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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Back online!

March madness ends, and we're back on track in Hong Kong

I'm back! Yes, I know it's April Fool's Day and you are probably reading this thinking that I'm having you on, but I promise that this is not an April Fool joke!

It's been a disastrous March for us - all of two posts (I'm embarrassed). I also reneged on my series on Exercise on Aging (which has now aged substantially), and have missed whole pile of stories from the world of sports. In March, Dwain Chambers became athletics' most wanted man, for all the wrong reasons, Lance rode, crashed and had surgery, the World Cross Country Championships took place in Ammann, Jordan, and the world of sports management was rocked by attacks on cricket players, terror threats and changes in venues. And I managed to cover absolutely none of it - my profuse apologies.

It's been a very busy time for me personally - I was in Hong Kong last week for the Hong Kong Sevens Tournament (more on that later), and have generally been swamped by work. Not that that's been a reason not to post before, but I've also found myself a little burned out and mentally drained. Looking back, about 400 articles in two years, I guess a downer was inevitable, combined with various other things that are not even remotely relevant to this blog.

But, let's set that aside and tackle April, which promises to be a great month of sport, with the marathon majors from Europe and the USA, the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon here in SA, as well as the first signs of life from the track and field athletes of the world. And of course the European cycling season. Oh, and did someone mention that series on aging?

Hong Kong recap

But first a recap from Hong Kong this last week, which is the most prestigious Sevens tournament in the world. To all IRB officials who might read this - you should make Hong Kong the World Cup, and not try to hold a separate tournament (presumably motivated by money only), because you're only succeeding at cannabalising your own sport and confusing the market you're trying to penetrate. It's stupid. Rather use Hong Kong, the established tournament, and grow the game.

Anyway, Hong Kong is an absolutely brilliant festival. Anyone who reads this will know exactly what I mean. The South Stand must be one of the most notorious and "legendary" stadium locations in all of sport, an age-restricted grandstand which dominates the news coverage almost as much as the actual rugby does (much to the dismay of the Hong Kong Rugby Union, I'm told).

The actual tournament was a success for us (South Africa) - 8 out 10 for performance, 8 out of 10 for result. I was once again with the team, as I was for the Dubai World Cup three weeks ago, though this was a different experience (picture of me doing the coin toss for the final match against Fiji is shown to the right).

No, we didn't win. That honour went to Fiji, 26-24 in a final in which we gave them a 19-0 lead after only 5 minutes (of a 20 minute match).

We came back and had a very difficult touchline conversion after the final whistle to tie the match and take it to extra-time, but it was missed. Just as was the case in Dubai, it was again an issue of "what if", and "if only". Many people have suggested to me that the final kick "cost us" the 2 points we needed to level the match. Literally, I guess that's true. However, it again misses the point and diverts the attention from the real issues that come between victory and defeat.

Those issues are, as always, numerous but tiny. The conversion was a 1% moment, a low percentage play and something no team should ever have to rely on. They should rather be relying on the assimilation of 20 minutes of collective work and performance to reach a situation where that does not matter. Victory at sport is all about control - control of the match, the opposition, your own ball, and your own performance goals, which begins when you start to control your preparation. Putting yourself in a situation where a miracle kick is needed is not control.

We missed crucial tackles against Fiji and had maybe 5 or 6 moments in the match where our decision-making might have been better. We have emphasized to the players that in any match, there are perhaps 10 moments the match that determine its outcome, and to win, you must win most of those moments. To do that (because you don't know when they're coming), you must control as much of the match as you can, and everything in your own power.

Winning control means setting very specific targets, and then working towards those, from moment to moment and play to play. That was the difference for us in this tournament. Those who read the post after the Dubai World Cup (one of all two in March) will recall my own disappointment and that of the team. That kind of disappointment was absent in Hong Kong, because we managed to shift our focus from the result to the process.

This must sound obvious to readers, who surely think that every team should be doing this. It's an over-used cliche in psychology to say that you must focus only on the "controllables". However, actually doing this is relatively uncommon from what I have now seen in the sport. Or at least, the correct implementation of the process-focus seems to be lacking.

