It's the mantra of the USA Track and Field team. And we like it. In fact, we’ve made it our business to pursue technologies that foster coach-driven, athlete-centered success. But what does that look like in practice?
It looks like three-time US Olympic swimmer Nathan Adrian working with BMW engineering to capture high-speed video of his dolphin kick. A cadre of coaches digested the data, giving Adrian a nuanced analysis of his form and precise technical adjustments. The result? We’ll let his two gold and two bronze medals at Rio 2016 speak for themselves.
To create the best imaginable coaching experience we must embrace the best practices of the best imaginable coaches. It’s these coaches and their lessons that have made us better at making people better. Yet as technologists in pursuit of perfect practice, we also seek to bring the science and engineering that’s in our DNA, into what we do.
It’s a brave new world out here. Technology and textile are seamlessly colliding, data collected thousands of times a second facilitates tiny adjustments that inspire huge changes. Keyboards have disappeared, screens have shrunk. The digital world no longer imposes on us how we interact with it, rather we impose on it. We ask that it watch how we move, listen to what we say and reply to us intelligently.
We’re harnessing advances in technology to advance practice and performance in sport. Exciting doesn’t even cover it.
"The ability to see things is key. Or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United Football Club, came to see observation as a critical skill in his management toolbox. In the words of one of our coaching colleagues, former Irish Karate champion, Ger O’Dea, the difference between good and great lies in whether a coach “Has the eyes".
If you don’t see it, you can’t fix it.
Today’s coaches have at their disposal the highly attuned eyes of high-speed motion capture. US track coach Dennis Shaver called on Red Bull Project X to observe, in minute detail, the form of his athlete Lolo Jones. The data, layered with information including her stride length, cadence and contact time with the ground, and seen through the lens of Shaver's experience and understanding of the sport, came alive. Lolo shaved one hundredth of a second off her start time. She qualified for the London 2012 Olympics by the same one hundredth.
And she’s not the only one.
The US Olympic committee employed motion capture to help elite weightlifter Jackie Berube adjust her technique and complete her lifts despite poor range of motion in her elbow.
The Australian skeleton team used motion capture to reduce the number of high-risk runs an athlete required to reach a qualifying time from the typical 2,000 to only 220 runs.
We live in a world where the tiniest of tweaks can reap the deepest rewards.
Whether correcting an athletic stride, a skeleton run, a golf swing or a dolphin kick, technology has the ability to, as Shaver says, "Take all the guesswork out".
Yet it's a wizardry reserved for the superstars of sport.
Our hardware guys are experts in low-power and wearable electronics that perform at the interface of the real and digital worlds. Discrete sensors tucked into textile accurately report on the quality and correctness of an athlete’s posture and movement.
We call it kinetic capture.
However, kinetic capture doesn’t just look at an athlete, it understands the athlete on behalf of the coach. As the Red Bull team passes insights to Coach Shaver that he can coach into Lolo's form, asensei works with coaches on our platform to understand what they would do under specific conditions, then delivers their coaching on their behalf.
asensei gives coaches the eyes.
Digital textiles. Wireless charging. Flexible electronics. Sensor fusion. It's our continuing mission to miniaturize and improve asensei's ability to tell a coach exactly what she can see, so they can focus on telling the athlete what to do about it. It’s how the coach and asensei work together to consistently optimize the movements, technique and training of any athlete.
“Performance by the aggregation of marginal gains”
Sir David Brailsford, Performance Director for Team Great Britain Cycling, has become famous for it: “If you break down everything that can impact performance, then improve every little thing by 1 per cent, you’re going to get a significant increase in performance.”
He believed that if this strategy was followed, Team Sky – Great Britain’s professional cycling team – could do what they'd never done before: win the Tour de France within five years. He was wrong.
They won it in three.
Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012. The same year, Brailsford's Team GB dominated the London 2012 Olympics, winning 70 per cent of the available cycling medals. Chris Froome went on to win the Tour de France in 2013 for Team Sky. And again in 2015. 2016 also.
The aggregation of marginal gains has driven one of the most successful runs in modern cycling history.
Brailsford didn’t just look for marginal gains during practice; he looked for gains that would ensure his athletes showed up for practice at their best. The most comfortable pillows. The most effective massage gel. The optimum way for athletes to wash their hands to avoid infection and illness.
It might seem overwrought. It's not.
Systemize the little things and you can make a big difference.
