Thursday, December 14, 2017

Did the Church steal Christmas

Apparently, according to a study reported in the Independent" this week, "One in five Brits do not know that Jesus Christ born on 25 December". Apart from being madly offended by the syntax of the headline, I'm not wholly surprised. Christmas has become something other than a "Religious Holiday" and the over-used slogan "Jesus is the reason for the season" connects with very few people these days.

What is also unsurprising is the predictable response form Christians and non-Christians alike. Varying between outrage and venomous vitriol, it all seems to miss a rather important point. Those who argue that Jesus is some fictional construct of an ancient group of people typically also seem to subscribe to the view that the Church has appropriated a winter festival for it's own ends. They are quick to conclude that the reason for this is an attempt to do away with older traditions and replace them with something new.

But there's a different perspective to be had here. Firstly, let me get something off my chest. December the 25th is not a birthday. It is highly unlikely that Jesus was born on this day. Okay, so you can treat it a bit like the Queen's official birthday, but personally I get rather frustrated with the reduction of what should be a more significant event to a mere birthday. I've always disliked, some might say hated, the singing of "Happy Birthday" on Christmas Day because it trivialises something more precious.

Okay, so I've vented my feeling about that, let's move on.

While there will never be enough "proof" for those who simply do not want to believe that Jesus ever existed, there is strong historical evidence for his existence. What we're really debating here is whether he is who Christians claim him to be on the basis of both their personal experience and the records found in the New Testament. This is what goes to the heart of the question of stealing Christmas.

If Jesus is who the Bible claims him to be, then the doctrines and teaching that accompany that must also fall into the category of truth, and fundamental to that theology is the doctrine of redemption. Redemption has all sorts of connotations-saving, exchanging, fulfilling. Think about redeeming a voucher where you exchange your coupon for goods or services. Or what about the idea of a redeeming feature or attribute.

Redemption is a powerful theological idea and this is exactly what has happened with Christmas. Rather than stealing the annual celebrations, the church redeemed them by offering an alternative narrative, something else worth celebrating. It used a dark winter festival to offer hope through a story of incarnation. New light came into a dark world. Mid-winter is the perfect time to celebrate light because in the midst of the darkest days light makes the greatest difference.

It strikes me that our over-hyped, over-priced and over-exploited commercially driven Fairy-lit Christmas could do with sa bit of redemption.

Changing times

Ever since I started blogging my blog has had this somewhere on it:

Prayerfully motivated; Outwardly focused; Evangelistically active
But while much of my early posts were focussed on my then role as a Baptist Minister, there was plenty of other stuff about which I shared ideas and opinions and the occasional photograph. In all honesty my blog is nothing more than a place where I collect my thoughts. I'm not overly bothered about how many people read it or drift past it. I'm not even sure I'll keep writing, but it's there and it's a space for me and my thoughts.

With that in mind I've decided to take the header off the title. Not because it's no longer true or I no longer see myself in this way, but because it's time. I left church leadership in 2011and although I did a little bit of preaching and a few other things, I'm a long way removed from church life these days. Faith is still a significant and important part of my life, but my working days are full of other things. I no longer eat, sleep and dream "church". I'm no longer consumed every day with trying to meet the sometimes unrealistic expectations of a congregation.

Having spent so many years where my spiritual life was intrinsically linked with the call of ministry, it took its toll. The last 7 years have been quite difficult, and yes a struggle to establish a spiritual life without those responsibilities. Maybe that tells you something about the impact ministry can have on a person. Being one of the statistics of "ministers who leave the church" is an uncomfortable place to find oneself. I'm never quite sure whether being away from "normal" church life simply reinforces my belief that church really only works for people who like church, and I'm not a fan anymore of church as we experienced it for many years.

I still believe that the local church has a role and that this role has to be re-imagined in the present and in line with the missional idea of the God of mission and our partnership with him.

As for me, well I'm immersed in coaching tennis, treating clients and serving families at time of loss. I'm not just doing funerals as a way to earn an income. I do them because I believe I have a set of skills and gifts that help me serve those who grieve in a way others might not be able so to do.

So if you're worried that by taking my "mission statement" off my blog is indicative of a lost faith, do not fear. It isn't. Its just an adjustment that was long overdue.

Monday, November 27, 2017

100 Days Done

Having completed my 100 day challenge I thought I'd reflect on it a little. I could count up how many times I've done this challenge but at a guess it's maybe three or four times. I remember trudging through snow to get the steps done, slipping on ice and dragging myself out in the rain in order to complete previous challenges. This time the weather was kind, no snow, no ice and not a lot of rain. It helps when you start in August! It was also the first time I've done the challenge since I started coaching tennis more regularly, and that changed things. Add to that the tendonitis and there were times when I wondered if it was a wise decision to do it again.

