‘Analysis paralysis’ and the cult of turning coaches into Caesars

Stats and figures are ultimately only as helpful or unhelpful as an individual chooses them to be

The phrase “analysis paralysis” is hardly new and its use hardly neutral. But the debate about whether sport should be parsed through as many analytical prisms as it is has never gone away and is unlikely to anytime soon.

The run-in to Saturday’s Wales-Ireland rugby international for instance was framed in martial metaphors of a pair of war-rooms pushing their plyometric troops around a battlefield minutely divided into targeted macro contact areas with gain advantage calculated in millimetres per expended joule.

Although the players reassure us they are allowed express themselves, and that anyone expecting Barry John-like spontaneity is deluded, it can still come all over like a sweaty game of behemoth “Battleship” played by extremely clever sideline coaches backed up by ever more expanding platoons of data analysts staring at technology that goes “ping”.

In fact big old butch rugby is actually becoming Formula-1ish in its geeky obsession with stats and figures, making nostalgic cries for a return to more instinctive, freewheeling days seem very plaintive. Which of course isn’t stopping clubhouses around the county from all also being filled with anguished cries of BORING.


The parallel rise in the mythological import of the modern day sporting coach is hardly coincidental, nor it seems is a persistent white-collar drive to present those same coaches as role-models for a wider business world eager to coat its commercial fundamentals in something more exotic than buy-cheap/sell-dear.

The result is an ever increasing overflow of business-speak morphing with a vast silo of scientific analysis to produce a sporting culture where paralysis by analysis appears capable of not only cramping performance but the very language.

Current angst

It’s this context which makes English cricket’s current angst especially fascinating, containing as it does a fundamental clash of attitudes between those urging a “grip it and rip it” approach and those who reckon such simplicity is old hat.

At the eye of this storm is the England coach Peter Moores, whose unfortunate blurted promise "to look at the data" for reasons behind losing to Bangladesh in the World Cup has cued up much soul-searching about what the correct approach to the game should be. "Blackboard stuff", harrumphed the former England player and punditry curmudgeon Geoffrey Boycott in response to Moores. "The players aren't at school. When you get into a pressure situation, that's when you have to think for yourself."

Since Boycott famously has a long-distance relationship with the concept of doubt, it’s important to stress he’s not alone in suspecting a theoretically strong England side have been overdoing the detail and burying their talent in a vast mountain of superfluous information.

Former captain Michael Vaughan has despaired too about excessive data analysis, weighing down players with literally Too-Much-Information. "It tells me the team play to a system and method rather than using their natural instinct," he said.

Whatever your sport, this is familiar tension: a modern obsession with detail and information clashing with a deep-seated suspicion among some that much of it is gobbledegook peddled by those with shares in profitably peddling gobbledegook.

Gaelic games are as relevant an example as any with the ambitions of county teams, and some club teams, gauged by the amount of backroom personnel feeding information to players whose every move on a pitch can be pored over for weeks afterwards. The presumption that wealthy professional sport must be swamped by even more detail is as hard to argue with as a suspicion that much of the tangible benefits of such work are probably outweighed by the idea of it – sport’s very own placebo effect.

Supposed cleverness

It’s a tone thing, and since the tone of any organisation is set at the top, then you can see why those at the top enjoy sieving so much through their own supposed cleverness and thoroughness. And if the idea takes root that those engaging in this stuff have an advantage over those who don’t, then arguing that much of it is irrelevant is also irrelevant. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is so interesting about English cricket right now though is actually England’s cricketers, something increasingly rare in a culture where the primacy of the coach has expanded to grotesque levels, with the resultant focus often skewed away from those actually playing.

As it happens, another ex-captain, Mike Atherton, has argued convincingly that England do no more or no less analysis on themselves or the opposition than anyone else, and that what Moores is really guilty of is indulging in the sort of banal manager business-speak guaranteed to get any old-timer's hackles raised.

And that’s just a lack of taste, the same lack of taste which equates jargon to leadership, and which sees spoof-merchants peddle platitudes about those in charge of politics and business having plenty to learn from those in charge of sport, continuing the process of turning coaches into Caesars and perpetuating the cult of the managerial maestro manoeuvring his minions.

But cricket is interesting because more than most sports, it can still be boiled down to good old-fashioned beating your man: after all only one player can bat and one player can bowl at any one time.

No doubt that’s too simplistic for those devoted to facts and stats and cricket is full of those: but stats and figures are ultimately only as helpful or unhelpful as an individual chooses them to be.

And that means players actually thinking for themselves, which conjures up a rather radical idea: could the England’s players themselves actually be at fault for playing rubbish? Maybe we should check the data on that.