So the key for us was to identify very specific targets and parameters that we could control and then focus every single effort at meeting them, in training, in discussion and in matches. The measurement of those parameters (which I won't be discussing - sorry!) enables each player to be accountable, not only to the coach, but to one another, because each target is a TEAM GOAL. A player who falls short of a target is forcing team-mates to work harder so that they team still succeeds. They therefore buy in to an ethos of playing for one another. Finding the right focus allows everyone to raise themselves, because those parameters are measurable, repeatable and "eternal" in that they exist regardless of opposition. They provide the STRATEGY, and the only detail that has to be covered is the TACTIC of how to achieve them.

The most obvious impact this has had is on our second half performance. Fans of the game will recall how we surrendered 12 point leads in the last three tournaments - leading at half-time, losers by the final whistle. In Hong Kong, we won every single second half. We often found ourselves close at half-time, but dominated every second half completely. It was a very pleasing turn-around.

Enough self-compliment, however. We still didn't win the tournament, and therefore must look at improving in the future. We are a work in progress, and have only shown signs of what we need to do in the future. We have another tournament in Adelaide this weekend, where we can build even more on Hong Kong. Our failure to win was the result of a loss of concentration and missed tackles that cost us 26 points. We gifted those points to Fiji, though to the credit, they ran hard and played above themselves against us. Eliminating those errors in Adelaide will be a key focus.

Speaking personally, standing in the middle of the field watching a fireworks show and listening to "Time to say goodbye" while Fijians, and not South Africans celebrated with a trophy is not a feeling I wish to experience again. Then again, it's not a feeling I wish to forget either, because it provides the incentive to work harder, to focus more, to improve and to be better next time. The players must all feel the same way (and do). This was, as far as defeats go, a "noble" one, but not one that should become a habit.

In the big picture, we created a 16 point lead at the top of the World Series table, thanks to England's and New Zealand's early exits. More of the same in Adelaide, which will be difficult, would be nice. I'll let you know how that goes.

Looking ahead

But, that's that for Hong Kong. Looking ahead, things should be a little more settled for a while. I will be travelling to London and Edinburgh with the SA Sevens team again, but until then, will hopefully be able to devote more time to filling your inbox with posts. A few ideas come to mind. As mentioned, the London and Boston Marathons loom on the horizon, with some fascinating head-to-head battles on the cards. Ryan Hall vs Cheruiyot in Boston, and Lel vs Wanjiru vs just about everyone else in London.

We'll cover that, we'll cover the cycling stories emerging from Europe (someone mention doping?) and we'll try harder to get to any other stories from the world of sport and science.

I'd say "welcome back", but I guess that is up to you! Let's hope I stay longer this time!



Duff said...

Welcome back Ross; Looking forward to your analysis of the Marathons.
As a runner I really enjoy you observations of the elites.
Good recovery on you attitude of your team.

Hope to meet you at Two Oceans.

Jot said...

I would offer the following:

You failed. You only posted twice in the month.

BUT, there are two of you. Come on. Dish out some smack to the partner. :)

"I'm tired of carrying this blog."
"if this were tug-of-war I'd be backpedalling against no resistance."
"Listen to the sound of one hand typing."

-Jot "Just trying to help"

Smurf said...

Just curious:
you say (again)
"...there are perhaps 10 moments in the match that determine its outcome, and to win, you must win most of those moments. To do that (because you don't know when they're coming), you must control as much of the match as you can..."
but also
"...The measurement of those parameters (which I won't be discussing - sorry!)..."

So, without giving too much away, do the players know when they are in one these moments or is it only with hindsight that you can say minute 13 was a critical moment?

mcgrathe said...


The Irish and Munster rugby teams talk about what they call "championship moments" and they use this term in a game to stress the key events. While it is easier to look back in hindsight, there is no doubt that those on the pitch are aware of most of these moments and can raise their game accordingly.
Good examples in would be kicking for touch when 3 points is relatively certain - both teams now consider this a championship moment, and in a tight game the momentum swings to whichever team wins the event - scoring a try for the attacking team or not conceding for the defence.
I would be interested in Ross's analysis of how to deal with these moments and how a team can raise their game to capitalise on them

Jim said...