Each time has been different. The first time was a stuttering start and it was the only exercise I did most days. Where we lived made it fairly easy to meet the target simply by walking to the station and back twice a day. There also several circular routes I could take. I found it fairly easy to motivate myself to get out in the morning and break the back of the 10k target. The impact was obvious as my fitness improved and the walking got faster.

This time was quite different. To be honest there was much less of a sense of achievement when I finished. I think I realised early on this time around that given how much I do when I'm coaching, those days when I'm not on court are opportunities to rest rather than smash another target. This is where the activity monitor is helpful because it converts all activity into equivalent steps. On busy days this meant I'd done the equivalent of 3, occasionally 4 times the target. A day off would have been a nice break from some of the more intense days. But, I'd committed myself, so I got out and did the miles. That in itself was a challenge and I'm rather glad I stuck at it.

Going out each day and committing to reaching my goal has benefits when it comes to forming habits. There's really no easy way to build good habits, you simply have to make a choice every day. Train or not train, walk or not walk, practice or not practice, rest or don't rest. That last phrase is really important. Resting should not be seen as a negative. The negative is when you you don't make a decision but simply let time or some other event make the decision for you. When you do that, you're abdicating responsibility and allowing yourself to offer excuses about lacking time or motivation that keep you from achieving your goal for that day. You don't have to smash your target every day, but you have to make a choice.

So this time, now that the 100 days are up, I need to make a decision about how I continue or change the plan. 20+ hours a week on a tennis court ought to be keeping me fit, but I know my fitness is ebbing away faster than I seem to be able to retain it, so something different needs to be done. 10k steps a day might keep my heart healthy but it isn't doing much for my tennis!

Quite what I'm going to do I haven't decided, but I need a plan that takes my knees into consideration and that makes sure I don't hibernate too much over the winter months. Last time I did the 10k I kept going and only stopped because of an injury. I mentioned previously about seeing how quickly I can hit 2M steps. I could do that while incorporating a rest day in my schedule. Perhaps I should aim at 70k steps a week over 6 days. That's only 12k a day, not too much given I've averaged over 13k.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A C- Smart Home?

We've not quite plunged headlong into the world of the smart home, but we're experimenting. A need arose that we thought some smart lighting might be able to meet, so in order to test this out I bought some smart lights for home. We went with Philips Hue and invested in the starter pack and a couple of extra bulbs.

The starter kit comes with two E27 white bulbs and the bridge unit that connects your lights to your network. I've since added a remote switch in the lounge and an "ambience bulb" in the bedroom. I also got a couple of E27 to bayonet adaptors. If you look at the price of these things that comes to around £125, a not insignificant amount for 5 light bulbs!

I chose Hue because it's well known, and it's HomeKit compatible (Apple's Smart Home App). You don't need the Home App to use the lights, Hue has it's own App, so if you're not an Apple fan then there's no issue.

The bridge was very easy to install. We have a data network running throughout the house, so it was very easy to plug it into a port and get up and running.

Knowing which light was in which room was little more tricky. I could have made a note of serial numbers I guess, but a bit of trial and error sorted it out.

Setting up the remote switch was easy too. So far so good. Then I got to play with the apps.

The problem here is that the Philips app and Apple's Home work quite differently and can do different things. Hue, for example, seems to be able to set randomised patterns with start and end times. Home does not appear to be able to do that. Home can create scenes, i.e. lighting patterns, Hue doesn't. So which app do you use? At the moment the answer seems to be both.

There's another issue I've been having. For Home to work best you need a home hub. I could use my iPad, but it would need to be plugged in permanently and at home to do that job, which rather defeats it's functionality as a portable tablet computer that I can take anywhere! The only current alternative is to buy an Apple TV (more money). There are other home hubs available, but so far I haven't found one that says it will work with Homekit. Hopefully Apple's new Homepod will act as a hub, but that means waiting and it will probably be more expensive than buying an Apple TV box. Home should work without the need for a hub, but so far it's been less than reliable for things like turning the lights on when I come home. This seems to work better with Hue.

So my current experience is that Hue does some nice things, but Home offers more flexible automation, albeit limited in some ways that Hue is not. Hue, for example, allows you to set a routine with a start and end time. I haven't found that anywhere in Home. I do like being able to use voice control via Siri, but that's more a novelty than a necessity. Setting scenes is potentially quite useful. For example, I've set a scene called "Movie Night" that dims the lounge lights to 15%. I've also got one called "Bright" that brings those same lights on at full brightness. "Good morning" is another nice scene that brings the main bedroom light on using the light colour feature of the white ambience bulb, and I could have another scene that set a more subdued lighting pattern for the evening.

At some point I'm going to explore other sensors and options. There are plenty of them about, but integration is key. For example, it would be nice to have something that turns the heating on in my treatment room that is integrated with my diary so that the room is warm ready for a client arriving.

