11 November 2016

Addressing Defeat: Wholesale or Incremental Changes?

Daniel Gallan

If something is broken it must be fixed. How a coach or manager seeks to do so can either steady the ship or send it to the brink much sooner than anticipated. Wholesale changes might grab headlines and demonstrate that the person in charge is being proactive, but almost always it is much wiser to implement incremental changes to steadily improve every facet of performance.

Ireland players rejoice in their first ever victory over the All Blacks in 111 years. The defeat at Soldier Field stadium, Chicago, ended a run of 18 consecutive Test victories for New Zealand. 

Ireland players rejoice in their first ever victory over the All Blacks in 111 years. The defeat at Soldier Field stadium, Chicago, ended a run of 18 consecutive Test victories for New Zealand. 

It happened. The unthinkable actually happened. No, we’re not talking Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States of America. After 457 days of utter world domination, the New Zealand All Blacks finally lost a rugby match to draw the curtain on an unprecedented 18 Test winning streak.

For Ireland, the team that brought to an end this record breaking run, the wait had been much longer. Their 40-29 victory at Chicago’s Soldier Field stadium on Saturday 5th was their first over New Zealand in the 111 years the two nations have competed against each other.

Only the most ardent and jingoistic fan of a rival team could have envisaged such a dramatic defeat for the men in black and world rugby can now take a collective sigh of relief. With New Zealand sweeping all before them for over a year, including their two southern hemisphere rivals, South Africa and Australia, with consummate ease, one couldn’t help but wonder if they’d ever be beaten.

Most would view this defeat as a mere blip on the radar or an anomaly that proves the All Blacks’ dominance rather than calls it into question. After all, any other side on the planet would give their coach’s right arm for a solitary defeat in 19 encounters.

But the All Blacks are not like every other side on the planet and despite the warm sentiments for their contemporariesfrom the Emerald Isles, Steve Hansen and his men will be doing everything they can to ensure that this defeat is more a flash in the pan than the start of a trend.

Unpacking defeat and understanding why things went wrong is the most crucial step in making sure it does not happen again. Many teams who go on long runs of losses fail to diagnose the problem and in their ignorance seek to make wholesale changes in an effort to right the ship. Unfortunately this often means throwing the baby out with the bath water as desperate coaches and managers frantically try to pinpoint the cause of the rot.

Though the All Blacks made 12 changes to their squad in their most recent victory over Italy, these changes were made as a result standard of opposition rather than their shock defeat to Ireland. These personnel changes, as numerous as they were, did not deviate from the overarching philosophies that permeate throughout the All Black machine.

For John Mitchell, the former New Zealand coach currently in charge of USA Rugby, making wholesale changes is very seldom the answer to altering results as understanding the root of the problem is the first and most crucial step in the process.

“If you pull every single player from the team and get the result you’re looking for, odds are you won’t fully understand why the result changed,” Mitchell says. “Ignorance merely sets you back further in this regard.”

A strong case in point is the way the South African Springboks made several changes to their squad, including the pivotal flyhalf position where the more conservative choice of Morne Steyn was opted over Elton Jantjies, ahead of their 18-10 victory over Australia in the Rugby Championship.

Though that decision was momentarily vindicated against an ailing Wallaby side, the outdated style of play that the Springboks reverted to was emphatically picked apart by the All Blacks in a record breaking 15-57 home defeat a week later. As we stated at the time, those changes did little more than paper over cracks and actually took the Springboks backwards.

Mitchell coached the All Blacks in 28 Tests, winning 82% of them. He explains how after every defeat a coach must fight the temptation to make sweeping changes and must instead trust that the solution is more often than not found in one or two minor tweaks.

“Continuity is vital,” Mitchell says. “Every team loses. Maybe a defeat came because the other team was simply better. Maybe it had to do with one or two individual mistakes from players that are usually reliable. Maybe it was a selection issue or an injury. The point is that defeats happen and chopping and changing constantly disrupts continuity which all successful teams need.”

But continuity is only possible when results are going your way. Elite sport has a primary focus on winning and only winning allows for continuity. If too many defeats start piling up, something will have to give – usually it’s the coach.

For Andy Flower, former Zimbabwean international cricketer and former head coach of England’s cricket team, the pressure for the immediacy of results is the greatest obstacle to continuity. “You can’t get away from the fact that results matter,” he says.

Andy Flower as head coach of the England men's cricket team.

Andy Flower as head coach of the England men's cricket team.

“Short term wins buy you time to develop a philosophy and implement long term plans. Without those short term wins most coaches are out of a job before they have time to stamp their mark on the side. That is why many coaches panic after a few defeats and make too many changes. Even if results start going your way, you might not be able to accurately know why that is.”

Flower admits he made mistakes in this regard. He explains how he placed an emphasis on short term victories over personal relationships and “sacrificed the needs of players”. In the end, it proved too much and following a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia in the 2013-14 Ashes series, Flower stepped down as head coach of England.

So how can a coach ensure that a team returns to winning ways without using a scatter-gun approach? After all, if you only change one variable at a time, it might take several matches before you get to the root of the problem.

Here, we can learn a lesson from Sir Dave Brailsford and the vaunted strategy of marginal gains that changed the sport of cycling. In conversation with BBC Sport, he explains the concept as such:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think that goes into riding a bike, and then improved 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

When he says “everything”, he means it. Head positions while riding in the peloton were moved by centimetres, equipment was altered, sleeping conditions and patterns were changed, even the way riders washed their hands in order to avoid illness was improved. Not drastically, only marginally across the entire spectrum.

It worked. Between 1920 and 2000, British cyclists had won just three gold medals at the Olympic Games. After Brailsford was appointed Performance Director of British Cycling in 2003 and was able to implement his new philosophy, Team GB has bagged 26 golds in four Summer Games. In 2009 he left to become the General Manger of Team Sky where his success continued, securing four of the last five Tour de France titles.

In conversation with Stephen Dubner, co-author of the 2009 best seller, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Brailsford explains how “human beings want perfection but perfection is a daunting concept.”

That is why coaches under pressure struggle to focus on the small changes that are needed to bring about big results. They are after the magic bullet that is the answer to all their problems. However, a brief look at history shows that this is very seldom the way positive change materialises.

In the same podcast episode, Dubner speaks with Ed Glazer, an economics professor at Harvard University who uses the Italian Renaissance as a shining example of incremental change:

“Brunelleschi first puts together the mathematics of linear perspective of making two dimensional spaces seem three dimensional. Then his good friend, Donatello puts it into low relief sculpture. Then it moves to Masaccio who finally puts it into a painting. Filippo Lippi picks up the ball, Botticelli afterwards; the process is expanded by each person exploring the implications of this new idea. It’s not that da Vinci comes along and the world is different. He is building upon the work of incrementalists.”  

Economics, politics, healthcare, education; change is usually an arduous process that encompasses small changes. Often those changes are so small that they barely register.

Brailsford does offer a word of caution to those who think that replicating his strategy of marginal gains will solve all problems. “It is too simplistic to think that all you have to do is adopt this approach,” he says. “You’ll miss the tacit psychological component which created a culture of the mindset within the group that allowed the whole group to buy into something and have a collective approach where hundredths of a second could eke out the difference between winning and losing.”

Whichever way you look at it, there is no one size fits all solution for a struggling team. However, a struggling team must be altered and far more often than not incremental changes trump wholesale changes, even if it takes a little more time.