The greatest leaps in sport come from trial and error – not the conventional wisdom of coaches

Innovative sporting cultures become wealthy, so they can afford to have more coaches. That doesn’t prove that the coaches caused the innovation and wealth.

Babe Ruth hitting big for the New York Yankees in April 1925.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite the claims of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, for strategic insight I turn to Mike Tyson. “Everyone has a plan,” mused the former heavyweight boxing champion, “until they get punched in the mouth.”

In his scepticism about planning, Tyson keeps distinguished company. In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley presents the argument – contra Francis Bacon – that science does not lead to invention. It is invention that leads to science. In the Industrial Revolution, the jennies and looms that transformed cotton-spinning were invented by tinkering businessmen, by “hard heads and clever fingers”, rather than by conceptual thinkers. The job of scientists, as the Cambridge physicist Richard Friend has argued, is often to explain the empirical findings of practical tinkerers after the invention has appeared.

Does Ridley’s argument apply to sport? The greatest leap forward in baseball – the use of the home run as a commonplace strategy – was not devised but chanced upon. In broad terms, Babe Ruth was responsible. In 1920, when Ruth hit 54 homers, no other team hit as many; in 1921, his 59 homers were 11 more than the next two hitters’ totals combined. In only his second year as a full-time batter, Ruth had hit 139 home runs, overtaking the previous career record.

You would have thought that someone – a coach, a strategist or team owner – in baseball’s previous five decades as a professional sport would have asked the question, “Why don’t we try to get our batters to hit the ball out of the stadium, where there aren’t any fielders, rather than fiddle around with the short stuff?”

But it seems they didn’t. Ruth, with his abundant talent and fearlessness, just did it, then everyone else saw the effectiveness of the idea – and its consequences. The Yankees’ attendances doubled, so they could spend $2.5m on a new stadium far bigger than any other. Ruth’s philosophy – “I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can” – inspired a nation and revived a sport.

Around the same time, Don Bradman – as controlled and wily as the Babe was open and brash – was finding an entirely new solution to the challenge of scoring runs in cricket. (The two men met, incidentally, in Ruth’s box at Yankee Stadium in 1932. When Bradman explained that in cricket, unlike in baseball, you were not obliged to run if you hit the ball, Ruth replied, “Just too easy!” Bradman later wrote: “I should like to have seen him try.”)

Bradman’s genius rested on a dual insight. First, he disproved the conventional wisdom that scoring quickly necessarily demands high risk. Bradman scored briskly and simultaneously eschewed risk. To use an investment metaphor, he was the money manager we are all searching for.

Second, Bradman abandoned established technique. His bat-swing started way out to the side, rather than being a straight pendulum line from behind him. As a child, he had learned to bat on his own, repeatedly hitting a golf ball against the curved brick base of the family water tank. The empirical method led him to a technique that no one had dared to try. He had escaped the greatest risk that can befall any genius: prescriptive formal education.

Consider the new shots that have redefined the parameters of modern batsmanship. The reverse sweep was invented by Mushtaq Mohammad, the switch hit by Kevin Pietersen and the scoop over the wicketkeeper by Tillakaratne Dilshan. None was the brainchild of a coach or strategist.

In athletics, coaches initially tried to dissuade a restless high jumper from major innovation before the 1968 Olympics. He wanted to jump over the bar face up, back down – something no one had done before. The new technique was considered strange and ungainly. He did it anyway, winning the gold medal in Mexico and breaking the world record. Dick Fosbury had just invented the “Fosbury Flop”. It quickly became the standard technique.

Even football’s classic example of apparently top-down thinking – the invention of totaalvoetbal (“total football”) by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff – was influenced by ideas bubbling up from below. The prefix “totaal” was not unique to football or even sport in the Netherlands in the 1960s. The brilliance of Dutch football was in its openness to ideas from other disciplines.

To return to Ridley’s examination of the true relationship between research and innovation: sports coaches are like academics. They tend to describe and analyse innovations that happened on the practice pitch, usually through trial-and-error tinkering. Coaches can certainly help players. Yet there is a danger in placing too much faith in the management class – which, after all, becomes a self-serving bureaucracy keen to justify the explosion in the number of jobs it commands.

When people argue, “Look at how the best sporting cultures have more coaches,” we see the back-to-front logic that Ridley observed. Innovative sporting cultures become wealthy, so they can afford to have more coaches. That doesn’t prove that the coaches caused the innovation and wealth.

I am not wilfully blind to the good that coaches can do; I experienced it as a player. But sportsmen should never underestimate their own capacity to come up with better answers. Sport is about problem-solving. A challenge is set: hit the ball over the boundary; jump over the bar. From then on, solutions evolve, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident. Irreverence always trumps the dissemination of revealed truth.

That is why innovation owes more to environment than directed planning. Sporting cultures open to change, innovation and risk will find the back of the net more often. l

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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