The other Smart arrival is an Amazon Echo. I got this to try it out as a possible gift for someone for whom I thought voice activation might be useful. It only arrive yesterday, so I haven't really explored all the possibilities. It looks very neat and when I eventually got it up and running it responded well to my voice commands.

But here's the gripe. Integration and compatibility. All these so-called smart gadgets do not play nicely or easily with each other. I'd like to be able to listen to my iTunes library though my Echo, but it's a painfully tortuous process involving uploading hours of music to another cloud based server and paying for the privilege when I can use my computer at home to distribute the music easily throughout the house. Either that or setting it up as a Bluetooth speaker for an iPod. It would be nice to be able to ask Alexa to put something in my diary, and I should be able to do that, but again there looks to be quite a process to go through to make that work and I don't as yet know whether it will work with only one diary or all my iCal diaries (home, work, personal). We shall see. It would also be nice if it acted as a home hub!

So that's why I'd give my Smart Home a C- at the moment. I have high hopes that in the future things will be better integrated, cheaper and reliable, but that looks some way off.

Years ago, before the advent of the "Smartphone" people would often remark that paper diaries were better than electronic ones because the batteries never ran out! Then along came the iPhone and seamless integration of diaries and reminders between 'phone and laptop and desktop. My cherished Filofax was consigned to the bookshelf and although it still sits in the corner of the study, it hasn't seen a day's use for more than 5 years. Perhaps eventually integration will mean that smart devices will simply work and trying to figure out how to get them to do what you want them to do will be a simple as asking them.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

October Step Stats

For your delight, here are my October stats! It's not very exciting, but it is always interesting to see the trends and variations that occur throughout a month. What I'm seeing this time around is the way coaching affects my step count. You'd think that spending several hours on court on a given day would mean a fairly high count, but that doesn't always follow. If I'm not hitting with a client, I don't actually move around a lot. So it turns out that my lowest day this month was actually a busy coaching day, but I was working mainly with my beginner kids with whom I do a lot of hand-fed drills.

Here are the numbers.

Total steps: 434453

Aver: 14015

Approx. miles: 217

Highest day: 22021

Lowest day: 10189

So my average was up but my maximum was down! I had 8 days when I did fewer that 11k steps compared to 9 in September, and 3 days over 20k compared to 2. Not a lot of difference there. The shift was clearly in the mid-range days where I had more days between 15k-20k (7 compared to 3).

The point here is that a few big days are great, but you want the consistency of regularly getting to and doing the stuff that will keep you healthy. Trends are more important than peaks and troughs in many ways because they tell you that you are building habits.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Family History

I've never been one for genealogy and digging into family history. Bu there are one of two things that intrigue me from my family's past. My Grandfather (Arthur Pool) was a Methodist missionary in Gambia, and a number of years ago I discovered that through him we have connections with some rather well known Methodists. It was interesting to think that I wasn't the only theologian in the family!

The other character that has always fascinated me was one Mordecai Sherwin. I remember being told a story about him being the first wicketkeeper-batsman, but I'm not too sure how accurate that is. Anyway, by chance, I was asked to lead the funeral for someone who had been a cricket statistician and founder member in fact of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians. It turns out Mordecai is quite well-known in such circles.

A publican by trade, he captained Nottinghamshire and played three times for England. Not exactly of an athletic build (5'9" and 17St), as you can see from the photograph, nevertheless he was apparently quite nimble. He also played football for Notts County as a goalkeeper.

It's even said that the name of Sherlock Holmes is partly inspired by Mordecai (Sher-win)!

Statistically he took 611 catches and 225 stumping in 328 First Class games. I've no idea how that compares with his contemporaries, it's just nice to see the data. He was also named Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1891!

Monday, October 02, 2017

September 2017 Step Stats

I managed to hit the target every day for the whole month. Not too surprising given the coaching, training and playing that goes into a typical week. There some days when I wouldn't have made 10k had I not gone for a walk, and under other circumstances I probably wouldn't have done so had it not been for setting myself the challenge. I even walked from Kings Cross to Fenchurch Street one day to make sure I made my 10k steps when otherwise I would have taken the tube to Bank at the very least and walked from there.

This, for me, is what makes the challenge interesting. Not so much the target, but the commitment to doing to do it. Anyway, just for the record (and with some comparisons to come) here are my September stats.

Steps: 395643
 Aver: 13188
 Max: 24537
 Min: 10064
Miles: 198

Given that I started in August, I've managed 44 consecutive days of 10k or more. I've also passed 500k steps already.

My A360 has been recording too, and the data is as I'd expect with the exception of the "pushchair day" I blogged about recently! Heavy coaching days and days when I either play or train show up really clearly in any comparison. What was interesting was the day I pushed Tobias in his buggy. Because my arm wasn't moving very little data was recorded as activity. I wonder what would happen if you went running on a treadmill but held onto the bars. Would it record any data then?

