Thinking about football thinking …

As another AFL season is almost upon us and I wanted to think about some of the questionable thinking that the football clubs and associated media trot out every year but are never taken to task over.

The first is expressed by a number of clubs not wishing to be nailed down to measures of success lest they be judged harshly when failing to achieve them. “We just want to improve on our performance from last year.” A quite pragmatic approach in my view, but of course based upon the assumption that your improvement will out-strip that of those you compete against. It’s an inadequate measure because if you improve 20% and those around you improve by 21% – you are going backwards! It is claimed both Richmond and Essendon “improved” in 2012 but they ended up occupying lower ladder positions than they did at the end of 2011. WTH?

For the purpose of clarity it might be best to say “We aim to improve more than all of those below, and some of those above us on the ladder.” (I use the ladder position given that is a universally accepted yardstick of success.)

The second is a more specific target aiming at the attainment of a certain ladder position or better by years end. Football being a highly emotive medium does not allow many fans to be objective enough to understand that this is aspirational and therefore the failure of their club to achieve such a position is an automatic failure. Unfortunately club administrations (too often stacked with football people and not broader thinkers) have their thinking overly influenced by the membership demanding success. This forces reactive responses that can be ultimately detrimental to the longer term success of the club.  In a competition of many sides, improvement rarely takes the form of a linear progression. Often we need to go backward or stall before going forward – if in fact we go forward at all. (If you think I have enjoyed the ongoing angst at Carlton resulting from their consistent failure to make their nominated top 4 spot as they have predicted … you might just be right.)

The assumption of linear progression also comes into play when a side is unexpectedly beaten by a new franchise side. There is a naive assumption that if a newly formed side beats yours, the fault must be solely your own, because a newly formed side can only improve at a pre-determined rate. There seems to be a serious expectation that these sides should not be allowed to beat yours until such a time you acknowledge they are ready to do so.  As a case in point, the catalysts for the sackings of both Carlton’s and Port Adelaide’s coaches in 2012 were losses to new franchise sides, Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast. They can argue their “long-term strategic intent” but their knee-jerk timing is a dead give-away for their short-term, reactive thinking.

Another common thinking issue many commentators have is the constant referral to poor recruitment and draft choices of the past. Those who look back and claim a club was negligent in its recruiting by claiming player X should have been taken ahead of player Y,  never actually said so at the time of the draft! What they have done is examined the outcomes through lenses of hindsight and made a judgement call. If those doing the initial selection had those same lenses (in effect being able to predict the future) things might be different. Critics and recruiters also need to understand that hindsight will not necessarily lead to foresight. So if a similar choice re-occurs Y might still in fact, be the best option!

Another classic and common fault in thinking occurs when clubs speak of the “premiership window being open” or expected to open within a pre-determined time-frame! I sometimes wonder if they truly believe this or it is a ruse to keep the fans engaged? Of course in a competition of 18 sides there are no guarantees that any windows will be open at any time. In fact, I believe we have a number of sides in the AFL that may not ever win another flag. The competition itself is a highly complex system with so many variables and interacting elements that you can do the right things, to the best of your ability, 100% of the time, and still not make the leap through that mythical “premiership window”.

Despite our protestations and demands for our teams to succeed every year, I think we all intuitively appreciate this complexity and lack of certainty (even Collingwood supporters at some base level). Still, hope springs eternal in the hearts of footy fans and the 2014 season is fast approaching!

/ Complexity, Perception

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About the Author

Frank Connolly is the Principal of “Think Quick”, a business that adds value through thinking differently. His work history covers all sectors and includes initiatives that have yielded bottom line benefit in the 10’s of millions of dollars.

Current clients range from Exxon-Mobil to Government Depts within Australia to Global NGO’s.

Much of his working life has been split between Australia, the South Pacific and Asia where he has trained and facilitated Lateral Thinking techniques, and been acknowledged by Edward de Bono as one of the foremost practitioners of the de Bono thinking methods worldwide.

Frank believes strongly that if we can improve the way we think, the actions that follow also improve.

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