Friday, May 6, 2011

Resilience and Attrition Regression

A radio commentator I respect recently mentioned "attrition regression" as he talked about how important depth is to a football team as the predictable progression of a season lead to injuries to major players but also a systematic aggravation or deterioration of skill and achievement over a season. I liked the term, sounds very sophisticated, and it  highlights how important resilience is in the design and creation of a sport team and its culture. Watching the NFL draft which is driven so much by considerations of depth and resilience or watching 40 baseball players end up on the injured reserve list before the season is one month old illuminate how critical resilience is. 

Resilience defines the ability of an organization to respond to external or internal shocks. A resilient organization expects and prepares for a range of problems that will arise and threaten performance or survival. Stress and shocks pervade sport life and  good and high reliability organizations build in redundancy, cross training or depth. If an organization is not designed to be reliant, the normal or sudden stresses or shocks of life will destroy it. 

Athletics involves physical risk and required physical performance under stress, often with contact with others. At the same time the fine-grained requirements of strength and skill require very high and sustainable levels of micro skills and talent. At the very thin margins of elite competition, minuscule differences in speed, strength, quickness, time or technique have immense consequences. Teams must accommodate these razor thing margins and work to generate durability and competence to fight off the surprises and costs of the daily demands of consistent physical play. 

In sport this contact and engagement occurs not just in games but in practice and preseason and sometimes off season where many young male athletes play other sports or engage in high risk (ie stupid) behavior. Last year the Superbowl champions had fifteen of their projected season starters on the injured list during the course of the year. This year in baseball with the season less than one month old has already seen 40 players go on the disabled list. Last year the Seattle Seahawks had 284 roster transactions during the year and had churned 53 percent of their roster by opening day. So preseason, practices, games, even conditioning exact incessant wear, tear and cost to the athletes.  On many teams internal competition for playing time amplifies the intensity of competing and physical wear and tear. 
Every team faces  continuous attrition over the course of a season. A cumulative exhaustion creeps as endless games mount up. The exhaustion can be physical with players having lower energy levels and lower endurance levels in games where they cannot play as long at their highest level of performance. But the exhaustion can be mental as well. Players need to bring focus to their games and practice to refine skills and address weaknesses. Nonstop stress and decision make take their toll in missed cues, sloppy plays and mental mistakes.

Team resilience builds upon quality of individual judgement and toughness. The toughness plays out day to day where individuals assess the seriousness of their accumulating injuries or their attrition of skills. They monitor that but also calibrate how much they can play and play through injuries or play with a certain level of pain. This requires them to compensate or work or rehab to keep an elite level of performance or play at the level they can. Teams need players who are resilient who can play, but not play to the point where they destroy their ability to contribute.

But team resilience is more than the sum of the mental toughness of their individuals. Additive health costs slowly degrade performance at the micro level across a team. The accretion of wraps, tapes, braces bear witness to the rising level of internal pain that each player must manage. Minute gradations in speed or quickness change with each injury or "ding" and at elite levels of competition, micro-second changes can result in performance threshold declines. Teams need to rest players, find space for them to recover or when asking them to play adapt to lower or limited performance levels. This requires backup players of comparable skill or at least able to fit into the demands of the system played. The team must do this resting while maintaining a competitive level of play even with their best players out.

Beyond resting, renewing and managing performance limitations, teams need depth to address injuries at any position but especially key positions. So the creation of depth matters, but depth is not enough. The depth in personnel must also fit the system and style of play. Teams do not just need stockpiles of players, but they need players of  a certain style and competence. At the same time managing backup depth of players who fit is hard. Quality costs money. Many players who could be starters prefer to be on other teams starting rather than waiting for potential injuries. The costs of waiting for someone to get injured or getting very limited playing time can anger or degrade a player's performance and attitude; it can poison a team. The money spent on depth often means money not spent upon starters or the limits on money mean severe drop offs in quality from starters to backups. While resilience matters for the long long run, I am focusing just upon the need for resilience to get through a season. So teams need pipelines for one season but also for the long developmental arc.

This requirement to anticipate and address regression attrition over the course of a season accounts for why coaches manically stockpile players. Drafting may be as much about building numbers of potential talent as grappling for the perfect superstar.  In college ranks, the stockpile seems a zero sum game, if a team gets a play, another team does not have them. Pro teams develop very different ways to manage depth and fit. 

Resilience is as important as talent in winning. Resilience is not just about one player at a time but a culture and system of talent acquisition, training and management that builds up the necessary flexibility and mental and cognitive toughness for groups of players to adapt to the adversity, injuries, pain and attrition any season brings. 

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