Overall I'm pleased I've completed a whole month and especially pleased that on those days when I might have chosen to sit on the sofa and do nothing, I actually got out and did something. Let's see what October brings.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Don't wear a wrist-based activity monitor while pushing a buggy!

I was looking back over the data that accumulates from both my pedometer (I'm using it for the 100 day challenge) and my Polar A360 and I spotted something quite interesting. Occasionally my A360 records fewer steps than my pedometer, but there was one day in September when the difference was quite significant. I checked the data and I'd been wearing my watch all day, so it wasn't as if I'd had it on charge for a large part of the day.

So I thought about it for a while. Then I looked at the date. Thursday 7th September. The penny dropped. We were at Center Parcs and Anne and I had taken our Grandsons out for a walk in their buggy. I'd been given the responsibility for pushing (Anne might have been carrying Ben while I had Tobias in the pushchair).

While we walked around the site, up and down gradients, through trees and past lodges, my arms weren't doing much at all. My A360 assumed I was probably standing still most of the time and didn't record many steps at all. In fact, had I only been using the Polar to monitor my steps for the challenge, I would have failed miserably that day and would probably have found myself running around Center Parcs in the late evening trying to make up the difference!

Once again it just goes to show that you need to use a device that is most helpful given the way you do most of your activity. Either that or remember to strap your wrist-based device to your ankle when out pushing a buggy!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Extended SMART Targets

I mentioned a while ago that I'd come across a slightly wider definition of S-M-A-R-T while reading Achieve the Impossible, by Greg Whyte. Greg Whyte has been involved with Comic Relief trying the likes of David Walliams for their challenges. Here's his extended version of SMART.

S: Specific, Significant, Stretching
M: Measurable, Meaningful, Motivational
A: Agreed, Achievable, Action-orientated
R: Relevant, Results-orientated, Rewarding
T: Timely, Time-bound, Trackable

Clearly I'd remembered stretching and meaningful without realising it! Anyway, there you have it. Interestingly he doesn't use realistic, which I have heard used and always wondered how it differed significantly form achievable. Mind you, you might argue that results orientated and measurable or measurable and trackable are too similar to be differentiable in this context. In the end there's no real value in debating the semantics, especially if that means that you fail to set a target that's nothing more than wishful thinking.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Step comparison

As I've started my 100 day challenge, I thought I'd do a quick comparison of the data from my pedometer and from my activity monitor. I use a Polar A360. I've posted some stuff about it before, so I won't go into too much detail here.

The A360 takes all your activity and converts it into "equivalent steps". I'm guessing it uses some sort of algorithm to do this. So, when I play tennis for example, it will show a higher step count than when I go for a walk, not because I've necessarily taken more steps but because of the way it converts movement into steps. This shows up in the statistics. Interestingly, one day the A360 under-recorded steps compared to the pedometer rather than over-recording (although over and under recording aren't exactly the best way to describe what it does!).

Anyway, using the 14 days from August, here's what the comparative data looks like:


Total Steps: 192525
Average per day: 13751
Highest: 24750
Lowest: 10458


Total Steps: 233407
Average per day: 16672
Highest: 28693
Lowest: 10686

Interestingly, the day the A360 recorded fewer steps than the pedometer was the day I intentionally went for a walk and set my wristband to monitor that activity (i.e. to log the walk as a training event). It's also partly why I'm undecided about how best to monitor myself during the 100 days. At the moment I simply use my pedometer and make sure it hits 10k each day.

I guess in the end the data just underlines that you need to decide what you want to measure and then choose the appropriate method and equipment to do that job.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Aug 2017 stats

Each time I've done my 100 day challenge I've kept a record of steps in a simple spreadsheet. So here are the stats for August.

Total Steps: 192525
Average per day: 13751
Highest: 24750
Lowest: 10458
No. of consecutive days: 14

I was intending to start on September 1st, but having stuck the pedometer in my pocket and managed to hit my target, I decided just to keep going.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Counting steps again

Having fixed my old pedometer, I stuck it in my pocket and have let it count my steps for the past week. Apart from Saturday, when I went for a walk intentionally, I've just let it measure the steps I do as part of my daily routine. Given that I've done quite a bit of coaching, it's not surprising at all that I've passed 10k every day. In fact I've averaged around 13,500.

So I'm trying to think about what my goal ought to be when we start the challenge in September. Given what I currently do, I can't see any value in simply adding more steps, but maybe I could try targetting "aerobic" steps. When I first suggested doing the challenge again, I thought that maybe I could set a target around what proportion of steps come from simply walking. That would mean I would have to go out each day for a walk rather than just relying on being active enough to do my 10k.

