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7 December 2023

To keep winning, sports teams must fix what isn’t broken

Even harder than achieving success is continuing to achieve.

By Ed Smith

Everyone likes winning – in theory. But when decisions become difficult, as winning usually demands, the status quo gains a dangerously seductive quality. Especially when the status quo looks pretty good. Which is why the hardest thing isn’t winning, but continuing to win.

This theme was popularised by the social philosopher Charles Handy. His 2015 book The Second Curve depicts the life cycle of many enterprises as a sigmoid curve (an S-shape on its side). First comes the investment phase (superficially “unprofitable”), then the curve turns upwards into growth, before, finally, into a decline that is never reversed. How can this be escaped? By creating a second curve. But this second curve has to start before the first curve has peaked, when there is sufficient resource to cope with a new investment phase. You have to jump off while the going is still good.

Handy’s focus was business, but the second curve is just as relevant to sport. If a team misses the chance to grab its second curve, the downslope of the first curve gains its own momentum – and decline gathers a lethal sense of agency around itself.

But it is hard to “call” a peak before it happens (as any businessman will tell you). Besides, where’s the incentive to rock the boat? “Psychologically, when everything is going well it is reasonable to expect it to continue,” Handy points out. “Why not project the present into the future when it is so obviously successful?” Comfortableness inhibits strategic thinking, and success “puts blinkers on us, discourages doubt”.

England cricket’s disappointing men’s 50-over World Cup this autumn – the defending champions of 2019 finished seventh out of ten teams – can be seen as a second curve missed. The England side consistently struggled to locate its voice and identity. No one looked more surprised than its players, the same talented players who had built the team into an audacious winning machine. England’s talisman Ben Stokes said they’d simply been “crap”.

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As usual, there were mitigating factors. Playing conditions are a huge factor in cricket, and this World Cup was played in India, whereas the 2019 edition was at home in England. (Three of the last four World Cups have been won by the host nation.) Second, the pre-World Cup schedule of fixtures – fewer lead-up games, especially on location – was much less favourable than in 2019. But the air of bafflement around the team’s performance was genuine; no one expected such an abrupt reversal.

[See also: At its midpoint, this season is shaping up to be one of football’s oddest]

One characteristic that defined the ascent of England’s “first curve” was the ambition of the players just outside the first XI. Constant improvement was the only way into the team – and the only way to stay there. With individuals pushing their own limits, a rising tide lifted the whole side.

Sadly, the converse also applies. In one match at the World Cup, England selected an XI consisting entirely of players older than 30. They were still a team of good cricketers, but somehow it added up to less than the sum of its parts. When Moeen Ali, one of the senior statesmen, admitted it was time to move on and pick the youngsters, he was effectively saying the team had missed its second curve.

What would a “second curve” approach to England’s World Cup have looked like? More opportunity would have been invested in young talent (such as Phil Salt and Will Jacks) and those investments would have been brought forward, 18 months or two years out from the tournament. It’s tricky to make big changes close to the main event, when developing a settled playing team becomes pre-eminent. When creating strategic competition for places, the earlier the better.

But don’t underestimate the pressure on teams to stick with what appears to be a winning formula. When the first curve is still tracking up, it’s easy to dismiss reform as risky. Sport has a lexicon of clichés warning decision-makers not to tamper with a successful team: still plenty of wins left in the tank; too clever by half; reinventing the wheel; don’t fix what isn’t broken. But catching the second curve demands giving up wins in the tank, just as it demands fixing what isn’t (yet) broken. Long-term robustness rests on short-term investment.

When he was the world’s top-ranked player, Roger Federer said he still pictured himself as the challenger rather than as “in possession”. This deft trick of psychology allowed him to play with freedom and take more risks: always acquire, never protect. Federer, and his remarkable peer group of tennis champions, found second curves as a matter of necessity. Survival at the top depended on constant creative reinvention.

For a team, of course, those decisions are made on behalf of the collective. There is always a pretext to avoid rebuilding – until, that is, a mandate for change has become irresistible. But then you’re already losing. All of which leads me to dissent from a principle often espoused by top coaches who argue it is “better to give a player one too many games rather than one too few games”. Their argument is that it’s preferable to stick with an established player until it’s clear they ought to be dropped. I’d reverse the proposition: if everyone can see it, it’s already too late.

The architects of second curves are restless reformers, impatient to make improvements that most people don’t think are needed. Sound uncomfortable? In the adage of the late investor Charlie Munger, “It’s not supposed to be easy.”

Ed Smith is director of the Institute of Sports Humanities.

[See also: Wayne Barnes: How I deal with the death threats]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special