How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
- sports & science
- a variety of sports & scientific fields
- high-end coaching & mass-market product development
The year was 2008.
The city: Beijing.
The event: 10-Meter Platform Diving.
The athlete: Matt Mitcham.
There’s the pre-dive commentary, the collective breath-holding, Matt walks to the edge, turns, breathes out, visualises. Matt jumps, twists, flips, double-turns, folds, hugs his knees, flips, unfolds. Bang! He hits the water.
Three seconds of Olympic spotlight is over. The crowd goes wild. He emerges from the water and raises his arms. The judges say….
112.1 — the highest score in Olympic History!!
It was a brilliant performance — the fusion of great athletics and great … mathematics?
The Mathematics of Diving
Dr. Kenneth Graham, Principal Scientist at the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) had been working with Matt and his coach Chava Sobrino, helping them “go for the gold.” While doing so, he created a mathematical model for the dive scores that should result from various dives.
The model generally predicted Matt’s scores accurately, but sometimes it didn’t. Kenneth and the coach wondered why.
They dug into the data and found two key patterns:
Matt’s performance was unusual. Divers normally do the hard dives first, since they perform better when they’re fresh. Matt performed better at the end. So, they thought, “What if Matt does his hardest dive at the end of the routine? Would he earn ‘extra’ judging points AND ‘extra’ performance points?”
He did — and set a new Olympic record.
It wasn’t the only time Kenneth connected mathematical modelling and sports. That’s a big part of what he does every day. For example, a university dean called him one day to report that one of the school’s researchers was investigating the principles of vibrating molecules. The researcher said they should be the same as the principles of aerial athletes (gymnasts, divers, skiers, etc.) packing and unpacking their bodies, causing not only shape but also positional changes. Kenneth was intrigued.
“So, I introduced this German mathematician from the UK and a Mexican diving coach. One didn’t understand the techniques of diving, and the other didn’t understand the math. They spent two hours talking and worked out a common language. They could each see how a body changes its shape in space, be it molecular or athletic. Out of this came the Bodies in Space project, for which we got funding, and now we have PhD candidates in Mathematics, Robotics Engineering, Social Engineering, Sports Science, and Bio-Mechanics modeling and better understanding how divers change and un-change, as well as helping coaches find the best ways to help them do so.”
Many sport scientists focus on a single discipline. Biomechanics, for example, don’t usually understand physiology. However, Kenneth has a broad understanding across fields and has even applied his learnings to fields outside sports or science, such as a speech he gave on worker safety, based on safety precautions for Olympic athletes.
He also crosses other areas. To scale up for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, coaches and athletes arrived from all over the world to compete in a variety of sports — Kenyan distance runners, British sprinters, Norwegian kayakers, German rowers — and more. During the 2 or 3 weeks they were together, Kenneth joined them for lunches, talked, listened, and got to know them. He found very rapidly that — independent of country or sport — they showed a high degree of consistency in their training approaches.
For example, a seminar on the use of altitude training included a Moroccan athletics coach, an East German rowing coach, and an Australian swimming coach — 3 sports with 3 completely different coaches, in terms of background, learning, etc.
Kenneth asked them what their plans were for the training year, and the 3 of them showed him identical models. They were all staying at the same training venue, but because the swimmers were at the pool, the athletic team ran on the track (or roads), and the rowers were at the lake, they never actually spoke to each other. Kenneth found it useful to glean insights that crossed countries and sports, putting them to use where they hadn’t been tried.
“You have to take all the different approaches and find the pattern underneath. My aim is never to get too close to a sport. If you get too caught up in the culture of one particular sport, you think within those constraints.”
So, Kenneth listens to the world’s top coaches, looks for consistency, and eliminates sport-cultural practices, i.e. methods in use not because they’re effective, but because “they’ve always been done this way.”
He also seeks objective material to analyse, both quantitative (for modelling) and qualitative (e.g. videos). After a water-polo tournament in Hungary, for instance, the coach scolded the players for what he thoughtk they’d done wrong. However, when Kenneth (who has no experience in water-polo) reviewed the video afterwards, he realised the problem was actually something else. The coach began objective (video) monitoring after the games and started seeking Kenneth’s input.
“I never thought I was helping in any way, but after we were talking one day, he said to me, ‘come here’ and called the players over, saying, ‘team, come here — Kenneth has something to tell you.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’ve got something to tell them? I don’t know anything about water-polo.’ He said, ‘You need to tell them what you saw, because I didn’t see it. You have an expert evaluator’s eye.’”
