Thursday, 14 March 2013

Team sports, Australian cricket, and fencing

The whole controversy around the Australian cricket team, with players getting sent home for failing to fill in feedback on a Test match, has got me thinking about sports teams in general, coaching, team cultures, and the kind of things that I like/don't like. I played cricket for years, and I've also been a part of fencing teams. I've even captained fencing teams. So what I wanted to do was look at a series of behaviours and traits around sports teams that didn't work and contrast them with some of the ones taken from those teams I've liked. I'm not saying that I'm in any position to tell professional sports people how to do it, but certainly, this should be applicable to amateur sport.

Form filling exercises- Rather like the Aussies, I've been asked to fill in a few forms over the years. And rather like them, I don't get on with it. Sports psychology has given us goal setting paperwork and formal feedback paperwork, psychometric testing and questionaires relating to motivation. I actually had one fencing coach who was into all this as well. There are probably good reasons for doing it, and handled well, I'm sure it can help, but all too often, it feels like both an interruption and like they are something those asking you to fill them in will throw back in your face later. They feel like written evidence to be used against you, rather than tools to help improvement. Contrast that with the best fencing teams I've been in, which despite featuring at least a couple of psych students, always relied more on just... you know, talking to people.

Big group warm ups- Everyone needs to warm up before sport, fair enough. However, not everyone will need the same intensity of work to get them warm. Nor will they require more than an hour before a match. That is not a warm up, but a training session. I've been in cricket teams where we arrived two hours early to do catching and fielding drills for almost an hour, before running around the field, with the bowlers going off to 'warm up' with half their allotment of overs for the day. Fencing team contrast: all the warm ups were of the 'I'm doing a warm up, do you want to join in' variety. We had some people who wanted to do half an hour's hard work, and some who declared that the first round of pools in a fencing tournament was their warm up. We accepted whatever seemed to work best for them.

Skill drills with punishments: I've walked out of a cricket practise over this. Being made to do press ups every time you drop a catch does not make you better at catching. It makes you better at press ups. It also embarrasses everyone concerned and does not address the necessary steps along the way to getting better. Contrast that with the environment of every fencing club I've been in, where the response to a training mistake is to move back to a level you can do and build up the technique.

Team uniforms/team songs: Another pet hate. I've been around cricket teams that have insisted on wearing suits to matches, because it 'shows we're a team'. I think the bit where we all show up on this big bus and play another team does that, thank you. I explicitly refused when our university AU suggested the fencing team should do the same sort of thing, because I knew that it didn't matter (also, we wear quite enough silly clothing to play the game).

Compulsory team socials: Apparently, it is a big thing for cricketers to go on social nights together. And eat together. It builds team bonds. It raises the ethos of the team. Again, with fencing, I went on exactly one social in the whole of my university career. We had fencers (particularly french exchange students) who flatly refused to touch the food in the university canteen after matches. It didn't get in the way. In fact, it became something of a running joke.

Measurable fitness as the main benchmark: In a skill based sport, it is often hard to measure improvement. Am I hitting my cover drive ten percent better than last week? Is my head-chest feint half as deceptive? No one knows, which is why I believe sports science people place so much emphasis on physical fitness. They've been taught that results must be measurable, and fitness is measurable. Yet all the biggest improvements I have seen people make in fencing have come through improvements at the technical/tactical level.

Pretending to be best mates: Here's a thought for you- I have been in fencing teams with at least one person I didn't like very much. Indeed, there have been moments (usually when they were drunk) when I wanted to abandon several of my teammates a hundred miles from anywhere. In cricket, we would have had to pretend we were best friends. In fencing, we just got on with our part of things and won stuff.

The suppression of the individual- Overall, there's an emphasis on the suppression of individuality in the name of the team in cricket and other mainly team sports. 'No one is bigger than the team' they say. 'Difficult' individuals must be made to conform to the team dynamic. Well, I've been that difficult individual. In cricket teams, it has occasionally led to me not fitting in. Whereas I've been in fencing teams where every member would have been labelled 'difficult' by another sport, and we've gotten on famously. Why? Because fencing is an individual sport that occasionally comes together in team format, and it values the individual, complete with quirks.

Anti-intellectualism- One point that comes out of this is a kind of anti-intellectualism that seems to pervade team sports. Apparently, you have to fit the lowest common denominator in order to avoid excluding any members. Which meant that trips to and from certain cricket matches were full of crude jokes, casual insults, mindless singing and idiocy, whereas some of the most interesting conversations I've had have included fencers, possibly because university fencing teams tend to have a high geek quotient.

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