Science v art: how objectivity and subjectivity clash in coaching

The latest cricket controversy has split opinion around the cricket world.

What do you think? Is there “intent”? Does Ross’ position early on in the run – well wide of the pitch –  count as obstruction? Is obscuring the fielders’ vision the same as obstructing the fielder? 

Not easy to tell. Not that you’d know it from the absolute sense of certainty bursting out of the comments sections! What is clear, is that technology hasn’t made this an open and shut case.

For every question answered….

….many other questions arise.

Ross is out “to the letter of the law”. So, is the wording of the “obstructing the field” law appropriate for being applied the field of play? And does such an appropriate wording exist? For an illustration of how difficult it is to pin down a statement to a single meaning, ask any translator (or simple copy this paragraph into google translate)!

Replays grant officials a crucial second bite at the cherry. However, to what extent are some movements exaggerated when seen again (cue the fan catchphrase; “everything looks worse in slow motion”).

For what it’s worth, i agree with the umpires’ call of “OUT”. But had the decision gone the other way, I would have understood. I am aware many will be more sure than me of where they stand.

What struck me at the time were these thoughts:

  1. Umpiring is difficult!! Despite the best technology available, there is still discourse.
  2. Coaches have more in common with umpires, weighing up evidence and deciding what to do with it.

Decision making in coaching

When we begin a coaching job, several choices present themselves. What do we want to achieve, and how long do we have? Is it feasible to cover everything? If not, what do we want to prioritize? Which aspects of cricket need tackling first?

Just like umpires, these decisions are the result of interpretation and reasoning. But the answer may not be clear cut. A firm call must be made, in one direction or another. And once made, it must be followed through with conviction.

And it won’t please everyone!! Just as a quality umpiring panel do, a good coaching team must back each other up, and present a united front….a quality that is even more important in the face of questioning and dissent.

A fantastic example of this is the “soft signal”. Employed in rugby and cricket, it is often maligned….the usual criticism being that technology “should be trusted to get the decision right”. However, time and again – from the Rugby World Cup Final 2007, to this week’s “catch/no catch” in Sydney, technology presents an inconclusive, obscured or misleading picture. An enhancement to the process? Yes. An immaculate system? No.

Just as an umpire must, you can explain your logic, and justify your thinking. Fortunately we have the luxury of time….opinions can be turned around, your methods can be vindicated in the end. This isn’t always the case for an umpire….where every decision has irreversible consequences.

All coaches should have a large slice of sympathy, for the women and men out in the middle.

Where else do objectivity and subjectivity clash?

Another realm of sports coaching that has improved vastly in recent years – statistical analysis. Statistics are fetishised in modern sports coaching and broadcasting. Got a question? There will be a number available to answer it!

Did you know that a survey of sports articles between 2013 and 2017 found that 89% include at least one statistic? A sobering thought! And admittedly, also a complete lie. But the truth seems to be close to this figure (a bit of fake news never hurt anybody).

Advocates of numbers-based coaching will point towards its huge success stories. Famous examples include “Moneyball” (recruiting), and “marginal gains theory” (training methods)….both pointing towards the same principle, that sporting success lies behind detailed numbers.

Statistics and technology have a huge value to coaches. But their role is to supplement, not substitute, our work. The numbers don’t speak for themselves. This is hugely important, when applying these principles to the training field. When this is forgotten, statistics are vulnerable to misuse, or wrongful interpretation.

Some of the issues with scientific analysis in coaching are:

  • It makes the answer/solution seem very simple – this can often lead to a single-minded response, a false sense that “A + B automatically equals C”.
  • It prioritizes the technical over the psychological – valuing repetitions over anything else.
  • It is only as good as the people/system entering the information – there is even a small margin for error with the most cutting edge technology. 
  • It breaks the game into abstract component parts, forgetting the bigger picture – i.e/ executing the skill in an unpredictable, pressurized situation. While it is a good thing to focus on individual skills, the resulting training sessions can be too removed from the pressures of a real match.

In summary, statistics can focus the mind, but also narrow the mind, causing coaches to fixate on a single element of the game. What seems a natural path; a) identify flaw, b) propose solution, c) select drill; isn’t that simple. If it was, couldn’t everybody do it (which doesn’t bode well if we want to continue charging top rate for sessions).

Balancing the scientific and personal approach

Let’s make an example: Player A has been found to drop 5 out of 10 close catches. The answer seems simple….more catching practice. Player B has been out going back to a short ball 3 times in a row. Get him playing 100 front-foot drives next session, to get more comfortable with the shot. Job done?

Actually, no….

We try to keep lectures to a minimum, but coaching for understanding is crucial!

On objective approach often leads to an objective (or in cricket’s case, technical) solution. Do lots of one specific task – broadly defined as “massed practice” – and the logic is any flaw will be corrected.

However, what if your player struggles with temperament, instead of technique? What if nerves, excitement or impatience is the real cause for their mistakes, and the poor technique is just a symptom of problem, not the cause? What is required is not, “hand here, foot here, move like this”, but understanding and empathy.

Finding an effective coping mechanism (to deal with the suddenness of a ball coming to them), and helping to deal with nerves, or to stay patient in long periods between chances, require different skills. No amount of technical input will address this deep-lying issue. Massed practice may be ineffective….or even make things worse.

In this (very generalized) example, a statistic would have revealed something very important….but the number always needs to be read into. It is not an answer in itself.

Effective use of stats: KPI’s

As junior coaches, our ability to collect data is limited. Therefore, we need to decide what is worthwhile information to gather, while still remaining practical.

During a recent weekend coaching Switzerland colts, we decided to focus our data around the theme of “world class basics”. After plenty of thought, here is an example of the “Key Performance Indicators” (or “KPI’s) we used.