Of course this is me just musing about things, knowing that I'm in quite a fortunate position by being as active as I am. It's not the case for everyone. It's also about these pesky "smart" targets too. You know the routine: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. But maybe smart needs a little more, a little extra. I'm trying to think about what other words to use. So far I've come up with "Stretching" and "Meaningful".

I think a target needs to stretch you. It's not really a target if it's easy to do. If it's easy for me to do 10k steps then it needs to be higher or simply different in some way. Not sure how meaningful fits in except that it begins with "m"! Perhaps it's about it having some purpose. Weight loss, heart health, part of a training programme to trek the coastal paths of the UK or the Great Wall of China. Motivational might another m-word. It has to be something you want to achieve, something that will drive you forward when it's raining and cold and you don't "feel" like going out or when things simply try to get in the way of achieving your goal.

I guess "a" could be ambitious or even audacious, but that moving beyond something objective which is the fundamental principle of smart. Sometimes it's "agreed upon", which might mean sharing your goal with someone to you can be accountable-which also starts with "a"!

That's it, I'm out of ideas. Time to stop typing and go for a walk instead!

PS Greg Whyte's book "Achieve the Impossible" is all about taking on a  challenge and he has a wider definition of SMART. I'll try and find it and post it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Pedometer update!

So, I had a quick look at new pedometers and discovered that many now have a reset button on the front. Why? Why would you want to reset it? I have a feeling that mine would continually be resetting itself as it bumped around in my pocket.

Anyway, I got out my screwdrivers and dismantled my old pedometer and cleaned up the contacts and now, with a bit of fiddling, I've been able to set the time and other parameters and I'm all set to get recording.

As a matter of interest, I did a quick check. It was 2014/15 that I last did the challenge. I managed 183 consecutive before a calf injury ended the run. That was in March 2015 and for some reason I stopped recording the data too afterwards. I think it might be because I got my new Polar A360. That and the battery might have run out!

I think my plan will be the record the data over the next couple of weeks to see what's currently normal/typical and then plan to get out walking in September. I haven't yet decided whether I'll use tennis as part of the 10k or not. It would be interesting but possibly impractical to try and do 10k walking steps in addition to all the stuff I do on court. I will have to think about that carefully.

One solution would be to set a minimum walking target, say 6.5k steps. At a guess that's around 3 miles or 5Km and might be achievable even on heavy tennis days. I could work out a simple route that would hit that goal.

If I start on September 1st, 100 days takes me to December 9th, but I might be a bit later starting this year because of other commitments. Still, it would be nice to hit the target by Christmas. In 2014 I even did my 10k on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Get up, get out, get moving!

It's never a bad time to take on a challenge to get a little more active. I'm probably the most active I've ever been, what with all the coaching I now do. But I still feel the need to "do something". Quite what that is, I don't know.

So it could be time to hit the walking challenge yet again. It's simple, 10,000 steps a day for 100 days. I've blogged about it each time I've done it, and somewhere on my computer are the spreadsheets with all the data of my previous cycles. I've even put a new battery in my old pedometer. Sadly it doesn't seem to want to allow me to set the time etc, but maybe it's just sulking a bit having not been used for 3 years!

If I'm really honest, the thought of doing this again does not fill me with excitement or anticipation. Instead I feel a certain about of something between doom and lethargy about the whole idea. But I know how good it is to set a challenge and actually hit the target. I also know that once I get started it's a lot easier to keep gong than it is to take the first step. 

If you decide to do something similar, you need to know upfront that there will be days when you don't feel like do anything. Days when you will literally have to drag yourself out of bed and out of the house. If you could get fitter just by sitting on the sofa, we'd all opt for that. But the other day I was chatting to someone at the gym and they asked how I felt when I did the challenge. I couldn't quantify my response, it's been 3 years, but I know that there was something special about the experience, even on the hard days. 

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's having done something that wasn't easy, maybe it was persevering when you really wanted to stop. So maybe I need a new challenge, or the same challenge but done in a new way. I don't imagine there are many days when I don't do the equivalent of 10k steps. I might need to think more in terms of simply making sure I do a certain amount of walking each day. Set a percentage of total steps to have to come from walking alone. I don't know. I think I'll need to experiment a bit to find out what an achievable target might be. 

I'll also plot a few routes. I found it really useful to know that if I wanted/needed to do a certain number of steps then this or that route would give me that number.

Well, time to stop thinking and time to start planning and more importantly time to start walking. September will soon be here, and that's a good month to start a new plan.

Friday, June 02, 2017

For the love of practice!

How long does it take to get good at something? That's a question that fits into the "How long is a piece of string?" category, but there has been some research that suggests that it is possible to quantify the amount of time needed to develop a skill. Of course we shouldn't confuse developing a skill with achieving excellence. That is something on a different level.

