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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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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.