. So, inspired by Peak Performance, I will be ringing the changes in the coming weeks with weights, tennis, badminton, skipping, basketball, and maybe even some hopscotch (corporate and otherwise).

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pop finance


Tweet The RSA Lecture by Brooke Harrington last Thursday was a great deal of fun. In a few weeks the RSA will put up a full video on their soon-to-be relaunched website, so when I see that I’ll publish the link. As I mentioned before, Brooke’s work on diverse perspectives overlaps somewhat with that of […]

bike psyche


Great Britain again dominated the World Track Cycling Championship at the Manchester Velodrome this weekend. I watched only briefly, taking a break from the Twitter stream to see an interview with team psychologist Steve Peters.

Peters is something of a phenomenon, if not a genius; Undergraduate Dean of Sheffield University, much in demand in a variety of UK sports, he’s a sometime visitor to the England rugby training camp here at the Sports Training Village in Bath — which, by the way, seemed to be a secret he did not want told on national TV.

Vicky Pendleton and Shanaze Reade

But most interestingly, perhaps, he is a former forensic psychologist, who spent many years working in Rampton Secure Hospital, exemplifying our own belief here at Knackered Towers that the study of that which is broken yields useful lessons if you want to succeed.

If that were not enough, the unassuming Dr Peters is a highly competitive Masters M50 sprint champion (that’s running fast for old folks). His training regimen, discussed here, would likely pass muster with that most eminent of critical thinkers on all things sporty, Professor Art de Vany. It’s very unorthodox.

Now, recently I’ve been tempted to comment on Reuters’ CEO Tom Glocer’s blog, but held back. Tom was talking about national character, negativity and optimism. If I understood his point correctly, he was saying that if only you think positively, good things will follow (that was the post title in any event). He referred to the need for an optimistic outlook, drawing on the athletic coach and the self-talking salesman as examples.

You can’t really argue with that. Except that, as Ed Smith painted in his book, the truth is a lot less certain and requires a more subjunctive qualification: think positively and good things might happen. The corollary being, think negatively and it ain’t gonna happen, not now, not never. And that’s more my own experience; as Woody Allen would have it, 80 pct of life is about turning up.

But, in my own corporate experience, positivity and negativity tend to be understood in very binary terms. And because of that, useful information about how products could be improved (or an organization better configured) does not flow freely up the ranks. With tools like wikis, of course, it now flows much more freely across reporting lines, if managers take the step to encourage their use. And it flows pretty freely among the folks who stand outside the office smoking, but let’s not go there.

Returning to individual and team confidence, what Peters had to say was quite brief but highly nuanced. What was clear was that positive thinking, and the psychological tools needed to create it, were not straightforward: they were specific to the individual, but also situational depending on the person, whether a team was involved, the type of event, the coach, championship and location. What mattered was educating athletes into how their minds worked, what trigger points led to negative emotions, and how those could be turned around.

Vicky Pendleton, the diminutive and self-confessed “girly girl” who won two gold medals and a silver over the weekend, had lacked confidence, according to Peters, when he started working with her. But he described how she had been able to train herself to turn her mood around within 10 minutes of a setback.

Peters explained how large events, such as the Olympics, create a huge range of distractions (from transport to security) each of which will affect each athlete differently, and for which all need to be prepared if they are to secure their own best chance of success.

What makes sport an interesting crucible through which to understand performance these days is that there is just so much of it, it is so professional, and there is so much research (physiological, neurological, psychological) . And it produces characters like Peters, Martin O’Neil and Ed Smith.

Sportsmen and women are dealing with the most intense of situations in which their vulnerabilities are very public, even on a day-to-day basis in training. They have a lot of complex information to understand, and failure to self-manage can quickly lead to injury, loss of form, loss of a place on the team, loss of funding, denial of access to quality coaching, etc. And that ignores the consequence of a random fall or illness at a critical moment in a training schedule. This cascade gathers its own momentum because at each stage the athlete finds him or herself increasingly isolated, so the reversal becomes commensurately difficult to effect.

It should not be forgotten, and if you have ever trained really hard you will know, that resulting sharp mood swings can affect motivations and relationships outside of the sport as the body and mind adapt and recover from the process of extreme exertion. Indeed, a protracted bad mood is a sign of over-training syndrome which is very hard to pinpoint in oneself until it’s too late, and takes a surprisingly long time to recover from.

There don’t seem to be enough Steve Peters to go round sport, let alone international business. I wonder how we should go about making more?

Photo: British Cycling

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With it’s playful green and red cartoon dust jacket, Ed Smith‘s What Sport Tells Us About Life: Bradman’s Average, Zidane’s Kiss and Other Sporting Lessons (Penguin Books, £14.99) could easily be taken for a belated Christmas stocking-filler, destined for a long stay in the bathroom’s literature section. But it deserves to be taken seriously. As the inside cover says:

Sport is a condensed version of life — only it matters less and comes up with better statistics.”