Welcome back, I look forward to what you have to say in the month ahead. And I have a question for you.
I couldn't help but flinch at your dig at cycling. For a long time, I worked on the Tour de France and have been frustrated by the reception that event and sport's efforts have been treated in the media. For its work, cycling is often bashed rather than praised for actually doing something about the problem.
Anyway, a couple of years ago, I was in Val d'Isere working on the Tour when I came across the French National Rugby team. They were there for some high altitude training and frequently milled about the hotel lobby while waiting for treatment. It was the sorriest looking collection of runaway steroids abusers I think I have ever seen (and I worked in the NFL for years, too). I'm wondering if rugby has a doping policy because given the looks of the French team, they certainly have some doping practitioners. Would love to read your thoughts.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi All

OK, one by one.

To Duff:

Thanks a lot. Look forward to seeing you at Two Oceans. I should be at the expo on Thursday and probably Friday as well. I'll most likely be at the adidas stand, so you might see me there. Hopefully...!

TO Jot:

If it was a business venture, then maybe. But we both kind of do it for the love of trying to translate the science, and for people to read. Doesn't matter much who the source is. ONe thing I would like to do is "outsource' more of the content to other people, like they've done over at the Freakonomics blog, because the decline was inevitable - I had to run out of gas eventually. But I'm more concerned with the use of the word "failed"! I hope you were joking! Let's hope it's done now!

TO Smurf and McGrathe

Good discussion. There's no doubt the players have a sense for when that moment comes. It's quite palpable from the side of the field as well. In Sevens Rugby, because everything happens faster, those moments can tend to blend into one though, and so it does become a little more difficult to "settle" the game down.

So the example of a penalty is a good one for 15-man rugby, but in the moment in a Sevens Match, can be less significant, because the game is more continuous, if that makes sense.

What we've done, and it's worked very effectively, is to recognize that the most crucial part of the game is that part immediately after winning or conceding a turnover ball, and so verbal calls are made by everyone on the field to switch on the focus and re-organize as quickly as possible when this happens. There are calls and signals that go between the players, and which are rehearsed in training, along with defensive patterns and attacking moves, when that moment arrives.

Doing that allows some form of control over those moments, because as you point out, most can be identified only in hindsight. But to put into context the whole "message", the point of all that is to motivate the players to be fully tuned in ALL THE TIME, because the moment can come any time. A kick into space, the bounce of a ball, a referee decision, a missed tackle - any could be the pivotal moment, and if the players allow their minds to drift, they lose the moments. To me, against Fiji, we allowed that two or three times too often, and were punished for them.

Often, mistakes are not punished - we paid with 19 points in that match. But to answer your question, it's a mix of training and preparation, and the natural instinct of the players. The moments happen anytime, but not all are created equal, and the players know. The key, as I said, is to control how the players respond to those moments.

Oh, one last example - the opposition team has a player sent to the sin-bin for 2 minutes. Now it's 7 against 6. That next two minute period is a crucial part of the game. How do you play, what decisions are made? That's a key aspect, one that can be prepared for, and then relies on the natural ability of the players to "seize the moment".

Finally, to Jim

Fair enough. My contention with cycling is that it has not, in fact, done anything to clean up its act. I have spoken to many journalists, particularly those who covered the Tour between the late 80s and today, who report that journalists have often been complicit in the doping problem. But more than this, the authorities did not want the problem to emerge. They are responsible for the present situation

There are exceptions. I believe the French authorities to be very hard on doping and that is commendable. But the notion that the UCI are hard on it is a farce. It's never been cycling that is trying to clean up, it's the external bodies like WADA who have focused on it. So cycling is not the "hard-working" sport it claims to be. Isolated federations, yes, and certain organizations, yes, but on the whole, I believe cycling is serving its best interests in keeping the problem hidden.

That happened, incidentally, in 1999, when the story that was reported from the Tour was anything but the doping story, because 1998 had been so disastrous for the sport.

