In Part I of this article I referenced the term "process" in the paragraph about technology in pro sports. To expand on this point it is worth looking back on the legacies of legendary coaches like Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Bill Walsh, and Sir Alex Fergusson.
When doing so it's clear that they pioneered an approach to coaching that equally successful, but more contemporary coaches like Bill Belichek, Nick Saban and Pep Guardiola have appropriately coined "the process." Subsequently, coaches and authors like Brett Bartholomew and Ben Bergeron have written about "the process" in their articles and books.
I think of "the process" as the ability to resist the temptation of focusing on wins and losses, media reports, and the uninformed opinions of fans on social media, and instead dedicate oneself and your team to the hour to hour, day to day habits that are within your control and will help to incrementally improve your physical and mental capacity to perform at your best.
After three seasons of witnessing first hand the razor thin margins for error in the high pressure, high stakes world of professional soccer, I am a baptized believer and evangelist that this is the best way to approach individual and team preparation. With the length of most professional sports seasons (European soccer being 11 months) it is very difficult to perform consistently at a team's potential without a rough patch and/or a dip in confidence by players, coaches, and staff.
In my opinion, the best antidote to a crisis of confidence is an unyielding adherence to a process that has been thoughtfully developed, refined, and properly communicated to everyone in the organization. What will test an organization's resolve in their process is that consistently doing the rights things and meticulously following your process will not always guarantee success, especially in a low scoring sport like soccer where the outsized role of chance in match results compared to other sports has been well documented. This fact is often pointed to by people too lazy to develop a process of their own and follow it with the diligence necessary to yield results.
However, as Bill Walsh believed and referenced in the title of his book, "The Score Takes Care of Itself," that if you religiously follow your process and learn from it, you will dramatically improve your odds of success. And ultimately, in a world without guarantees, what else can we ask for. Important steps in the development of your process is setting and managing expectations and controlling the things you can control. Making sure that there is always room in your process for growth by learning from mistakes is a critical aspect of this step. This idea is outlined extremely well in the book,"Black Box Thinking" by Matthew Syed and well worth the read.
In addition to process, one of the other things you can control is defining a mission by drafting a mission statement and adopting core values that guide your organization's decision making and behavior.
To many people this may seem like a corny and outdated exercise. But based on personal experience, reading, and research, I believe a well written mission statement will pay dividends for organizations who choose to write them and, more importantly, live by them. In the absence of a team wide mission statement, my AS Roma performance department colleagues and I undertook the task of drafting our own. As a group we identified the core values that guided our work and using those values we crafted a mission statement that helped inform our decisions as they related to training, recovery, rehab, treatment, and return-to-play. We displayed this mission statement in a prominent place in our staff office where players and technical coaches could see it and, where it served as a constant reminder of our commitment to the players, team, and to our own professional standards.
Culture & Diversity
16 different countries + 12 different native languages + playing experience at dozens of different clubs, for different coaches, using different systems, divided by 28 players = 1 team?
These were the numbers at Roma at any given time during my three seasons and it is the almost universal reality in professional soccer, the most global sport on the planet. It's next to impossible to write about this experience without highlighting this critical aspect of its culture. In addition, the most up to date information indicates that the average tenure for a head coach in European soccer is 2.3 years and shrinking.
This fact held true in my three seasons at Roma, having worked with three different head coaches and their respective staffs during that time. In my opinion the brevity of coaching tenures underscores the need for a strong team culture and identity, one that is not reliant on individuals, but is an ethos that is passed from season to season and from team to team. How to create a resilient team culture has been debated and written about widely in recent years and this article is not intended to add to that body of work, but I will say that there is no secret sauce. I think there are many ways to create the culture and identity you wish and each situation will likely present its own unique challenges. However, I do believe the common denominators in cohesive culture creation are hard work and consistent follow-up.
The constant tending of the crop of people within the organization at every level by the club leadership is probably the most crucial piece to this very complex puzzle. Once your team culture and identity are developed and well established you can use it to develop your academy talent and filter the players you sign as transfers from other clubs. Of course this all requires strong leadership, strategic planning and a conviction in your mission that is clearly transmitted to everyone in the organization. I believe this approach serves as the cornerstone of sustained success for those who choose to use it.