Lolo Jones: “I’m just trying to get down a little sooner over every hurdle, maybe an inch closer on each one. Over the course of 10 hurdles, that’s 10 inches, and when you’re winning or losing by hundredths of seconds, that’s a lot.”
Team GB Director of Sport, and Rugby World Cup-winning England coach, Sir Clive Woodward calls these little inch-makers, “critical non-essentials”.
"I was first introduced to Sir Clive Woodward’s ideas through [asensei co-founder] Bill, and rapidly applied to them to the coaching of my own karate squad at University of Edinburgh. My players fought from the center of the mat to conserve energy and used an adjusted fighting stance to move the scoring hand closer to the opponent. They also took two uniforms to competition – a lightweight one for sparring and a heavyweight jacket for kata, and wore gum shields during warmup to learn to breathe heavily in them. We'll never truly quantify the exact marginal gains that critical non-essentials like these contributed to the first 10 national championships my team won, on their current 18 consecutive year run. But no-one else was doing them. And no-one else was beating us.”
Cycling. Karate. Running. Rugby. Rowing. There's no sport, no situation, in which critical non-essentials can't be applied.
Former Team GB, London 2012 Olympic rowing team member and asensei coach Cameron Nichol insists that, “The correct posture at the finish can allow you to pull one more inch of chain out the erg per stroke. Since 2,000m might be around 200 strokes, that’s making the race almost five meters shorter just by hitting consistent form. Good form is free speed.”
Helping the coach find and unlock their athlete’s next most important marginal gain – before, during practice and after practice – is a critical role for asensei, and one we’re excited about evolving.
When she first learns a sport, asensei is taught a portfolio of marginal gains, as well as an understanding of how important each gain is to each athlete at each level of ability. She tracks each of these individual measures hundreds of times a second, while also observing how these metrics matter over much longer durations of time.
As the competence and performance of an athlete is objectively measured, asensei gains an ever deeper understanding of where the next marginal gain is. She knows exactly how the coach would deliver it, cueing up relevant video or audio. And the more athletes she coaches, the greater her ability to see patterns becomes.
COACH THE INDIVIDUAL
Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers team that won three Super Bowls, spoke to Harvard Business Review about two of his most famous quarterbacks, the legends Joe Montana and Steve Young:
"Early on, we had to encourage Joe to trust his spontaneous instincts. We were careful not to criticize him when he used his creative abilities and things did not work out. Instead, we nurtured him to use his instincts. We had to allow him to be wrong on occasion and to live with it. In the case of quarterback Steve Young, it was almost the opposite. We had to work with him to be disciplined enough to live within the strict framework of what we were doing. Steve is a great spontaneous athlete and a terrific runner. But we found that we had to reduce the number of times he would use his instincts and increase his willingness to stay within the confines of the team concept.”
Montana and Young were different athletes on different ends of the spectrum. They needed to be coached accordingly, and Walsh knew that.
"I had a similar experience coaching at University of Edinburgh Karate Club. Though I had a strict syllabus of learning for the grades of white belt to brown belt, I had no such syllabus for black belt. I had to make one up so that the governing body would ratify my award of grades. But when I coached students to black belt, each one of them worked to a different syllabus and sat a different test. One athlete was tested on her practical self-defense, despite her forte as a fearsome competitor. Another exhibited strength and fortitude the likes of which I had never seen in repeating the same technique for almost an hour in his test. Another put a strong emphasis on close range grappling and ground work."
A true coach leans on their instincts and insights to nurture the individual inside each athlete, to decide which strengths to build on, which weaknesses to forgive. It’s a skill that emerges with the experience of watching and coaching and nurturing a diversity of athletes, learning what works for one athlete and what works for another.
Yet data is changing everything.
By segmenting audiences, then testing different ads or offers on those segments and recording responses, the marketing and advertising industry has been able to increasingly refine the way it sells. Ultimately, sales success could come to rest on switching out an image or the wording in an ad.
As we apply the same techniques of audience segmentation, cohort analysis, multivariate testing and predictive analytics, asensei will be able to deliver increasingly relevant coaching.
Somewhat paradoxically, the more athletes asensei coaches, the more information she gathers about practice and performance, the more she is able to predict with precision whether one approach or another will improve an athlete’s performance. And the more individual and effective her coaching becomes.
