Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Debunking the Bunkum (or 'Harman-ising' the Hooey)

I'm sorry, and I promise this will be my last pot shot at the LTA for some time, but I simply couldn't let this one pass.

Having worked in the IT Consultancy industry for over 10 years I've seen more than my fair share of BS; and it usually involves suited late 20 somethings (considering themselves on a fast track to management) attempting to sell their clients stuff they don't need, by performing a techno-linguistic tap dance that is deliberately designed to be as confusing as it is meaningless. Expect to hear phrases like 'business solutions', 'leverage' and my personal favourite, 'adding value'.

It's all part of an elaborate ruse you see: rope your clients into agreeing to let you build crap software that maybe only addresses 20% of your clients' real business needs - who will, too late in the day realise what they're really after, but will by then be knee deep in a stinking writhing mess that is too full of bugs (that's software glitches) to even properly address the 20% of what it purports to do. Cue, another lengthy lucrative contract to fix some of those defects (which of course they're best placed to fix considering they put them there) and add further 'value' during the next 'phase' of your 'streamlining initiative'.

What's this all got to do with Tennis, and the LTA in particular? Well, they've been bandying around the term 'on track' for a while now, except nobody appears to know what it means. So Neil Harman from The Times asked them - asked Steve Martens, the LTA's Player Director, in fact:

“For us,” Martens said, "on track is a very interesting element to get a good quality philosophy about the way we build that pipeline (ie. how the LTA produces players).

I'm sorry, WHAT!? It's not wholly unintelligible of course, but bears all the consultancy hallmarks of garnering credibility by obfuscation and omission. "All that stuff you don't understand and I don't appear to mention? Well there's something deeply mystical going on here that I can only attempt to explain to you if you pay me £x-hundred-thousand over y-years."

"If we want to build that pipeline, we can do it with a clipboard and say ‘I think he's good, I think he's not so good’.

“We can also take the approach where you have the eye of the experienced people and their ability to spot talent, which is a continuous process - you keep on Talent ID-ing when players are 20 or 21, you have to back it up also with facts. The facts in tennis are actually pretty easy to get.

“You have individual rankings which are fantastic but also very hard for young children but fantastic because there are many different circuits, the Tennis Europe circuit, the ATP circuit, the ITF circuit, the WTA circuit. We can drag back to where [Rafael] Nadal was or Murray was at a specific stage and we know there are specific benchmarks which are the minimum we have to get to have a certain per cent of a chance and every time you are ahead of those benchmarks the better your chances are to get there, to progress more quickly, and when you progress more quickly, you also progress further and higher.

OK, so what you're essentially saying here is that you're getting a key team of high-level experts (or a high-level team of key experts) to engage in a continual performance monitoring effort, the metrics of which can then be used to chart progress (or otherwise) against an extrapolated set of benchmarks (or critical success factors) obtained from the career histories of the younger elite players, like Nadal and Murray.

Clear? Nope - let's distill it one level further - no sorry, let's 'drill down':

A bunch of coaches continually tracks your performance (%age of first serves in etc.) and uses this record to understand whether or not you are where you ought to be in relation to where Nadal was when he was at your stage of development (note he doesn't use the word age).

That's better surely.

“So when we come to these [on track] figures, it is a element for us to give a view on where we are going to invest our resources. Technical support and also to show to the people, because it is clear that we are not working with all the players hands-on, ourselves.

So players that are 'on-track' (continue to) get investment. Those that aren't, don't (or have it withdrawn). Plus you get to produce some sleek-looking Powerpoint presentations to justify your investment choices. Get-it?

“We have an approach with a lot of high performance centres around the country; it is also a benchmark element for them. On track doesn't mean a guaranteed success. when we have 25, 30, 35 players on track it does not mean in the next five years we will have those players in the top 100.

See it's a shame, that. Be nice to think these 'benchmarks' actually meant something.

“That will be a Chinese invasion on the world rankings which will not happen. but we know these are elements to measure our progress to the position we occupy in the different age categories which are all leading to a possibility to get more players to the highest level.”

Not completely sure what that means; Harman says he was glazed over by this point, and I understand why. I guess he means, that the more players that are 'on-track', the more likely some of them are to get to the highest level - maybe.

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