Another interesting, observable feature of the European soccer culture is the desire from some to exist on a "sporting island."
The preference of some in the sporting community of European soccer to be seen as a closed society, misunderstood by those who have not grown up in it is a misguided and ignorant one. The idea that professionals in one sport can't learn from the methods of professionals in another sport strikes me as incredibly closed minded and produces a self-limiting mentality. In my experience, looking at a situation with fresh, unbiased eyes has resulted in some of the best breakthroughs of my career and in the careers of the colleagues I admire most.
Closing oneself off to ideas that may not exist in the common discourse of your own sport ignores the provocative question Walt Disney World Executive, Lee Cockerell poses in his book Creating Magic, about his experience operating one of the most successful companies in the history of business. In the interest of performing at the highest level possible, Cockerell asks "what if the way we have always done things is wrong?" The security and maturity required to ask this question at all demonstrates an open, growth mindset needed to perform a pre-mortem exercise to avoid mistakes when possible and a post-mortem to learn from mistakes when they are made.
Questioning and challenging the way in which things are done at regular intervals (not only when things have gone wrong) is part of the formula for sustained success and I humbly submit, should be part of any groups "process." Looking around at other major sports in the world I am witnessing the free exchange of ideas and methods between evidence-based practitioners across the sports world. Why some people in European soccer would shut themselves off from this continues to be a mystery to me. Like the Italian sports science researcher, Marco Cardinale has wisely said, "your sport isn't different, you just think it is."
The Need for Thinking Fast and Slow
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Award winner in economic science, Daniel Kahneman describes our 2 systems of thought. Kahneman explains how System 1 is our automatic system and is conditioned by past experience and emotion, while System 2 is our more evolved and logical thought mechanism and should be used for advanced problem solving.
Both systems are extremely important for a fruitful human experience but most of us are guilty of over relying on System 1. The issue with using System 1 for problems better suited for System 2 is that System 1 often increases the odds of confirmation bias when attempting to think through a complex situation, resulting in less than an optimal responses. The reason for referencing this book is that the pace of work and day to day developments inside a professional sports organization can leave little time for the type of longer-term, logical thinking best done when stepping back from an intense competitive situation.
Just keeping your process operating smoothly and dealing with the unforeseen issues that arise in a sporting environment often requires the staff's full energy and undivided attention. In my three seasons at Roma I came to believe that organizations of all kinds should employ a thinking fast and slow model whereby a portion of the organization's human resources are allocated toward longer term planning and strategizing about every element that contributes to success or failure.
For example, complex systems thinking (how pieces of an organization interact with one another - more on this later), workflow considerations, organizational charts, communication strategies, etc.. In order for this concept to be successful the "slow" thinkers need to be insulated from the "fast thinking" environment so as not to be contaminated by the pace, energy, and drama of the day-to-day. For many teams this type of arrangement might best be accomplished through the use of consultants that only interface with the "fast thinkers" at regular, managed intervals. In the world of a professional club soccer the international breaks offer good opportunities for these types of collaborative meetings.
Perspective and Complex Systems Thinking
Fergus Connolly, PhD has correctly highlighted a scenario that gets played out countless times a day, within every team, at every level. That those involved in the operation of team functions view individual performances and team results through our own prism.
For example, technical coaches see fantastic individual play and favorable win/loss records through the prism of tactical prowess. Coaches assume that they put the players in the correct positions at the right times, made the correct substitutions, devised and executed a flawless game plan to produce an important win.
Likewise, medical and performance staffs see the same scenario through their prism, that the players they work with had superior speed, strength, quickness, and agility vs their opponents, giving them the ability to produce that same win.
And of course players can see all the preparation done by the technical and performance coaches as somewhat irrelevant, that the win came from their own determination and skills, most of which they already possessed regardless of the preparation leading up to the competition. In this scenario everyone takes triumphant credit for a pleasing outcome.