FIND THE RIGHT WORDS
Trust. Rapport. Empathy. It takes hundreds, maybe thousands, of training sessions to establish between an athlete and their coach. It's organic. And it's the key to effective feedback. Knowing which cues to withhold, which to deliver, and how to deliver them in a way that genuinely lands with the athlete, is one of the true coaching arts.
And it's one asensei knows. Because asensei gets to know you.
Several years ago, Steven was working closely in the area of personal assistants in an innovation group he started at Microsoft, while Bill had taken his previous speech recognition company from the spare room in his house in the early 1990s to a public company in 2009. Their conviction that asensei could go beyond the realms of AI, into personal AI, was unorthodox, controversial even.
Not so now. Intelligent assistance is mainstream. Yet much of the focus is on accurately recognizing and interpreting what the user has said.
In a sports coaching context, however, the challenge is different. The more important dialogue is that from the coach to the user – the athlete.
We firmly believe that ongoing development in speech generation, speech recognition and conversational understanding will underpin an asensei experience that moves rapidly towards authentic conversations between athlete and coach. Conversations on which genuine rapport is built.
Words are powerful tools, and knowing what to say, when to say it and how to say it in a way that resonates with the athlete and anchors it in their psyche, is the asensei way.
Our industry partners are heavily invested in improving speech recognition, in being able to extract meaning and intent from conversations and in synthesizing ever more realistic voices for personal AI such as asensei to respond with. Voice synthesizing has traditionally been a laborious endeavor, however advances in the approach allow a voice coach to speak only a few hundred lines of text, for a machine to then be able to speak and sound exactly as they do.
For asensei, embracing these advances means the coaches she studies under can speak directly to the athletes she is responsible for. But knowing what to say? That’s something asensei learns from coaches themselves, and where she truly finds her voice.
Watch this video of Charl Schwartzel coaching you on how to improve your golf swing with a long iron. We’ll be here when you get back.
Charles gave you five different tips for your long iron. Can you remember them all right now? What about in a few hours when you’re three below par on the fourth hole?
See our point?
Video is invaluable for studying opponents, learning their strategy, observing their techniques, spotting their “tells” and uncovering weaknesses. But to improve your own technique? Not so much.
Learning effectively from watching a video is backwards thinking. In order to improve, someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing does not need to watch a person who does know what they’re doing. Rather, people who know what they’re doing should be watching those who don’t.
We believe in helping the coach watch the athlete, not the other way around. And certainly not in asking athletes to watch themselves.
Kinetic capture allows asensei to watch your every move – to deliver audio cues when you know what you should be doing, and brief, relevant and focused video lessons when you don’t. She addresses exactly what you’re working on while you’re working on it, so you can focus solely on your practice.
“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.”
In another of our all time favorite sporting quotes, Michael Jordan reminds us what so many athletes forget: that for practice to make perfect, the practice must be perfect – a sentiment shared by legendary basketball coach John Wooden.
Wooden didn’t value scrimmage – simulated games – the way other coaches did. Instead, he considered maximizing teaching and learning through drills to be the key factor in his teams’ success. Wooden recognized what we too believe: that, while fun and easy to prescribe, scrimmage can lead to practice without a clear objective. To accelerate learning, the majority of practice must be structured around the individual.
Drills = skills
Unlike technologies designed to instrument, measure and monitor the scrimmage, or even the game itself, we believe that the greatest opportunity to make a positive impact on the quality and effectiveness of coaching is to put technology in service to perfect practice.
We’ve observed coaches who consider themselves intuitive in scheduling. They show up to practice, see who’s there, assess the mood and construct their session on the fly. At the other extreme are the coaches who work to a meticulous spreadsheet of their program, complete with to-the-minute instructions on coaching for the next month, next semester, next year.
The excellence that we seek to model is the unoccupied space in the middle – the coach with long-term vision as well as the ability to adapt practice around the athlete and their progress towards goals. By working with coaches to capture the programs that give them a long-term view as well as the eyes and intuition to coach in the moment, we believe that asensei can turn every coach from good to great.
Like Coach Wooden, we believe that practice time is too precious to waste. It has to be perfect. And perfect practice demands a clear purpose, which both the athlete and coach are committed to. It demands successful preparation for practice, mindfulness and attention during practice, and constant adjustment of further practice towards measurable goals.
To borrow another of our favorite quotes, this time from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is a habit.” asensei fosters excellence by watching and understanding and refining an athlete’s habits. By supporting them in practicing the perfect way, every day.
