22 July 2016

Game Changers: Training and Enabling InnovatioN

Daniel Gallan

In elite sport, stagnation is a death knell. In order to stay ahead of the competition, new techniques and strategies must be actively sought and implemented. Every coach or athlete is after the next big thing that will propel them to greatness, but is it an idealistic dream to assume that innovation is something that can be taught? CONQA Sport examines the concept of innovation and finds that in the right environment, genius can flourish. 

Chaunte Lowe demonstartes the Fosbury Flop high jump technique. Now the standard methos employed by all high jumpers, this method was once considered the greatest piece of innovation in world sport.  Image supplied by Action Images / Kirby Lee.

Chaunte Lowe demonstartes the Fosbury Flop high jump technique. Now the standard methos employed by all high jumpers, this method was once considered the greatest piece of innovation in world sport. Image supplied by Action Images / Kirby Lee.

What really motivates athletes and coaches? Admittedly, this is an open question and answers will vary wildly, but there are some universal variables that we can all recognise.

Some motivators venture into the realm of idealism and romance; the love of the game, the spirit of competition, the fellowship of pulling together as a team. While these Corinthian principles still exist in large doses in 2016, the nature of elite sport demands a more selfish incentive in order to succeed.

Ask any athlete at the top of their game and, unless they are comfortable with lying, they’ll all tell you the same thing – they got to the top because they yearned to be there. This internal craving to be the best, to win titles and to break records is the ultimate motivator in elite sport. Glory is never achieved accidentally. Even the most humble champions do not stumble upon greatness.

Ultimately, athletes and coaches are in constant pursuit of the Holy Grail of athletic achievement: immortality.

No one lives forever, but a privileged few have their legacies echo through the ages. As Terry Pratchett, the beloved British author who passed away last year, wrote in Going Postal (2004), “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

Muhammed Ali, Ayrton Senna, Wilma Rudolph, Jessie Owens; these are names that will forever be used in reference to greatness. Forever dominating the rings, tracks and fields of Valhalla and Elysium. They are among the immortals and their legacies will never die.

But greatness is but one path to immortality. Athletes can etch their names into the history books by doing something no one else has done before them. From the Fosbury Flop in high jump to the Dilscoop in cricket, certain techniques will forever be synonymous with the athlete that first dared to be different. There are many pioneers in sport whose eureka moments change history, but few can match the panache demonstrated by Antonín Panenka and his penalty in 1976.

Panenka, a gifted midfielder who represented Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ‘80s, was tasked with taking the decisive kick in the penalty shoot-out against West Germany in the 1976 European Championship final. Had he calmly slotted the ball into one of the corners of the goal, had the keeper saved it or had anything within the bounds of what was expected happened, Panenka’s name might have been lost among the many who have been described as ‘gifted midfielders’. What transpired changed football forever.

Knowing that ‘keepers usually dive to either side of the goal, Panenka dinked the ball slow and down the middle for the most audacious piece of skill that anyone had ever seen on a football pitch. Not only was this piece of skill otherworldly at the time, but it had a European title on the line. Pele, the Brazilian legend, described it as the work of “either a genius or a madman”.

Madness and genius are intimate bedfellows, but madness in this instance is a misnomer. What Pele was trying to say is that Panenka, like all great athletic innovators, demonstrated a level of courage of mythological proportions.

Attempting a Panenka penalty or a Dilscoop requires bravery at the best of times, but being a pioneer demands a level of chutzpah akin to the great explorers of a bygone age. Pushing the boat out into uncharted waters is risky business, but with the right boat, even choppy seas can be traversed.

So how do you do it? How can you create an environment in a team where innovation can germinate and once it does, how can you ensure it flourishes? The first thing to do would be to define the word. It doesn’t really matter how you define it, what matters is that that everyone in the organisation shares that definition and values the variable highly.

According to Chris Holt, a psychologist and MD of the Cauldron Group - a behavioural risk management consulting firm in Johannesburg – innovation can take on multiple meanings. “Does innovation mean taking risks? Does it mean doing something unconventional? Or does it mean being one step ahead of the opposition?” As long as there is consensus, the particulars become less important.

According to Holt, innovative plays or strategies, whether in business or sport, are the end product of a long process that is geared towards encouraging out-of-the-box thinking. Put another way, innovative behaviours are the tip of the iceberg. Holt points out that the focus should be on what lies beneath the water.

Concepts like values, beliefs, worldviews, coaching, philosophies, emotions; these are the invisible entities that prop up behaviours that can hopefully be labelled as ‘innovative’. “You can only measure a team or organisation by what you see. We monitor behaviours and then infer what culture is brewing under the surface”, Holt says. “Innovative behaviours can only exist if the culture allows it.”

Implementing an innovative play or strategy requires a belief in two things – a belief that what you are about to do is going to work and a belief that you have prepared as much as possible for this moment. Panenka has said that he had been practicing the technique for two years before he brought it out in the final. He knew he would succeed because he had seen it work thousands of times in training.