In sport there is always a debate about the relationship between natural talent and hard work. Some have argued that talent is more a myth than a reality and that hard work and hours of practice is the true measure of what makes an elite athlete. Personally I think there's a middle ground somewhere that recognises talent but also understands than without hard work, commitment and long hours of purposeful practice, it will go to waste.

The bottom line is that you can't improve unless you practice, the only question that remains is how much are you willing to do, or able to do, to make practice a priority. Actually there is another question you need to answer: Do you love to practice?

Over the last 6 or 7 years of playing tennis I have grown to love practice. I miss when I can't do it. I don't miss playing anywhere near as much as I miss practising! Sounds odd, but the pleasure I get from working on shots, technique and strategy in a practice session makes all the sweat and effort worthwhile. Playing is a whole other dimension with different pressures. I still enjoy it, but it's definitely different.

This has become even more clear to me recently. I've suffered a knee injury that has made playing difficult. As I work on rehab I've started to practice again and I realised the other day that if I couldn't play another tournament because of the knee, I'd still turn up and practice. Weird or what! This last week I've managed about 6 hours of practice. The knee aches a little and yet I feel great.

Maybe it's the purposefulness of the practice that makes it so much fun. Maybe it's the folk with whom I get to practice. I suspect it's a bit of both plus the coaching.

If, as some have suggested, it take an average of 10,000 hours of purposeful practice to achieve excellence, then I'm fast running out of time! On other the hand, no practice equals no improvement. So I'll keep putting in maximum effort while I can.

Yes, I'll admit it. I love practice!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Statistics and Sport

We all know that statistics don't tell the whole story, but sometimes they can fall into the "quite interesting" category and even make make to the status of "very interesting"! Take the Aviva Rugby Premiership Final for example. Exeter ran further and passed more. They had more possession and more territory than Wasps (68% to 31%). And yet the game was decided by a single penalty.

Dig a little deeper and you find that Wasps made more line breaks (15-8), but everything else was pretty similar in attack. Defending they made more tackles (282-120).

So we might say that Exeter's victory is reflected quite clearly in the statistics. But that's not the whole story. Wasps were pretty shambolic in the fist half and in the end their lack of precision and accuracy probably cost them the game. That and a certain forward's reluctance to let go of the ball when the referee told him four times to get his mitts off it! And what if Exeter hadn't scored a late penalty to level the scores? Wasps would have won the game having had half the possession and half the territory Exeter had. Interesting.

So are the statistics ever useful, particularly when it comes to coaching? Clearly from a rugby point of view the obvious thing the statistics tell you is that it's pretty difficult to win a match when you spend most of it defending your own try line as Wasps had to do on Saturday. But then again that was pretty obvious from simply watching the game.

But what about other sports, particularly the one in which I am most involved, tennis? There's a much vaunted statistic often discussed in post-analysis by commentators and pundits. It's the winner:unforced error ratio.

I watched some of the Murray/ Kuznetsov match yesterday and I had a look at the stats from it. Murray's ratio was 29:24 (1.20), Kuznetsov's was 33:45 (0.73) But does that tell the whole story? The thing about tennis is that you have to win more games than your opponent and that, you'd expect, means winning more points. But how many more? Take a really simple scenario where the match score is 6-4,4-6,6-4. You could actually win that match by winning only 2 more points than your opponent, the difference between wining and losing a single game. It could even be a single point and possibly no different at all although I'd have to do a lot of probability maths to work of if that was possible!

In the match Murray won a total of 118 points over 34 games. He won 22 games in total. He hit 29 winners. That's less than 30% of his points were won with outright winning shots. Now this is clay, and hitting winners on clay isn't easy! According to the stats, Kuznetsov made 45 unforced errors (not a helpful description because unforced is a rather subjective measure in my opinion). That leaves 44 points unaccounted for unless they are deemed forced errors, but that didn't appear in the statistics I was looking at. If you take both players together then out of 200 points played 63 were decided by winners (interestingly Kuznetsov hit more winners than Murray), whereas 69 were decided by unforced errors and the rest, 68, were unaccounted for in terms of how they were determined. So in this match everything seemed quite even and Kuznetsov's higher error count appears to have been a deciding factor.

What statistics can't tell you is how the style of play and the court surface, weather conditions etc affect the course of a match. An aggressive player may make more errors than a defensive player but their attacking style might create more opportunities to make winning shots. Two attacking players might have shorter rallies, two defensive players might have longer rallies. How might that affect errors and winners? Statically the player with a ratio higher than 1.0 should win, and that is nearly always the case. Nearly, but not always. On the ATP tour around 40% of matches are won by the player with the better than 1.0 ratio. On the WTA is nearer 90%.

So how does this affect the way we coach? Do we simply tell our players to make fewer errors, be difficult to beat, or do we need to adapt our coaching to their style of play. An aggressive all-court player might make more errors, but they might hit more winners too. Perhaps players need to learn how best to create the opportunity to hit the shots they hit best without worrying too much about error counts and winner/error ratios.