He looks beyond a particular sport’s competitors, as well, because the players and their coach are already well aware of them. However, they may not be aware of similar manoeuvres done by athletes in other sports.
When Kenneth studies athletic methods and performance, he never sits beside the coach, since he’ll only see the same things as the coach. He sits in the stands for a different perspective and the “big picture.”
He also develops new training equipment with his staff, for example a tumbling machine for divers and gymnasts. Since the coach can remain right next to the athlete and take additional perspectives from above, below, another side, etc. during key moments, the coach gains new insights not seen from the usual perspective and distance.
Further, the athlete can practice a tumble again and again without interrupting practice to get back up the dive-board or back onto the bars. Coach and athlete can train, experiment, and learn in quick succession, and the coach can see patterns by seeing a rapid progression of performances. In a short time, they can collect many data points.
Another difficulty in training is knowing the goal. Since sport records and performance standards continually advance, athletes need to train for world-class performance at the completion of their training, not at the start. In field hockey, for example, Kenneth asked 5 different coaches what the sport looked like 10, 6, and 2 years ago. From this, he modelled what the sport might look like in 2 years’ time, noting the trends and consistency of patterns.
Collectively, the coaches and Kenneth predicted an evolution in style of play, based on the consistencies of vision. They were then able to identify the characteristics of athletes needed for that future style and either select or develop athletes for tomorrow.
“Scientists think differently. Actually, friends tell me, ‘YOU think differently.’”
Friends even ask Kenneth to bounce around ideas in completely different fields, such as finance or law. Perhaps one reason he can reach so regularly and so far beyond the familiar is because not so long ago, everything was unfamiliar.Kenneth had viral meningitis in 1993/1994 and was hospitalized.
He lost both short-term and long-term memory and had difficulty saving new memories.
“I sort of knew I knew things but couldn’t work out how I knew them. And it wasn’t just past memories that were gone — I couldn’t always make new ones. I could go out for a walk and find myself somewhere with no idea where I’d been. It was terribly embarrassing, but I couldn’t recognize people I used to know really well. My friends would sometimes tell me about it later when I asked why these strangers [unrecognized friends] were so upset.”
It took a long time, but as he regained his health, Kenneth began saving memories again and connecting the unconnected ones he already had. Eventually, he developed a notable proficiency in “collecting the dots and connecting the dots.” He continues collecting and connecting to this day.
Kenneth enjoys collecting art and considering the artists’ choice of perspectives, as he himself chooses perspectives when studying athletes. His mental collection of perspectives, ideas, and skills come from different disciplines across coaching, sports, and the sciences.
As a cycling and rowing coach, Kenneth trained athletes to become World-Championship medallists. So, he understands coaching from the coach’s perspective.
As a sports scientist, he holds a BSc in Science & Mathematics (with special focus on Physiology), MappSc in Exercise & Sport Science, and a PhD in Science & Physical Education. His doctoral work integrated neural, humeral, biochemical, and metabolic analyses; qualitative and quantitative approaches; and studies of the underlying physiology, neurology, and biochemistry.
These days, he collects ideas. He’s an insatiable reader, constantly curious, and loves gathering and connecting information.
“I remember as an undergraduate, every Tuesday they would put the new journals on the shelves. So, every Tuesday morning, I would get 5 to 8 journals in my favorite areas — science and math and whatnot — and go through them. I wanted to learn new things and get to the new information as quickly as possible, because that was a fun thing to do. It still is.”
He doesn’t care if all his journals, articles, and google searches are in his area or not. He just reads (voraciously) whatever interests him, even cross-reading. When reading a newspaper, for example, different stories catch his eye, and he’s continually tempted to read multiple stories at once.
Not only does he connect the ideas to each other and whatever he’s working on, but he also connects ideas to people and actively shares.
“I’m quite happy to stand in the corner and say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting — you’re doing that better than me, so I’ll use that, thank you.’ Likewise, if I’m doing something better, I’ll tell you, if you’re not a competitor. No, actually, it doesn’t matter if we’re competing. I’m happy to give things away because I just like the challenge.”
He receives a great deal from his notably-broad network, both in- and out-side sports, and as a member of professional associations and academic bodies. Technology companies continually send him samples of new software and prototypes. If he wants to know something, there’s someone he can call, and he’ll dig up all the research and select whichever method appears to be the most effective (but only after collecting everything he can).