Team KPI’s

  1. Appropriate & accurate throw – hard or soft, over-arm or under-arm, reading the situation to decide which one to use
  2. Catch and tap – being able to catch a fielder’s throw and break the stumps
  3. Pressure the opposition – simply working hard, to force the other team to rush (hopefully making mistakes)
  4. Running style – two hands while running, one hand while turning
  5. Backing up – ready to run, with good body position
  6. Maximum effort – while running between the wickets or attacking/closing down the ball


Simple data, but useful. How good were our basics?

In a series of games and activities, our coaches/managers measure the success rate for each of these categories. This gives the group a percentage score – and finally, and overall “basics score” (percentages of all 6 combined).

Talking to the group, we discussed what we considered would be an an acceptable level for each measured aspect….and agreed a “pass mark” for the skill. This ranged from 70-75% for the more difficult (accurate throw) to 100% (running with the bat in two hands). The aim was to exceed this mark at all times.

Our aim is obvious. To raise the standards of fundamental skills. However, how do we make sure they improve as quickly as possible, apply this improvement to the field, and finally, make this improvement PERMANENT?

  1. Stress to the players that we are not seeking perfection. That the odd mistake was natural would be tolerate. What we would be emphasizing at all times would be good habits and long term trends. 
  2. Keep your coaching and feedback around “good habits”. An awareness has to be grounded, of the importance of the smaller things – that won’t be noticed or praised, but are FUNDAMENTAL for success. This also helps prevent children – and coaches – from being distracted by “champagne moments”. As brilliant as they can be (and they should be enjoyed!!), these single moments of glory can mask a lack of overall improvement.
  3. REPEAT THE PROCESS! The data was collected 3 times over a weekend: once at the start of the day 1 (run out game), once at the end of day 1 (pavilion cricket), and once at the end of day 2  (a full 20 over match).

Here, the objective of our statistics is to reward the group’s overall performance, not the single moments of success. Utilising the same methods, while increasing the pressure and resemblance to a real match, helped us to gauge how effective our training had been.

With the group concerned, the tests appeared to be a success – with improvement across the board. The challenge going forward will be to raise the standards further (expect higher scores, or the same scores under harsher circumstances), and include more attention to detail (add new KPI’s or alter existing KPI’s).

Conclusion: can “coaching science” and the “art of coaching” coexist?!

Of course, the answer is yes!

But in order for their sessions to have a true and lasting impact, a coach should never lean completely towards one side or the other.

By recognizing the benefit of quantitative (number-based) and qualitative (behavior-based) coaching, both sides can compliment each other.

If a coach fails to appreciate this truth, they are limiting themselves.



Games for understanding: Pavilion Cricket & The Run Out Game.

Games in coaching

Have you ever seen a team lament that they take all their catches in practice, but miss their chances in the match? If you’ve been around the club scene for long, you will definitely hear of players who “look solid in the nets”….only to watch them fail repeatedly on the Saturday.

The reason for this is usually that their training lacks relevance to the field of play.

The gap between training (sanitized, predictable, controlled) and a match (unpredictable, tense) can feel vast. In order to bridge this gap, sometimes it helps to look at what the juniors are doing – games for learning!

Some of the simplest games are also the most effective. Using them can help simulate match pressures, but also be enjoyable for any standard of cricketer.

Pavilion cricket – 

How it works

  • 2 teams – 1 batting, 1 fielding.
  • The coach feeds, batters come in 1 by 1. The batter must run a single if they hit the ball. the fielding team must try to run them out (at the bowler’s end).
  • If they are IN, the batter returns to his/her teammates.
  • If they are OUT, the batter must wait in the “out pavilion”.
  • If the batting team hits a 6, all batters from the “out pavilion” can return to the team.

While this seems like just a “fun game”, what pavilion cricket achieves is CONSTANTLY putting batters and fielders under a time-pressurized situation. In these conditions, the players often panic, doing things they would never do in a normal practice: throwing over-arm from a couple of metres away; throwing at the keeper’s feet; running with the bat in one hand; forgetting to slide the bat in; unnecessary diving; all bad habits that creep in when you least need them to.

All of these need to be “drilled out” of the players. The game is highly effective at making players realize what qualities are necessary when fielding under the clock:

  • A fast approach to the ball
  • Steady when taking the ball
  • LOOKING UP – this part is forgotten by nearly all young players, but it is vital. Read the situation, to see which kind of throw is required!
  • Positioning (and body position) of keeper/bowler, so they can “catch and tap” the ball/stumps.
  • Fast when you need to be, but taking time at the crucial moment (gathering the ball)

This game can also be adapted to emphasize batting technique as well. For example, specifying only off-side shots. Already players must think about placing the ball into gaps, and deciding how powerfully to strike the ball.

Run out game

How it works

  • 2 teams – 1 running, 1 fielding.
  • Both teams start from behind a set of stumps. Coach stands with fielding team, with ball in hand.
  • Batting team attempt to run TWO RUNS (to other end of pitch and back home)
  • Fielding team runs to retrieve the ball rolled out by the coach. They aim to collect, turn and throw the ball back to the wicket keeper, before the batter has completed their runs (thus running them out).
  • Count score. Keep going until the batting team has lost a certain number of wicket, then swap the batting and fielding teams.
  • EXTRA – allow the batting team to run an extra time, if the fielding team’s throw is way off target (overthrows).

This is a useful game at emphasizing certain elements of running and fielding. Every split second of time of potentially crucial in making, or preventing, a run.

The game can also be varied by the distance the coach throws the ball. On some occasions, the fielder may have lots of time to complete the run out, and should use it (time to get steady, medium-paced throw). On the other hand, they may need to go for a higher risk, rushed option (extra-quick release, hardest possible throw) to have a chance of a run out.