The overall stats from the ATP/WTA tours suggest that even if you keep the errors down and the winners up, you don't always significantly improve your chances of winning. Rugby and football matches can be won form statically weak positions. In then end, it just goes to show that sport is more than a statistical numbers game!

Friday, May 05, 2017

Why do footballers need a rest?

I was scanning through the sports headlines on the BBC website and saw Jose Mourinho's comment about resting players at the weekend."The players that have accumulated lots of minutes are not going to play next weekend," he said. But what constitutes "lots of minutes"?

If a tennis player wants to win a grand slam they have to play 7 matches in 14 days and spend time on the practice courts too. A men's match might last anywhere between 2 and 5 hours, the women spend anywhere between 1 and 3 hours on court. The tennis season is also very long. Most top players will play around 20 tournaments a year. Getting through only 2 rounds each time would mean 60 matches.

So I'm perplexed. A tennis player has to give full commitment and concentration throughout the match. They don't' have a team around them to cover for any momentary lapses in concentration. So there must be something different that means a footballer can't cope with a heavy schedule. Is it recovery, fitness or what? I'm not suggesting they are somehow less of an athlete or poorly conditioned for their sport. I'm just wondering what makes one person able to sustain the effort and concentration required over an intense and focussed schedule of games and another not being able to do so.

Perhaps the fact that tennis is focussed on a much smaller area compared to a football pitch changes things, or the simple fact that you are only playing against one or two other people rather than eleven takes a different toll on your mental resources.

The bottom line is that you can't compare apples and oranges and so the difference between a footballer, a racquet sports person, a rugby player or a triathlete is an unrealistic comparison. The demands of their chosen sports must have an impact that differs from sport to sport.

Today's sportsman or sportswoman is more highly trained, better conditioned and better prepared. As a result the sport they play is more physically and mentally demanding. It's faster and as a result more intense. Perhaps this is why resting players is more common.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Time to update driver education for everyone

Last week there was another call for drivers over 70 to be compulsorily retested. While I understand the issue being raised and feel for the context in which it is raised (the loss of a family member to an older driver who 'loses control' of a car), it does seem to be something of a generalisation. Are all drivers over 70 more potentially dangerous than those under 70?

In these days of alternative facts, let me offer a few generalisations of my own.

I have never seen a driver over 70:

  • Fumble around using a mobile 'phone
  • Try to apply their make-up
  • Overtake on a pedestrian crossing
  • Use a right turn only lane to jump the queue
  • Listening to music so loud it make my car vibrate and clearly indicates they can't hear anything else
  • Do a seated version of a dance
  • Eat a MacDonald's meal
  • Carry a cup of coffee between their knees
  • Answer their 'phone and write in their diary, steering with their knees
I'm also pretty convinced that the motorcyclists and drivers who clearly exceed the 30mph speed limit through the village outside my house are not over 70, and of the 3 or 4 significant accidents that have happened on our road, none have involved anyone over 70.

It would appear that it's not the over 70's who need to be reeducated and retested!

As an alternative to putting everyone under pressure to pass a test, and let's be honest everyone can pass or fail a test, why not look at ways to encourage continual education. Why should safer driving courses only be something you attend in order to avoid having points added to your licence? Having attended such a course, I actually found it really interesting and helpful. And yes, I did change the way I did some things.

Perhaps we ought also to look at the process learning to drive. Make it more modular, demonstrating key skills as you progress over a minimum timeframe of say 2 years. Teaching people defensive driving skills and developing better habits and understanding of why the rules of the road are there.

Retesting is not the answer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A quick comparison of Runkeeper and Polar A360 data

I've recently done a bit of interval training/walking again, and I've remembered to set Runkeeper going to record my efforts. I also have my trusty Polar A360 activity monitor strapped to my wrist. Perhaps I should have stuck my old pedometer in my pocket too, just for completeness!

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to compare the data from both the A360 and Runkeeper. Here's the raw data:

The top screenshot is from Runkeeper, the lower one from the A360. There's clearly a discrepancy between the two, but there's also an obvious explanation. Runkeeper uses the GPS facility in my iPhone to map the route, the A360 does not have GPS capability. Consequently it has to use some form of algorithm to calculate distance which in turn impacts the calorie estimate and pace data too.

The point is simple. If you're going to buy an activity monitor then make sure you get something that suits the main type of exercise you do. If you're a runner or walker, then you really ought to consider something that has GPS if accurate distance is important. If like me, most of your activity takes place in a confined space like a tennis court, then GPS is irrelevant. I don't do enough running/walking to warrant a GPS enabled watch. It's all possible that if I activated the app on my phone form Polar (Polar Beat) it might se the GPS and compensate for the difference. I don't know, but it might be worth investigating. 

