If The Data Meets The Humanity Of Coaching In The Years 2010 > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more

Cricket news - When data met humanity - coaching in the 2010s

The analytical aspect of coaching evolved rapidly during the 2010s

The analytical aspect of coaching evolved rapidly during the 2010s

The title of the book that Jason Gillespie is reading during his Big Bash travels may or may not surprise you, depending on your view of what the human experience is really about. It is not a book about the technical aspects of cricket, which is just, like, so 2000s. If Gillespie has a copy of Art and Science of Cricket, the coaching manual generated by Bob Woolmer and published in 2008, then it has long since been buried in the Australian's book collection. Gillespie, like the game and its coaching, has moved on over the past decade, and is now reading a book called Mindful Cricket.

Gillespie explains why it is so important for a coach to understand and enhance the human side of cricketers simply: "Mate, we're in the business of people."

The book's author, Graham Winter, might have played first-class cricket in the Sheffield Shield, but it is not cricket content that he is offering. Rather he is bringing his knowledge and experience as a performance psychologist and business consultant into a cricket context. 'Mindful Cricket calls out the most serious problem in cricket,' the book's promotional material claims. 'The way players practice and prepare doesn't equip them for the mental challenges of the game (or life).'

While the idea of bringing mindfulness - and other human enhancing tools - to the game of cricket may seem a natural progression in an age when spirituality is growing, it also runs counter to the other great advancement in sport over the past 10 years: namely the rise in technology-fuelled data metrics. Looking back at the decade in cricket coaching, at first these two pieces might seem contradictory. While one approach micro-analyses players to the brink of viewing them as output-specific robots - and casts coaches into a cricket version of the computer game, Football Manager - the other recognises cricketers as multi-dimensional beings. But while there can be conflict between the two viewpoints, in truth they enhance each other.

"In the past decade we've seen deeper analysis with numbers and data, which is becoming more and more in-depth," says Gillespie. "You only have to see all the companies that have come out; there's more competition there so they are all striving and improving and getting their data base bigger, and that just gives teams and coaches choice. That's not just cricket - sport in general has more information available. The key is to use the information available, decipher it to make good decisions, but also take into account that you're dealing with people.

"I think a good example is, in T20 cricket we hear a lot about match-ups. There are franchises that change their team constantly depending on match-ups. That's all well and good and it does make sense at times, but you also have to find the balance between doing that and also allowing players to be able to adapt to a different situation or different conditions. So while the data might suggest that a player is very effective here but not so effective there, you have to find the balance in the human element and the people skills to empower a player. Their record might suggest that a particular situation is not their best, but you want them to adapt and adjust their game so that they can perform a role in that situation. That's about balancing the data and people skills."

Gillespie believes balancing data and people skills is key to player empowerment

Asked for other influences on his coaching journey during a decade that saw him start in Zimbabwe with the Midwest Rhinos and end as a successful and sought-after coach in England and Australia, Gillespie cites the work of another sports psychologist and performance coach, Simon Hartley. There are a few good reasons why cricket coaches are drawing on material from other industries. For starters, Gillespie points to the rise in specialist coaches as the biggest change over the past 10 years.

"There have always been assistant coaches and I suppose in the last 15 to 20 years there were bowling coaches and the like, but now it's become even more noticeable," he says. "Coaching staffs are getting bigger and I think we are seeing specialists popping in and out a bit more. For instance a wicketkeeping coach or fielding coach might come in for a short burst and dip in and out of the environment. We're seeing more of those specialist coaches in the last couple of years."

As a result, the main job of a head coach is no longer to coach technique. It is to facilitate. This is where the leadership skills being employed in business come in, and it is from this that we can draw reasons for the success enjoyed by Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton in international cricket. As head coach and performance analyst, the pair took India to the top of the Test rankings as well as a first World Cup crown in 28 years, then helped a talented South African side cast off the yoke of unfulfilled expectation and claim the No 1 Test ranking. Not only does Kirsten have claim to the title of most successful international coach in the 2010s, but the culture he and Upton put in place in those teams persisted beyond their relatively brief tenures, too - India's domination of Test cricket at the beginning and end of the decade book-ended South Africa's impressive home and away run in the middle.

When Kirsten was appointed as India coach in 2007/08, he had no prior coaching experience. But he had benefited from Upton's mental coaching at the tail end of his career sufficiently to follow him into executive coaching. Believing that cricket was miles behind business' best practices, Upton had pitched his services to Cricket South Africa in the mid-noughties, only to find that the game was not ready. By the time he and Kirsten went to work with India, he had evolved his processes in the business world.

