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.