“The Emperor has no clothes,” Fergus Connolly boldly, and perhaps controversially, asserts at the outset of his innovative new book, Game Changer: The Art of Sports Science. A central theme of Connolly’s writing and a driving force behind the publication of Game Changer is the declaration that sports science fails to deliver on its grand and overblown promises.A central theme of Game Changer is that sports science fails to deliver on its ambitious promises. Click To Tweet
There is a growing movement of practitioners waking up to the issues with Big Data; namely that when they’re busy collecting data and metrics for their own sake, they fail to observe and comprehend what is happening on the field of play at the most basic level. By applying the lessons and ideas within Game Changer, Connolly hopes coaches will get their heads out of their spreadsheets and tablets and understand the ebb and flow of the competition taking place on the field in front of their eyes.
Content and Character Make for a Great Read
While everyone has heard the idiom, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” taking the time and effort to present your message in a professional and visually appealing package can only help to bring credibility to, and confidence in, your message. Game Changer is the most professionally produced and impressively presented text I have read this year, and its packaging certainly enhances the reading experience. I cannot overstate the value and importance of first impressions, and so the message’s presentation is every bit as important as the content itself.
Game Changer has four main sections: “The Game,” “The Player,” “The Preparation,” and “The Coach.” Each section begins with a short story or anecdote full of creative writing and emotional language. The book uses stories, anecdotes, and examples throughout to bring life to some of the essential, but dry, scientific material that may otherwise become a laborious read. Even for me, a Brit more familiar with (proper) football and rugby and only limited experience with American football, the 2.5 seconds of footballing precision recounted at the start of The Game over several pages of emotive and flowing text is an exhilarating read.
These stories provide an excellent platform to engage the reader and draw them into what follows. Incorporating anecdotes involving genuine world superstars who truly transcend their sport, Connolly delivers stories that will resonate with almost any reader. From Japan’s seismic defeat of South Africa at the Rugby World Cup to Muhammad Ali’s famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” quote, and from a whole retinue of American football and basketball examples to German and Carthaginian warfare strategies, Connolly draws on an enormous history of competitive conflict to illustrate and bring to life every argument he makes and every principle he defines.
As hinted at earlier, and like many manuals in the coaching and sports performance sphere, this text is no easy read. If you are not already well-versed on topics such as chaos theory, complexity, and military history and jargon, you will find yourself opened to a whole new realm of ideas and vocabulary. I often found myself re-reading certain sections to gain a fuller understanding; the reader must fully engage in the process of consuming the material. Because the book weighs in at over 400 pages, and as Connolly acknowledges in the book’s “Takeaways” section, it will not be possible to remember every rule and principle. Nor does the author expect every one of these to apply to everyone and every situation.
A Framework That Works
Connolly’s book is not the first to appeal to coaches and support staff to “start with the end in mind,” but it does add growing weight to that particular argument. Game Changer proposes and provides a framework for understanding, analyzing, and training for team sports, but you can apply and adapt many of the principles and ideas to other realms.
At around the same time that I began reading Game Changer, we at the Hong Kong Sports Institute were fortunate to receive a new head coach working with the Squash team. His first, and by far most influential, impact to date was to ask, “What kind of game do you want to play?” and introduce a framework for working towards this game plan that was all-encompassing across athletic development. So far, performance and results appear to verify the merits of this approach.
In the opening of this review, I referenced the growing concern over the Big Data trend. While data and quantitative measures are undoubtedly important and relevant, Connolly argues for a focus on qualitative evaluation before quantitative. A focus on statistics and numbers may lead to athletes and coaches chasing certain metrics rather than what really influences the game results.
For example, the distance that’s run in a game of soccer flashes up on TV—does that represent the industry of the player or their contribution to the game, or is it merely a reflection of the influence of opposition tactics and game plan on their performance? With a right midfielder who has a high value for meters run—did he perform well and influence the result or was he merely spending a lot of time tracking back down the opposition’s left flank as the opponent ran him ragged? This focus on a fixed statistic may limit the skilled performer from executing the most appropriate solution based on their aggregated experiences.
I could throw well-worn quotes at you, such as Einstein’s “Not everything that counts can be counted” or George Box’s “All models are wrong but some are useful.” However, as you read Game Changer, Connolly makes a compelling argument for questioning the strict adherence to statistics and quantitative analysis. Instead, he urges the reader to understand the context of the raw statistics and the need for (and fallibility) of a game model, and become comfortable with the subjectivity and grey areas of team sports performance.
A major reason the existing preparation paradigms are failing in the team sport setting is the overemphasis on the physical aspect of performance and preparation. Connolly introduces his model, which is heavily rooted in, and influenced by, concepts such as Victor Frade’s “Tactical Periodization.” It stresses the tactical, technical, and psychological aspects of performance, as well as the physical traits, and the interplay of all these factors.
Not Everything Is Quantifiable
Game Changer makes the point extensively that existing training philosophies fail due to their over-reliance on the physical aspect of performance and an inability to understand that you cannot quantify many of the defining moments or contributions that lead to a result. Personality tests are an example from the psychological field and Connolly introduces ancient Greek physician Hippocrates’ four temperaments. This highlights a major strength of Game Changer—Connolly draws on an enormous range and depth of topics and fields to make his arguments and support his philosophy.Game Changer promotes the idea that it isn’t enough for coaches to be a specialist in just one area. Click To Tweet
Connolly promotes the idea that merely being a specialist in one area is no longer enough and that coaches must become knowledgeable and experienced across the whole spectrum of fields that influence sporting performance. Coaches must become more than masters of their own domain and have deeper knowledge in all areas that influence the game day outcome, spanning tactics and strategy, physicality and physiology, and psychology, as well as factors influencing the physical and mental health and well-being of their athletes.
Game Changer may provide something for everyone, though the more experienced or enlightened coach may need to pore through some apparently facile concepts to tease out the nuggets of information valuable to them. My overall impression is that the book is as valuable to the technical coach as it is to the sports scientist or support staff.
Fergus Connolly’s Game Changer aims to be an all-encompassing manual and framework for team sports athletes and coaches to deliver optimal performance; shifting the philosophy from a bias towards physical development to a more holistic approach focused on delivering enhanced match day performance and outcomes.
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