"I find working in business is a lot more challenging and I learn a lot because of the complexity, whereas with an athlete the goals are very clearly defined, and very narrow, so there's not a lot of complexity to decision-making," says Upton, who has continued to do executive coaching even as he applied his methods to athletes in 11 different sports. "Business is fast and ever changing, with high levels of competitiveness. It is being forced to evolve quicker, whereas the majority of sports organisations and sports teams are headed by traditional thinkers who have been in the sport for a long time and are rolling out what worked for them in their day."

This is partly due to the fact that while businesses are held accountable by markets, sporting organisations have less accountability and have thus been slow to adapt. "The board members and their organisation hold their athletes and coaches accountable for their performance, but there are very few people holding the boards and decision-makers in sporting organisations accountable; whereas a board in a business is held accountable by the markets and competitors," explains Upton. "In the research I did in 2003 - which was my 'Aha!' moment to understand where coaching is going by understanding where leadership in business was going - in all team sports they were 10 years behind best thinking in business. I don't think that has changed very much, and if it has changed then maybe business has surged further ahead. Sport has moved on since 2003 without a doubt, but I think business has moved on even faster."

A key part of the leadership philosophy that was developed in business and passed on to cricket more recently is the idea of giving responsibility back to the players in terms of how they figure out their game and prepare for matches. Upton tells a story about this in his book, relating an occasion in the nets when Gautam Gambhir was battling to hit his drives straighter. Sachin Tendulkar, Kirsten and then bowling coach Eric Simons all offered technical reasons for why Gambhir was driving too square, and each put the left-hander through a drill to correct what they believed was the deficiency. None had a sustainable effect - as soon as Gambhir went back to receiving regular throwdowns, the problem returned. Upton invited the batsman to figure it out for himself, and as the marathon session progressed, more balls began going through extra cover. Afterwards Upton asked Gambhir what he had noticed, and was told: "As long as I look down at my shoes for a second time (before the ball is thrown or bowled), I hit the ball in the right area." The moral of the story, Upton says, is that there is value in giving players less advice, and rather eliciting the answer to questions from players. "That's coaching," he says.

Upton's involvement with Kirsten led to him becoming a head coach in his own right, taking up roles in three different Twenty20 leagues. While he has a Level Four coaching certificate from CSA, this is not what made him a sought-after coach. "There are 200 coaches in any cricket-playing country that know more about the game than I do, but we're not living in a day and age where you need to be that kind of expert. We're living in a day and age where you need to be the expert in harnessing collective expertise. That's my differentiator to content expert cricket-minded coaches," Upton says.

Harnessing collective expertise - Paddy Upton's USP

A core concept that the likes of Upton, Winter and Hartley point to is what might be termed 'personal mastery'. This speaks to the idea that however good a player's cover drive may be, he or she is unlikely to execute it if they lack the maturity to master their mental and emotional activity. It is also increasingly important in an age where mental illness is becoming more common in both wider society and cricket.

This personal development is replicated in the team environment, as seen in the terminology du jour. Rarely in the past decade has a coach left a press conference or interview without mentioning the word 'process'.

"You are judged on winning, there's no doubt about that, but winning is an end result," Gillespie explains. "I've been a big believer ever since I started coaching in asking: what process will give ourselves the best chance to win? What's going to help us play the best cricket we can play? Win, lose or draw, what can we learn from it? All you can do is all you can do. I speak to the players like that."

Some might feel it is a stretch to label this as a more spiritual approach. But is it not an invitation to look less at the outcome and rather focus on the present moment? And if anyone is dubious about the advances of mindfulness in cricket, consider that the head coach of the Australian men's team openly speaks about how his daily meditation practice is his "happy place". Given that these are the realms with the most opportunity for growth - infinite growth, even - they are likely to play a continuing role in coaching's evolution over the coming decades.

But so is the data side of the game, considering how far behind cricket fell. It is only recently, for example, that companies started collating data on fielding. Ironically there is little data available on coaches themselves, meaning T20 franchises often make appointments based more on emotion or cognitive bias than on objective information.

Asked which innovations he would have liked access to in his playing days, Gillespie admits the data is attractive. "We all like to have information because you want to be able to make informed decisions. That choice would be it. I'm not a big one for pouring over statistics. I like to have a look and see if there are any trends, but that old saying 'paralysis by analysis' can ring true."

But there is something else he points out as a welcome new tool: "Also the dog stick, so that as a tail end batter I could have got more batting against the coaches. Because by the time it got to us No. 10s and 11s, the coach's shoulder was cooked so he couldn't throw to you any more. If we had the dog stick in my playing days, I reckon I would have averaged more."

For all of the improvements in technology and human understanding then, it appears there is still space for the simpler, humbler innovations to take the coaching trade forward.

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