Yet, when the same team is confronted with a loss, the same group of people start recognizing the parts played by everyone else in the team environment, and not in a favorable way. From the coaches perspective the performance team did not do an adequate job keeping players injury free, that the players were weaker, slower, and less fit than their opponents.
The performance department may question the starting line-up because the previous week's physical data revealed that other players were better prepared to play, or that the substitutions came too late and in the wrong positions, etc. And the players may come to the conclusion that the formation was wrong and the game plan was poorly conceived, placing them at a competitive disadvantage that ultimately lost the match.
Of course, the point of this somewhat cynical example is that the human experience is often self-centered and seeing the same series of events from an alternative perspective requires effort fueled by a particular mindset. In my three seasons at AS Roma I came to believe that this mindset combined with the application of complex systems thinking would yield the best chances for long-term success in any organization, sports or otherwise.
Complex systems thinking teaches us that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, and that individual parts no matter how good on their own, cannot be fully leveraged within the context of the larger system, unless proper attention has been given to how individual parts interact with one another. Several books have been written on this topic, most notably The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, but for a brief explanation of the concept I would recommend watching the 12 minute Youtube video from 1994 by Dr. Russell Ackoff provided here:
The concepts espoused by Dr. Ackoff and other complex systems experts can, and should be adopted by any organization, including sports teams, as a means to achieve sustained excellence in all the ways excellence is defined by that organization or team. Efforts within all organizations are frequently attempted to improve in specific areas on the pitch, in the gym, in the coach's office, and in the boardroom, but far too often those improvements are pursued without the larger context of the system in mind.
If an improvement is made in one area but those improvements are not fully implemented and/or leveraged for quantifiable results then much of the resources used for those improvements are wasted. I think that is a consideration organizations must start with when designing improvement programs, and this thinking dovetails with my previous encouragement to think fast and slow. Truly strategic improvements designed to benefit the entire system are difficult to conceive of in the midst of the fast thinking environment. Yet the appropriate knowledge of the fast thinking environment is required to create a sound improvement plan.
In other words, the plan should integrate the expertise and experiences of the day-to-day practitioners but it should ultimately be a product of slow, strategic thinking. I think John Wooden was 100% correct when he said, "planning places effort where effort is needed most."
Ego is the Enemy
For those of you who have not read Ryan Holliday's book, Ego is the Enemy,I would encourage you to buy it as soon as you are finished with this article. The material presented by Holliday (one of my favorite authors and thinkers) has provided an enlightening framework with which to observe the workings of organizations and the human interactions that comprise them. Holliday makes a compelling argument that ego is often the only thing preventing our individual and collective improvement.
In fact, I've come to believe that the most significant obstacles to implementing thoughtful systems designed for maximum organizational success are the egos of the people at every level of organizations who stand to benefit from the potential success. For example, within many organizations who gets credit for the success has become more important that the success itself. And the rush to anoint a single savior or protagonist for wins, losses, great plays, etc., by fans, and a social media saturated culture, undermines the inescapable reality that, success of any kind, is almost always due to the contributions made by a group of people.
Of course, higher profile players or members of a management team will often be asked to speak for an organization, but this should be viewed as an opportunity to acknowledge that success and failure is owned by everyone in the organization, not a self serving promotional event. If leaders can successfully put their own egos aside and create a circle of safety, as Simon Sinek refers to it in Leaders Eat Last, then the natural outgrowth is a sense of security that fosters organizational buy in, appropriate risk taking, and a teamwork ethos that keeps everyone united and on task.
"You can be knowledgeable with other men's knowledge but you cannot be wise with other men's wisdom." -Montaigne
I love this quote from Montaigne and I include it not because I presume to have accumulated a vast amount of wisdom, but because this experience has reaffirmed to me that the path to wisdom will always wind through the forest of living, doing, observing, and engaging. The amount of things I have learned by doing those things outside my comfort zone and by challenging my deeply held biases have been transformational. My hope is that I can continue to extrapolate what I have learned from these three seasons and apply them to whatever challenges come next with humility and earnestness.
Thank you for reading.