Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 3: Simplicity and a secure base.

3…simplicity and a secure base…


The tendency in modern professional sport is to generate and accumulate more and more data.  As an advocate of the notion that the game is information, I should relish this trend but instead, it leaves me simultaneously dispirited and bemused.


Excess statistics are dispiriting because, mostly, they just add complexity and often end up landing at the feet of the athlete to confirm what they did wrong (or why their contract won’t be renewed).  Too often I have I seen athletes, particularly after a loss, look for the post-game stats sheet to confirm their fears and stoke their dread for the upcoming review of their performance.  Conversely after a win (or a good performance) the stats sheet seems lighter, the paper a brighter shade of white, and the mind relieved by the printed confirmation of their competence.


Statistics are useful but even at their best, they are just another star in the constellation of factors that make up performance.  Admittedly some sports (and athletes) benefit from statistics more than others (though I’m disinclined to cite examples) but in my experience, they are just another source of clutter and noise.


This is partly why I find reliance on statistics bemusing.  They tend to focus on what to look for, and less so on what is irrelevant.  To me, this is why the game is the best teacher because one learns the task relevant and irrelevant information. Statistics may well tend to focus on what to look for but there are so many things to look for, that the potential for using statistics is exponential and unbounded.


To illustrate, novice boxers fixate more on the hands of their opponents whilst expert boxers focus much of their attention on the upper torso and chin area. Experience has developed and enhanced the peripheral perceptive system of the expert thus allowing them to focus on the information rich central upper torso.  Novices by contrast, are responding to the threat of their opponents’ hands (justifiably so) because their peripheral acuity is undernourished, and they haven’t yet learnt which parts of their opponents’ body offer the best predictive information.


Boxing therefore, sublimely highlights the usefulness of efficiency of action and quickness of mind.  Cluttered minds limit this because the parts of the brain that react and respond differ from those that mull and muse (i.e the areas that stats tend to activate).  In many ways, the game represents complexity (and chaos), so beginning from a base of simplicity is essential.


About five seasons into my professional career I noticed the cycle of underperforming teams (I have extensive experience and competence in losing).  The cycle went: Lose.  Lose closely.  Lose closely again.  Really lose.  Lose a game we had a chance to win.  Then out of frustration, woe and despair we would get angry and say screw it, let’s go back to basics and just play hard.  Next game – dramatically improved competitiveness, or even a win.  Perhaps even another win after that.  Then usually back to competitive losses and regular losses until we’d go back to basics and improve performance, thus repeating the cycle.


From this, it’s not enough to say that just by simplifying things we improved.  More importantly, after winning, we then tended to drift from simplicity by adding more things in our game preparations.  We increased complexity gradually (i.e more offensive plays) but it also brought us closer to overload.  A feature of great teams (of which I’m also grateful to have experienced) is their ability to be firmly anchored in keeping things simple.


The best coaches do this too.  They help their teams and athletes remain focused on the task relevant stuff, while simultaneously helping them traverse distractions and the extraneous.  In this regard, great coaches are a stable and secure base by which their athletes and teams can map and explore their craft.

Read Part 1  here

Read Part 2 here





About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Love it, D Stiff.
    Nothing switches me off more than a pundit banging on about sport statistics.
    What about the art?
    The art, the art.
    The creativity, the art.

    “Keep it simple” has me in mind of some of the great players and coaches.
    And the current trend of awareness, gratitude, mindfulness, empathy.
    “The resilience project” is leading one approach to that (I wrote about that back in 2016
    Keep it simple.
    Moment to moment.

Leave a Comment