I realised this myself some time ago, and periodically spend more time following sports science than business and finance. And it was one of the thematic reasons for starting the Knackered Hack in the first place, to explore what could be learned from sport in general and my own participation in it in particular, without being glib. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions…

Smith, who is captain of Middlesex County Cricket Club, offers up sport as an under-used analytical resource from which can be drawn a number of intellectual and practical lessons about education, business, politics, the study of history, etc. The book takes the form of a series of essays, each kicking off from one sporting theme and following where any beam of light is usefully shed.

Smith takes in some of the old chestnuts such as: are our sporting heroes what they used to be? (the golden age hypothesis says no) or are our sportsmen and women getting perpetually better? (evolutionary theory says yes); is sport too commercial? — you’ve heard these discussed in the pub no doubt. He also covers some remarkable new ground for me, making some startling and insightful connections.

Before we get into cricket v baseball, as Smith himself explores, know that Smith understands both games well, and bigs up baseball as a crucible for pithy life observation, just as obsessive fans would claim. And he critiques the Moneyball strategy of the Oakland As from a player’s perspective. He also reveals baseball to be most likely a French invention, overtaking cricket for popularity in the Civil War (American of course) because of rough pitches, and then being gamed by some 19th century spin doctor called A. G. Spalding, who touted it that baseball championed the egalitarian, in contrast to the effeteness of cricket. Yes, he was just trying to sell more gear. And it worked. Despite the fact that cricket had enjoyed wide social acceptance in the US earlier in the century, it fell into terminal decline as a national pastime.

I’m no expert on Schumpeter’s oeuvre — though I’ve lived through one or two creative destruction episodes. But after 87 pages of What Sport Tells Us, all I could think of was Schumpeter, Schumpeter, Schumpeter. Smith elaborates on the fluctuating fortunes of sport, not just in terms of games and spectacle. He shows how at an industry (and at a national cultural) level the individual sporting disciplines are so rich themselves in creative destruction, confounding the stereotypes that fans, commentators and team owners all too frequently apply. On page 88, Smith finally drops the great man’s name. For the reader like me it was a back-of-the-net moment, as they say in soccer. Well-scored, Ed! When Penguin offered me the book for review, I hadn’t expected to find a discussion of how the free market has worked its invisible magic to raise the salaries of “left tackles” in American football. These hulks go unwatched on the field of play because all eyes follow the star quarter-back; but their presence determines whether the star player makes the goal or ends up face down in the mud. It all made sense to me. Schumpeter, he the man!

Someone should get Russ Roberts at EconTalk to interview Smith for a podcast. Smith is a broadcaster himself, having fronted a BBC programme called Peak Performance, which is sadly no longer in their online archive. In Roberts’ podcast with Schumpeter biographer Thomas McCraw, he highlights that when we observe an economic phenomenon like income inequality, the dominance of particular corporations (or, I’d suggest, the current credit crunch) we tend to see only the present snapshot in time; we miss the continuum. This can be both positive and negative. Bad news and bad money can drive out the good. But, Smith shows us that in the larger sweep of sporting history as well, so much of the hand-wringing of the short run is misplaced.

He also despatches sporting cliches all over the ground like loose bowling. He sends the concept of professionalism for six, hits a homerun against the notion of talent’s primacy, but saves his best shot for the role of luck and our contradictory and mistaken attitude to how it operates both in games, and also how it influences entire career paths.

Believing that ‘you can be whatever you want to be’, on the other hand, is actually a rather easy doctrine. (At least until you realize the idea has led you up the garden path.) The fallacy that desire and determination hold the keys to all success appeals to the inner adolescent in us that cannot bear the thought of hard work going to waste. I try, ergo I succeed; the world is just, so I will prevail; there is a fair distribution of justice, so I will be lauded. Such a shame that it isn’t true.

Of course, that logic is not reversible. Sitting around waiting for luck to come your way is as misguided as thinking that good things always come to those who ‘want it enough.’ The truth is that determination and desire are necessary but not sufficient. We have to try like crazy; we have to retain a relentless sense of determination; we have to make sacrifices and take the road less travelled. And yet still there are no guarantees. Even after all that, we may come up empty-handed. That is the bleak but unavoidable logic of anyone who has deep ambitions.”

But before we get too depressed by the potential tragedy of it all, he has a whole chapter celebrating the need to retain a sense of amateur love for the game, but not in the long out-dated Corinthian notion. Quoting Simon Barnes, quoting Brazilian World Cup Coach Felipe Scolari:-

Scolari said: ‘My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional. Thirty to forty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.’

[Barnes continues] This is not romantic twaddle. It is a fact that the more important something gets, the harder it is to do it well. We can all walk along the kerbstone in safety, but if the drop were not six inches but six miles, how then would we walk? Football matters too much; it matters to the players too much. As a result, the mattering gets in the way of the playing.”

In Smith’s own words:-

All professional sportsmen battle with their fears and anxieties. And by no means do they always conquer them. We live on the brink of disappointment, of failure, of being dropped, of getting sacked, of retreating back into civilian life with our dreams unfulfilled. That is the parlous state in which most sportsmen usually find themselves. All of us have experienced downward spirals of anxiety and introspection – I am losing form, my place is in jeopardy, my career could be in danger. Often you deny the problem, which secretly increases your anxiety – you are scared of admitting your fears even to yourself – and your form worsens still further.