This confidence that is established by repetition helps alleviate the fear of failure – the greatest inhibitor of innovation. Failure can be embarrassing and costly. Coaches and managers have to not only encourage risk taking but reward those athletes who are brave enough to stick their neck out in highly pressurised situation.

Italy's Andrea Pirlo scores a Panenka penalty past England's goalkeeper Joe Hart during the penalty shoot-out of their Euro 2012 quarter-final match at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.  Image supplied by Action Images / Nigel Roddis.

Italy's Andrea Pirlo scores a Panenka penalty past England's goalkeeper Joe Hart during the penalty shoot-out of their Euro 2012 quarter-final match at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev. Image supplied by Action Images / Nigel Roddis.

Geoffrey Toyana is the head coach of the Highveld Lions, a domestic cricket team in South Africa, and the man earmarked by many to be the next coach of the national side. He believes it is up to the leaders within the organisation to create an environment that enables innovation.

“Coaches have a tendency to discourage players when they step out from the norm, particularly when they fail,” Toyana says. “But if you don’t assure your players that their failure is part of the process and encourage them to take that same risk, you will stifle their creativity.”

Risk taking is an integral component of innovation, but risk without foresight is counterproductive. Great explorers never sailed uncharted waters without a compass or an adequate ship and the same philosophy must apply to coaches and athletes who are searching for the next innovative play.

Batsmen and penalty-takers do not have to cross dangerous oceans but they do have to face an opponent who is actively trying to counter what they are trying to do. Without understanding what that opponent’s strengths and weaknesses are, risk taking is nothing more than a foolish endeavour that will more than likely end in ignominy.

Holt believes that this knowledge separates innovators from mavericks. “The differentiator is contextualising knowledge and understanding the game situation and what your opponent is most likely to do,” he says. “You need to understand your opponent, not for the purpose of dictating your own strategy, but to make an informed decision.” Panenka knew that goalkeepers almost always dived to either side of the goal just as Dilshan knew that bowlers are more than likely to hit a length that would allow him to get underneath the ball.

But all the knowledge in the world is not enough. Players still need to have that special ingredient if they want to change the sport they play. For coaches, identifying that ingredient can cause their own stock to rise. For Toyana, that ingredient is time. “All the great players, in any sport, never look rushed,” Toyana says. “They are able to innovate because they have that extra time to try something new.”

Unfortunately, not all athletes are gifted with that extra fraction of a second, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. As mentioned before, innovation can mean different things and limitations can still be overcome. Toyana says that he can spot a player who has the ability to be innovative by how responsive he is to new ideas. An openness to learn leads to new ways of thinking, which in turn leads to new behaviours.

Coaches should keep in mind that before innovation can take place; the basics must be developed and adhered to. Toyana uses Dwaine Pretorius, a big hitting batsman for the Lions, as a case study. Pretorius is renowned for hitting the ball straight down the ground. Toyana says that if Pretorius showed a determination to start playing the Dilscoop, he might have a word with his player. Not because he would want to suppress his inventiveness, but because this new tactic would be a massive deviation from his strength. By being honest with players, coaches are able to set boundaries on what is expected of them.

This brings us to the question of who is allowed to innovate and who needs to stay in their lane. For Holt, no one needs permission to innovate. “I don’t think you need to earn the right to be innovative,” he says, “Coaches and senior players need to share accountability throughout the team and that comes down to humility. If a player is selected, whether they have played 100 times or are making their debut, they should know that they are encouraged to take that risk.”

Toyana disagrees: “I believe you have to earn the right to be innovative.” Toyana compares AB de Villiers, arguably the world’s greatest batsmen and one of the most innovative players in the history of the game, and Temba Bavuma, a senior player for the Lions but very much a junior in the national team.

“AB is a legend and has earned the right to do anything on a cricket field,” Toyana says. “Temba is different. If he is here with us at the Lions, he can try different shots and take the initiative. But with the Proteas, I feel he needs to be more tempered and gain experience before he can try something different.”

What Toyana is alluding to is that de Villiers has a wealth of insurance that he has accrued from over 12 years as one of the most talented players in the game. If he fails while trying something audacious, his reputation is hardly diminished as he has that insurance. For Bavuma, a young man with nine Tests to his name, failing while attempting the outrageous might appear impudent.

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, one thing cannot be argued – innovation requires success. If Panenka had missed, if Dilshan had been hit in the head or if Fosbury had flopped, they may have canned their innovative techniques.

By extension then, luck plays a major role in innovation. In sport, success is determined by multiple factors but it would be a glaring omission to not include luck in that list. There is no data for something that has never been tried before. One can only hope that there is a soft landing at the bottom of that leap of faith.

What does not require luck is creating an environment that encourages innovation. Coaches and managers can establish a shared value system that promotes risk taking and creativity. There is no guarantee that an athlete will invent something truly innovative in an uplifting environment but there is a guarantee that they won’t do anything extraordinary in an environment that is stifling.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town from 5 - 7 October 2016.