Activity monitors are simply that-monitors of activity. Some allow you to set the type of activity, the A360 has various sport/training modes that you can set, but generally speaking it's all about trends and making sure you get up and active on a daily basis. My Polar Flow did that and the A360 just gives me a bit more flexibility and a little more data (heart rate mostly).

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting to see the difference and be reminded that nothing is perfect and the data out is only every going to be as good as the data in.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Setting some goals for 2017

To be honest, setting goals is far easier than achieving them. But then again, you knew that. For those who watched Red Dwarf, it's a bit like Arnold Rimmer's revision timetable. So much time and effort goes into a colour-coordinated, carefully planned timetable that there is actually no time left to do the revision so the timetable needs to to revised before work can begin. Round and round the circle Arnold goes!

Well, goal setting can be a bit like that. We can spend so much time working out our goals, making them "smart", visualising the outcomes, that we simply run out of time to get down to the real work. Perhaps there is a simpler way.

Maybe, having defined our goal, we should make a plan about how we are going to achieve it and then make ourselves accountable in some way for our progress. I think the hardest part of setting a goal comes in having a realistic assessment of where I am right now and understanding what I need to do to get to my goal from where I am.

In some areas this is probably easier than others, but just because it might be a little more difficult with your goal, doesn't mean it's not worth the effort of trying. My mindset was changed when I first came across Jim Collins (Good to Great) and heard him speak about the different measures needed in non-profit organisation compared to business when assessing progress. Almost everything can be measured in some way.

If you can measure progress then you can plan for progress. Or does that sound too cliche or simplistic? Perhaps it is. I know I can measure my consistency in tennis by counting the number of shots per rally or how many times I make one more ball than my practice partner or opponent. I can measure by discipline in reading by ticking books off a reading list or simply by how far I am through a book. Equally I can measure how regularly I'm using my journal by seeing how many pages are used, or more accurately how many daily entries are made.

So I know I can measure myself against my goal. But what determines my ability to reach my goal? Think about my tennis goal for a moment. It's quite simple: Win a graded tournament match. Some of the things that will determine whether I reach my goal or not are in my hands, some are not. I can, generally speaking, control my practice. I can apply myself to practice and development. I can even try listening to my coach! I can't control injuries (although I can do everything possible to be well conditioned). I can't control the draw. If I get a seeded player in the first round at each tournament, I'm going to struggle. I can choose the tournament. I can be the best prepared I can be. I can't control whether I play my best tennis on a given day or not.

If you're setting as goal, then you need to think about those things that impact your ability to reach your goal. You may have to accept that something will come a long that will disrupt your plan. If you've thought about it beforehand, you will be better prepared to deal with it when it arises.

In the end the goal is just the end product of the journey. Not reaching the goal is not total failure. I've had the same tennis goal for several years now. In fact I'm not sure what I'll do if I actually manage to achieve it! I have won a few matches, but interestingly the ones I've won don't "count" in quite the same way as the one I'm after. But that's a whole other topic!

Here's the interesting thing. This simple goal of winning a tournament match keeps me focussed and disciplined about practice. As I hit 60 this year, I'm still committed to working as hard as I can to reach this goal. It might never come, but without it turning up to the lung busting, heart pounding, joint aching practice sessions would be pointless. So I practice to reach my goal, but my goal keeps me practicing and persevering.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Is it time for a sporting reality show?

No, I'm not talking about some sort of celebrity-based show where faded pop-stars and ex-partners of gossip column notaries try their hand at field sports only to be judged by a panel of experts and voted off the show week by week. No, I mean something that actually shows you how hard ordinary sports people work to get better at what they do. The hours of training and education. The setbacks, failure, injuries and the emotional ride of winning and losing.

The thing is sport is hard, as are many things in life. But we've reduced it to what's watchable, what
at makes good TV. We don't seem too interested in the thing that makes the biggest difference-practice-we're just interested in some immeasurable thing called talent. Have they got it or haven't they? If not then vote them off and move on. Never mind the application of training and coaching, of determination and commitment.

Life is not a talent show. It's hard work. It's takes practice, and most of us don't like practice.

I came to my chosen sport of tennis late in life. I have to work really hard just to stay still in terms of playing ability and fitness. To improve takes a lot of time and energy and effort. I train for 5 hours a week, and to be honest it's not enough to push me to the level I want to achieve. In my opinion I've spent the last 4 or 5 years getting near the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to achieving something. Yes. I'm a better tennis player than I was 5 years ago. Absolutely no doubt about that, but if this was a talent show, I'd have been voted off long ago!

So maybe it's time for a sporting reality show that takes the audience on the journey of learning and improving that we all go through. No superstars. No pantomime villain judges. No audience votes.

You never know, that might even inspire a few folk to try it for themselves.