He continues:-

Remove the obstacles to playing well. Anxiety is one of the obstacles. Worrying is one of the obstacles. Failing to focus simply and only on the job in hand is one of the obstacles [...] Dreading failure is one of the obstacles. Now you are thinking like a player again that is usually a beginning of a return to form.

The exposure to failure that really loving your sport entails is painful. The following paragraph(s) sang out particularly plaintively to the Knackered ears:

Trying desperately hard and not getting what you want is decent summary of what almost all sportsmen go through. The more deeply you compete and the greater the quality of your caring (to lift a line from Larkin), the more it hurts when you lose, or fail, or fall short. Each time a competitor taps into the essence of his personality in an attempt to win a sports match, he takes a risk. The risk is that he will get no reward — in the sense of a win or a personal triumph — for exposing himself to that degree of psychological rawness. It is easy to resent having tried so hard in the first place.

On the other hand, being too disengaged isn’t the answer, as the next paragraph elaborates:-

If it didn’t get us anywhere today, why should I bother to care so deeply next time? One answer is that being prepared and able to experience such deep emotions, and being exposed to that degree of disappointment, is a privilege not open to many. It doesn’t feel like a privilege at the time. It feels like hell. But it makes for a life more fully lived. After ten years playing professional sport, I have come to the startling conclusion that a big part of me actually enjoys caring about sport, even when that caring expresses itself as pain at losing. I wouldn’t rather life was more pallid. It sometimes reminds me that I am not wasting my time — and protects me a little from the resigned emptiness we all dread in sport.”

So don’t be put off from ordering a copy from or to steal a march on any US publication plans that Penguin has. He is good on this stuff, you know. He read History at Cambridge, and because he is younger than me, has been more exposed to counter-factualism, which he uses quite devastatingly to examine some rather controversial sporting triumphs, like England’s unexpected win in the 2005 Ashes cricket series against Australia.

And to show that someone has already deftly combined sport and philosophy, a re-run of one of my favourites. Schumpeter didn’t make the team on this occasion, but then… that was the story of his life.

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For anyone who missed it, Peter Day’s In Business programme on BBC Radio 4 several weeks ago highlighted the peculiarities of competition and collaboration in the Cambridge University Boat Club in preparing for the selection of its 1st VIII for the annual Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race, or The Boat Race to be precise. (Podcast for download here.)

Judge Business School reader Marc De Rond said that business researchers have had difficulty identifying the impact of one individual within teams. In sport, it is a little easier and he set out to study his local rowing club. Cambridge coach, Duncan Holland, put it thus:-

Rowers are very experienced at making teams because in an eight, in comparison to other sports, you can’t have a star and some water carriers… An eight really is as fast as the slowest member, so rowers have a lot of experience of getting on together and working out how slightly better people can get on with slightly lesser people and focusing on a common goal.”

However, there was an added complexity. All members of the squad have to row perfectly together, but this requirement to co-ordinate their actions perfectly together was simultaneous with their own competitive need to capture the next person’s place in the first team, or “blue” boat.

De Rond’s study noted that the qualities that make the alpha-male rowers good competitors, also make them difficult. They think quickly, believe they can anticipate what will be said to them, and are surprisingly oblivious to the feelings of others. In this instance the skills needed of the coach are of a high order if the team is to be successful.

It may also mean picking an inferior rower in some instances to provide social buffering between otherwise dysfunctionally aggressive behaviours. They highlighted the way in which a majority of the Blue boat chose Dan O’Shaughnessy to row with them rather than a stronger rower, because his sense of humour, among other things, permitted them to relate to one another in a way that they could not on their own. And so they would row faster.

Echoing the work of Scott Page, which we have noted several times, Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School said:-

We know that the relationships we have in teams are at the heart of how we feel about our companies. We stay in our companies because we love working as a member of a team and we leave them because we hate working in that team. There is an argument that people are naturally cooperative and that what has happened in organizations is we’ve put an overlay of competition which actually destroys the humanness of being in a team and the pleasure of working.

Having studied companies including Goldman Sachs and Google, she said strong teams had three things in common: all teams were prepared to cooperate with one another, they all had diverse points of view, they all had a mission or a question that was very exciting for them.

She said the best teams for a highly innovative product comprise members from different countries, different mindsets and different genders. Male and female teams are more productive than single gender teams.

A group of experts is only good at finding a better way to do what they do well. Yet they struggle to innovate. Innovation comes from a clash of ideas. And a common mistake leaders make is in believing they should choose all the participants in a team. The best teams are those where there is a core, and then volunteers come in because they are excited by the idea of participation in the project. Naturally, Google’s “twenty-per-cent time” was offered as a compelling example.

Another interesting proviso was to not make diverse teams socialise before they work together. It only makes them realise how much they don’t like each other.

This dissonance was central to Scott Page’s RSA seminar last spring. The New York Times interviewed him in early January here. He offered a mathematical reflection of how all this works:-

What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.

The other thing we did was to show in mathematical terms how when making predictions, a group’s errors depend in equal parts on the ability of its members to predict and their diversity. This second theorem can be expressed as an equation: collective accuracy = average accuracy + diversity.”

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