In this feature interview, Sport Industry Group spoke to key figures at the Institute of Sports Humanities (ISH): Ed Smith, Director and Co-Founder (as well as National Selector for England Cricket); Professor Tony Collins, Senior Research Fellow and Module Leader; and Dr J Simon Rofe, Senior Research Fellow and Assistant Programme Director.
The interview covers a range of topics including sport as a business and sport’s cultural importance in society; the importance of rigorous and academic but non-scientific decision-making; and creating broad thinkers to lead our sector.
Why did you feel there was need for greater leadership education in sport?
Ed Smith: Going back 13 years to when I was a player, I was made Captain of Middlesex in 2006 and I was fortunate in that I had university experience on both sides of the Atlantic. I studied at the University of Cambridge here and I’d also been a visiting writer at Harvard in the US. I thought to myself if I want to be as good a captain as I can be, where can I go to improve as a leader?
It was really hard to find anywhere that appealed to me; I didn’t give it too much thought at the time but it was at the back of my mind for many years. Then, when I was working as an academic teaching a history Masters course three years ago, I started thinking about the way that academia was looking at sport. I realised there was a lot of sports science, a lot of sport business, a lot of sports marketing but there wasn’t much that explored sport through the lens of the humanities. Something to really help people to understand sport in its wider cultural significance, in particular, there wasn’t much that interrogated sport in a way that could really benefit a decision-maker in sport.
From a performance side there wasn’t a natural fit to help people prepare as leaders and secondly universities weren’t exploring sport as an aspect of wider culture.
ISH is intended to fill this gap.
Is it important to have a specific sport lens when looking at leadership or can people learn from more general leadership theory?
Ed Smith: You need to consider who the course is for and there are two groups to look at. The first group is for those already in the sports industry, whether they are players, coaches, administrators, those involved with governance or the wider sport industry. Secondly, it’s for people in other industries who want to come into the sport industry. There should be a way for talented and engaged people who aren’t currently in the sport industry to have a bridge into a leadership role within sport and ISH, and the MA Leadership in Sport course can give them that opportunity.
Tony Collins: There isn’t anything which looks at leadership within sport in the same way ISH does. Leadership in sport is different from many other walks of life; it is often very short term and the objectives of sport aren’t necessarily the same that you would find in many businesses. Also, when you contrast the resource put into the on-the-pitch performance, the equivalent put into sporting bodies around leadership is almost negligible. ISH understands both the practitioner side and the broader aspects too; we recognise that sport isn’t like a normal business where you can use normal business management skills, neither is it completely unique and so wrapped up in its own world that it doesn’t have connections to normal business practices.
Simon Rofe: Understanding sport leadership from a humanities point of view, rather than a scientific one, is important. There has been a lot of development in sports science in recent years and the contrast with what humanities can offer to society more broadly and particularly to sport, is something that has been overlooked and that is where the ISH can contribute. The qualities of leadership are not just reserved for elite athletes: from elite sport down to the grassroots and through all levels of participation, spectatorship and consumption, sport offers opportunities to all sectors of society – and particularly those often marginalised groups – to take up leadership roles.
Has there been too much focus on sport being treated like a business and that’s why there is a need for this approach from the humanities angle?
Ed Smith: Sport has often sat inside a sports science place and that’s fine, we’ve all learnt a lot from sports science. But a lot of sport and a lot of the useful knowledge about sport cannot be captured scientifically. There are ways of being experts and rigorous and academic, and non-scientific.
That’s a very interesting concept because basically non-scientific knowledge is often relegated in the language that is used about it as woolly and non-rigorous, but a lot of expertise is non-scientific.
A crucial concept when it comes to sport and making a different in sport, whether that’s on the playing side or in the sport industry, is judgement. By definition, a judgement is non-scientific it cannot be proved but there are better and worse ways of approaching judgement. One of the things we are trying to do at ISH is to support the idea that you approach decisions and leadership in a very rigorous idea but that you are open to the idea that rigour is not always scientific.
Do you see it in a similar way as finding the right balance between data and creativity?
Ed Smith: There is something in that. It depends on the nature of the question you are faced with. If there is lots of good data then that question may well be answered by analysis of that data. If there isn’t lots of useful data, and there can’t always be lots of useful data, not every question can be answered scientifically. You may have to answer it in a more intuitive way based on judgement and imagination.
One of the crucial things is being able to distinguish between those two domains; when do I trust data and when do I trust non-scientific sources of information and knowledge? That is at the heart of the course and the Institute.
Tony Collins: It’s a really important point. To give you a practical example of that, the discussions going on in sport today about the potential formation of a European ‘super league’ in football, the reorganisation of the Premiership in rugby union, or the reorganisation of the Super League in rugby league – in one sense these are decisions that are being talked about purely in business sense. How is going to increase our revenue? In a normal business sense, this would be fine, but what we can offer is that while a business plan may make sense on paper you forget that the organisations you are talking about, especially the clubs, are part of the cultural fabric of local communities. There are also certain expectations within the broader communities of those sports too about how the sport should develop and these do not always run on parallel lines with ideas about business.
Judgement based on both data and finance but also based on the cultural significance and the potential ramifications of those decisions is very important and I think that is something sport struggles to come to terms with.
