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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

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.