As a former coach, Kenneth knows how to talk to coaches. Instead of showering them with glitzy information they can’t use, he focuses on asking good questions, guiding them through a process of self-reflection. The more highly prized the coach and the more higly-ranked the athletes, the more people surround them, telling them what to do.
In order to be heard, Kenneth’s advice has to be different. In order to be truly useful, it also has to build the coach’s own capabilities.
“He’s quite happy to sit at the back and watch and learn as much as he can. A lot of the young sports scientists want to be at the pool and tell the coach everything. Instead, Kenneth asks questions. The coach usually has the answers but hasn’t thought of the questions. Since coaches travel all the time, they need to be able to think it through when they’re on their own. And in the crush of the Olympics where everything happens very quickly, they have to make decisions right on the spot. The coach who’s self-reflected is a lot is better off.”
– Robert Medlicott, former colleague at NSWIS
Not only do athletes need coaches, but so do athletic businesses. So, in 2015 NSWIS and the Sydney Olympic Park Authority established the Sydney Sports Incubator (SSI). Their job would be to commercialize some of the NSWIS prototypes (developed for Olympic and World-Championship athletes), as well as serving companies that were continually reaching out to them for help developing commercial sports products, services, software, and training.
In addition to basic incubation services, SSI connects start-ups with corporations seeking collaboration — and even connects start-ups with each other (where mutually beneficial). The Olympic Park itself is a collection of long, carefully-managed relationships. NSWIS was one of the first organizations on-site, and after 20 years, people know each other very, very well.
Kenneth loves sports, loves math, loves science, and found a way to blend them. Learning, researching, solving problems, and starting new things are all just plain fun.
“When I was doing Matt’s diving analysis, I had all these numbers and I was just playing with them for no reason. I was just going to see what was connected and found something that didn’t make sense. I like playing with information. You can take it and look at it from different directions. You can use one piece of information in 5 different ways and find 5 new things that are interesting.”
Psychological flexibility is key, and Kenneth switches the way he thinks, depending on the circumstance, e.g. quantitative modelling for men’s 100-meter track vs. qualitative analysis of team sports. He uses competition results to map performance against the rest of the world and consistency of judges’ scores to track self-progress. He sometimes says no when something hasn’t engaged him, listens, and then says yes.
Friends describe him as inquisitive, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, totally committed, ethical, straightforward, connected, passion-driven, confident, humble, modest, trust-building, and a pleasure to work with. He looks at everything in a very positive and engaging way and is very good at public speaking and promoting.
“He’s very much a star. You could just sit and listen to him all day.”
- Steve Roknic, General Manager of Sydney Sports Incubator
He’s aware of his own strengths and weaknesses and is open to having others contribute. He seeks to work himself out of a job and have his staff take over. Highly personable, he puts people at ease and deeply listens.
Kenneth created a unique collection of skills and ideas in sports, mathematics, and the sciences, including Coaching, Physics, Physiology, Biochemistry, and Biomechanics. He continually collects ideas and inputs from different sports, fields, countries, perspectives, trends, research, and people.
Having collected all these ideas and inputs, he connects them. Having collected a broad, multidisciplinary network, he receives ideas and help — freely giving, too.
Having developed a unique outlook on the world, he sees what others don’t. When asked what advice he would give someone who wants to create as he has done, he says,
“Honestly, I wouldn’t give such advice. I’m just me.”
Can we learn from what is, at first glance, unique? We can, if we can collect examples (e.g. sport training plans — or even the Fusioneers!), look for patterns, and understand more deeply, generating insights to apply elsewhere. Kenneth does it in sports, and we can all do it in life.
The year is now.
The city: here.
The event: your life.
The athlete: You.
What do you collect?
What would you like to?
Where will you go to see from a different perspective?
What will you see, that others don’t?
And the judges say….
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Dr. Kenneth Graham is the Principal Scientist at the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) and Adjunct Faculty at both the University of Sydney and Western Sydney University. He is “from” Australia and the UK (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on his work, see : LinkedIn, NSWIS, and the Sydney Sports Incubator. To see Matt Mitcham’s dive, just view the “Top 3 Olympic 10M Platform Diving Scores Ever” video on YouTube.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you’re all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you’re the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Dr. Kenneth Graham, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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