Simon Rofe: One of the other factors that we explore around judgement is the unpredictability of the outcome. Not knowing who is going to ‘win’ is crucial to the competition that underpins sport: we might know that certain teams or athletes are better ‘on paper’ but they can be beaten - it is still the unpredictability that makes people compete to try to rubbish what is ‘on paper’; and why millions of people will pay – in various forms of time and money - to watch sport. There is an element of uncertainty that you cannot manage; some snap decisions on the pitch can have a huge impact on a business plan.
How will you teach judgement?
Ed Smith: We have learned a lot from behavioural economics about the biases that work against good decision making. So alertness to one’s biases is obviously one way to decrease the likelihood of making mistakes which is one way to get better.
What I’m about to say next may sound like a contradiction to what I just said as I also think people need to be emboldened to understand that sometimes not everything can be turned into a right or wrong answer.
One of the things that Howard Marks, the legendary investor who is also lecturing on the course, has said, is that you have understand that a good decision can have a bad outcome and a bad decision can have a good outcome. That is to say that any judgement that has an uncertainty attached to it has a range of possible outcomes.
By exploring and interrogating that framework intellectually you can be emboldened to live with the tension and understand that judgements are not perfect proofs. I think that whole position has not been sufficiently supported both within and outside sport.
I’m not saying that you go operate in life through a series of unchecked hunches, but I think there are ways of approaching decision-making that are rigorous, subjective and authoritative. And which you are not certain will give you the outcome you want but it’s the right decision anyway.
What’s the balance of speakers on the course such as those like Howard Marks from outside the sport industry and those within sport?
Ed Smith: It’s probably tilted slightly to those within sport but there is a lot of input from outside sport too. We are having a day at Google looking at analytics which will be half sport and half non-sport, we are having a day at the Bank of England with guest speaker Andy Haldane the Chief Economist, looking at risk and probability in decision-making, and we are having a day at Sandhurst looking at how the British Army nurtures leadership. Then on the sports side we are having events at Arsenal, at Lord’s, at St George’s Park the home of English football in association with the League Managers Association.
The breadth is important. Sport has gone through a period of real ultra-specialisation, which is fine, sometimes you want a real specialist to give you that edge on nutrition or data analytics or whatever it might be. But you are always going to need the person at the top who brings it all together, who works out how to allocate resources and works out who to listen to and when.
You want broad thinkers and the way to encourage broad thinking is to have the widest network of intellectual stimulation possible.
Who are the broad thinkers on your course, where are the students coming from and where might the course propel them to?
Simon Rofe: We’re working with a range of rights holders, governing bodies, teams, athletes and those from outside the sport industry too. Indeed what we can learn from beyond the playing field of sports is something that we are dedicated to: drawing in the opinions and perspectives of others is key
The basic convention with a Masters is that people have a first degree. In our case it’s that they have a first degree or equivalent experience in the field, so that we can include those with experience as sports professionals.
It’s important to recognise that the breadth of experience amongst the student body will help shape the learning experience and what we can all take away from it. The content will be tailored to the students that we have. Being able to facilitate variety of experiences amongst the student body will be an important part of the course; that cross-fertilisation will make for a richer intellectual environment and help people learn from one another, and learn in different ways.
Tony Collins: We are also hoping to develop a network of alumni that will be self-sustaining and allow people to share experiences and knowledge after they finish the course. That is part of the tangible outcomes from ISH.
Does one sector demonstrate a perfect example of leadership?
Tony Collins: That’s the $64,000,000 question! There are lots of instances where you can be a great leader, a great coach, but if your players aren’t good enough then you are an average coach and vice versa.
We need to always look at the context with which leadership takes place and the context in which decisions are made. Quite often that is completely out of your control so it’s about how you adapt.
From my perspective as a historian, I look at what we can learn from the past. Some of the more developing sports will be able to look at examples within sport about how to make decisions and what are the consequences of those decisions.
Simon Rofe: I don’t think there is a perfect industry to model this on. The opportunities for improving leadership arrive wherever you can learn a lesson. You have to work with the situations you are faced with and adopt the appropriate persona when it comes to sport. It is the consideration of ‘appropriate’ that matters. You can then draw out lessons from other environments, from the past, from different cultural– whatever the source is to aid your learning: it’s how to learn those lessons that we are trying to impart on the students.
One of the things which intrigues me about ISH is the opportunity to rigorously engage with the range of practitioners who are involved and to really think about their experiences. Reflection on differentiated experiences and practices is key to learning. An overwhelming body of research supports the assertion that a diverseve range of views arising from a diverse workforce enhances performance across society. Not only in the day to day but providing people with the reflective space to think about how to operate more effectively in and around their immediate context. Providing provocations and asking difficult questions within a ‘safe space’ like ISH, where the outcomes won’t impact a million-pound deal or people’s livelihoods, is an important practice for anybody in a leadership role.
Tony Collins: ISH aims to develop a practical way for what you can call ‘applied humanities’. The lessons from a whole range of academic subjects, such as history, diplomacy and behavioural economics, can actually be used, the knowledge of these subjects can be used, on a day-to-day basis for sport leaders.