Futurist and Stanford Consulting Professor Paul Saffo, said, “Never mistake a clear line of sight for a short distance”.
With asensei dawns a new era – the era of connected coaching. We can predict how this era will unfold, but, like any sporting endeavor worth dedicating one’s heart and soul to, it’s a journey. While there have been – and will continue to be – many accomplishments in this race, it is one without a finish line.
Just as Coach Ramey of USA Track and Field describes, we are science-based, coach-driven and athlete centered. It starts with enhancing how we watch athletes in practice, every practice.
We are motivated to miss nothing, and improve everything – to discretely put technology in service to revealing the same marginal gains that coaches like Sir David Brailsford and Sir Clive Woodward have found for generations of athletes under their tutelage.
Just as Bill Walsh coached Joe Montana, we believe that technology should enhance the relationship between every athlete and every coach. When we coach the individual, when we use the right words, when we fast forward beyond video, we believe that technology finds it’s rightful and most effective place – enhancing the empathy, rapport and trust between athlete and coach, not displacing it.
What distinguishes us from the technologies that count and clap, cheer and quantify, or deliver analytics and statistics that can be reviewed alongside video post-performance, is that we care passionately about practice. We aspire to perfect practice, and we are in service to the coaches, the athletes, the equipment providers, the teams, leagues and governing bodies who share our vision and aspiration with us.
With a few simple words, Bill Bowerman, legendary co-founder of Nike, transforms sport into something not just for them. But for us. All of us.
To put on a pair of Nikes – or any brand’s apparel for that matter – is to meet your inner athlete. I can, very literally, walk in my sporting hero’s shoes. I may not yet be training like them, but I can show up for training like them. Jonny Wilkinson’s laser focus, Steph Curry’s out-the-box thinking, Andy Murray’s dogged determination – those qualities can be my qualities.
Yet something isn’t quite right. Bowerman speaks to our potential – our in-built, unlimited potential as humans. But what about process?
A body isn’t enough.
These athletes have something others don’t. Something that sets their practice apart. Something that really gives them their game.
The humility inherent in Bowerman's omission reflects that of the profession itself. Coaches, athletes’ ever humble servants, have no seat in the boat, no number on the field, no position atop the podium and, it seems, no place in mission statements.
Yet it’s the coach who turns a body into an athlete. It’s the coach who goes in search of the next marginal gain. And it’s the coach who steps back to let their athletes take the glory.
It’s Bowerman shaving ounce after ounce off his athletes’ shoes so they might shave millisecond after millisecond off their times.
It’s Sir Alex Ferguson taking his ‘fledglings’ – Giggs, Beckham, Rooney, Sharpe, Scholes and countless others – on to win the English League and Cup Double.
It’s Sir Clive Woodward’s unique outlook on building teams and the way he applied what he learned in life to winning at sport; what he learned in winning at sport, to life.
And it was me, inspired by these coaches to challenge orthodoxy, to nurture talent at all levels, to embrace sports psychology, human behavior, NLP and accelerated learning; to deliver the first decade of 18 years unbroken and unbeatable excellence in university karate.
In declaring bodies, athletes, Bowerman left his own value, and the value of the incredible coaches who followed him, out of the equation.
We’re putting it back in.
BODY + COACH = ATHLETE
All of us at asensei have experienced, first hand, the coach who pushed us beyond our self-imposed limits, who believed in us (before we did), who nurtured us (but not too much), who challenged us (but not unreasonably).
We also know what it is to coach. I can’t even articulate the depth of what I mean when I say, “the rewards of coaching”. They can only be experienced. But it’s because of those rewards that I’m daring to discover how technology can scale coaching and help more people unlock their athletic potential. Unlock their human potential.
"Sensei” means “one who has gone before”. Literally, someone further along in the journey you have undertaken. But there's more. There is, inherent in a sensei, a sense of obligation – not only to the next generation of athletes, but to the last; to the knowledge, support and opportunities that were gifted to us, and which it is our duty to pass on.
asensei reflects our aim to help introduce more athletes to more coaches, to help more coaches inspire and educate more athletes, and to enable an ever greater transfer of knowledge between them.
In removing the hurdles between coach and athlete we’re opening the door to a new era.
The era of connected coaching.
The inspiration for asensei, reality of her creation and our vision for the coaches and athletes she’s bringing together is laid out here.
Whether you're a coach or an athlete; whether you're teaching us or we're teaching you, we hope to travel some of this journey together.