Learning from other sports
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
I have written before about diversity here and here. In short, diversity is crucial for creativity and innovation, and to paraphrase the quote - "every sport we see can teach us something valuable." Recently I have been trying to look at other sports with complete curiosity and evaluate what can I take and apply in different contexts.
This week I have been spending time watching the World Snooker Championships (perks of mid-term break) and I have viewed it through a skill acquisition lens. There have been two things in particular that have stood out:
the impact on task constraints on behaviour/performance
the variability of each shot
Both points are interrelated. players never play any shot in isolation. Every shot (except the break) is impacted by the preceding shot (a player may be trying to pot a colour after potting a red, or a player maybe trying to just hit a red after a snooker attempt by their opponent). Every shot influences the following shot or shots (except the last shot of a frame). Every shot is impacted by the intention of the shot, and the position of the other balls on the table. Players might be intending to pot a ball and set up for another pot, or they might be intending to play or get out of a snooker. The position of the other balls on the table has a major impact on the type of shot a player plays. Every shot after the break is from a varying distance (cue ball to coloured ball) and at a varying angle. Depending on the intention of the player, the shot will require a different level of force, and a different type of spin.
Looking at other constraints, they remain pretty consistent. The environment is the same all the time. The table and table surface remain unchanged. The tournament is played inddors so the weather and climate has no impact on the game. At the top level of snooker, there is little individual variance in terms of action capabilities as to what shots some players can play and some players can't (there will be the typical variance in terms of anthropometric measurements). There will be some players who play left-handed and some who play right-handed, but in a static game like snooker this will not have a major impact at the top level. So if all the variation is caused almost solely by the alteration of task constraints, what does this mean for players who perform in a more dynamics sport with greater individual variation, greater environmental challenge and even greater task constraints?
Take Gaelic football as an example. Using snooker as a metaphor for Gaelic football - the cue ball is the player in possession of the ball, and the coloured balls are other players on the field of play (both oppoents and teammates). The player's action in Gaelic football is influenced by their intentionality (pass, shoot or carry the ball), and the position of the other players on the pitch. However, in constrast to snooker, the other players in Gaelic football are always moving, and so the affordance landscape is always changing for the player in possession of the ball. In Gaelic football, all players will have different action capabilities, and the environment (weather and pitch surface in particular) will also have an impact on the variability within a game. The variability of a snooker game is infinite, but the variability within a team sport invasion game is even more so.
Football - England international training camp
https://youtu.be/OrbOb877QSs - "Inside Training" with the England international football team.
This documentary series covers training camps with the England football team during an international window. It started during the Euro 2020 championship last summer (it was played in 2021) and it has continued everytime there has been an international window this season. There have been many episodes over the last 12 months, and valuable insghts in each, I have looked at these clips and taken valuable insights from the sessions. Three things that have stood out:
Gym sessions. In 3 words - "short and sharp". Sessions have generally started with light aerobic activity and mobility work (flush type activities), followed by some of the lowest volume of gym work I have seen. Intensity was kept high through the integration of competition around the velocity players lifted at. I haven't seen the session plans or the rationale, so I can only speculate, but I loved it because the sessions minimised eccentric stress and ensured players were fresh to perform on the pitch during training and games.
Warm ups. Even at the elite level, it is important to incorporate fun into training. Games like tag and ball tag have been used in some sessions which have really increased laughter within the group, while other sessions have used running mechanics drills before going into the main session.
Main training. Training tasks have varied, with constraints including limited number of touches, multiple goals to score in, overload in attack, overload in defence, repetition without repetition in shooting tasks, always practicing shooting versus a goalkeeper, variations in pitch size. Some training tasks have been simplified, but all training tasks have been contextualised. Because players are technically so good, they are able to play games at such pace and intensity that they can be overloaded physically through game play. Another point, seeing the training close up it is clear how elite these elite players are. Incredible skills on view.
Well worth diving down the youtube rabbit hole with this series.
UFC - Fighter training camp
https://youtu.be/aIgIWsPPnQ8 - Gibert Burns training prior to his recent UFC fight with Khamzat Chimaev.
This has been an interesting one. Looking at this from a skill acquisition point of view, this training contains none of the principle that I have mentioned with the other two examples. The training session is purely a physical one (there is possibly a psychological/mental benefit for the fighter too). This session would be classed as a fight simulation, the where the fighter is working at maximal or near maximal intensity for 3 rounds of 5 minutes, with the aim of simulating the fight conditions (which is 3 rounds of 5 minutes). Some stations are technically based (boxing on pads), some are cardio based (assault bike), and some are power endurance based (bag lift simulating a body lock takedown attempt). There is a lot of variation in the session, which is reflective of the varying demands a fight would bring.
Looking at this session, it would be easy to suggest that this is a poor use of time because there isn't much skill involved in the session (no interaction with opponents or decision making). However, it is important to consider the context of a session. This session likely took place with a few days of the fight. If the fighter performed a fight simulation through sparring against a range of opponents, it may have had a greater benefit from a skill point of view, but the fighter would also run the risk of an injury. With the fight simulation in the video, there is a very low risk of injury. While the skill application is low, the fighter is developing his action capabilities - he is developing his endurance which will have a positive impact on his affordance landscape in a fight.
Wimbledon has provided some inspirarion around maximising space in a game, through ball placement and ball speed. When I mention ball placement, I am referring to how close the ball is to the boundaries - over the net, baseline or sidelines in open player (figure 1). For a serve, the service box is much smaller (figure 2), but players are still aiming to get the ball as close to the boundaries as possible. By hitting the ball close to the boundaries, the opposition player has more ground to cover and it is more taxing to get into position to return the ball. Ball speed refers to how fast the ball is hit. Even if the ball placement is perfect, but the shot is weak, then the opposition player will have more time to get into position to make a good return. The player who has the best ball placement, with the highest ball speed will be the most difficult to defend against. One without the other is limiting (similar to the capacity-skill continuum).
Figure 1. The red lines are the boundaries in open play. Players hitting the ball as close to the boundaries, as fast as possible will be hardest to defend against.
Figure 2. The red lines are the boundaries for the serve, within which the server must land the ball.
In a nutshell, Rafael Nadal sums it up perfectly:
What does this mean for other sports?
Take Rugby Union, and a scrum half passing the ball out from a ruck. As soon as the ball leaves the scrum-half's hands, the opposition defensive line can begin to accelerate and close the space on the attackers. The ball placement will determine if the attacker reciving the pass can catch the ball on the front or back foot, the ball speed will determine how much time they have to act once they have caught the ball (more time to act = more time to perceive = more information to attune to = better decision overall).
A football team playing out from the back: often times, teams will have more defenders than the opposition has attackers, creating an overload. In the case of a goal kick, strikers might often have to split the defenders (stand in between 2 defenders to give themselves the best chance to cover both of them). The goalkeeper needs to make sure the pass is directed to one of the teammates so they can receive it in a good body position (ball placement), and there is enough pace on the ball to ensure that the opposition player cannot get across quick enough.
Key point 1) bigger spaces are harder to defend, and this looks different in each sport.
Key point 2) the speed at which the ball travels impacts the effectiveness of an attack, and again, this looks different in every sport.
Every session that is documented online is bound by it's own context. Different sport, different demands, different stage of season, different stage of career. All of these factors (and many others) will impact what a session entails. When learning from others, it is important to consider context and try to understand their why. Look and listen with curiosity to learn, rather than with judgement to criticise.