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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)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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