But where I do agree with you is that a lot of this external focus on cycling has detracted from that on other sports. I've no doubt that there are teams and players who are using. I know there is some of it going on in Sevens (not our team, I'm relieved to say - we're the smallest of the big teams by far - we could actually do with some. Kidding...), but probably a lot more in the 15-man game.

There is a policy, and they do test. After each game in these last few tournaments, two players are tested by WADA officials. I'm not sure how it works for 15-man rugby. I expect it's easy to get away with it, if you look at cycling and how easily the peloton was using for long periods. Unless doping control is super-stringent, which I don't think it is in rugby, you have a problem detecting.

So I think the answer to this is not to say "give cycling a break", but rather to say "let's pursue rugby (or soccer, or any other sport) as aggressively". Then all sports are subjected to the same testing. I'm all for that. But cycling deserves its bad rep, and it's certainly not the UCI who are fighting to clean up the sport. Last word - the only reason the UCI care about anti-doping is because sponsors are now pulling out, forcing their hand.


adventurelisa said...

Heya Ross,

Don't sweat it about the reduced posting. I got off track in November and Dec last year when you were firig off loads of posts. I started a new job, was travelling... I still have 40 of them unread in my "Science of Sport" folder... They're really good topics and I want to give them full concentration (there were more unread than the current 40). So, I'm quite happy with you on a bit of a go slow because I get to catch up ;)
I am so looking forward to the big marathons and I look forward to your predictions and comments on them. Lisa

Jot said...

I was only kidding. Thanks for doing what you do. When blogging starts paying your salary I guess we can demand more. :)


Anonymous said...

Your argument about 10 or so key moments in a game is interesting, and who am I say to nay say it, but I don't really think that was the reason SA lost the HK7s.
Firstly, SA came out sleep-walking and gifted Fiji an insurmountable lead, I don't think that was key moments going against them but a more pervasive issue (slow out the blocks, complacency, I don't know).
Secondly, there was a strong SA comeback, but Fiji had players sinbinned on 2 ocassions and being 1 man up in a 7-a-side game is clearly one reason why SA dominated later procedings.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Nick

Thanks for the comment.

Just briefly - the "10 moments" message was developed specifically to get our players to be switched on for the full 14 (in this case 20) minutes of all matches. We noticed a drop off in intensity, either at the start of the match, or the second half, or right at the end of games.

So a big focus was to create a measurable focus, somethng tangible for players to remind themselves of during play, and that was the 10 moments message. That is, every player was switched on to the fact that every kick-off, every scrum, every line-out, every play was the "moment" to win. So the fact that we let Fiji get 19 points out was in fact a very pointed illustration of players not winning the moments. If I was to analyse that match, I'd find 10 moments, and four of them were our missed tackles, that cost us 26 points. If we won THREE out of those FOUR, then we'd have won the game (taking into account the other 6 moments, of course).

And it most certainly wasn't complacency - the intensity in the change room, warmup and tunnel was spot on. Credit to Fiji, they ran good lines, and ran hard, but we missed tackles. So your point is true, but what I'm saying is that if we'd be on for the "moments", we would have won them too.

On the second point, only partly true. Our comeback started at 19-0, and Fiji only lost their first player at 26-12. Also, bear in mind that the players were being sent off for killing the ball on purpose at breakdowns, and so they were under enormous pressure there, even 7 on 7. And their second player only missed 30 or so seconds.

So yes, the comeback was in part due to their loss of a player at 2-12, but it was already on then (from 19-0 down), and also their play slowed that comeback down as a result of killing the ball numerous times.


. said...

Your argument about 10 or so key moments in a game is interesting, and who am I say to nay say it, but I don't really think that was the reason SA lost the HK7s.
Firstly, SA came out sleep-walking and gifted Fiji an insurmountable lead, I don't think that was key moments going against them but a more pervasive issue (slow out the blocks, complacency, I don't know).
Secondly, there was a strong SA comeback, but Fiji had players sinbinned on 2 ocassions and being 1 man up in a 7-a-side game is clearly one reason why SA dominated later procedings.