Risk Part 2: Creative Risk Assessment

Risk is assessed by likelihood and impact. For example, if a spiker contacts the ball high and aims deep in the court, the likelihood of getting blocked is low and the impact (at worst, the ball stays in play) is relatively low. It’s low risk. At this point it gets interesting. As an IT Project Manager, I’m required to document risk all the time. A lot of it is guesswork as the variables are always changing (technology, budget, scale, scope, organisation, complexity etc). In sport, there is more consistency in the data and likelihood and impact can be more accurately – you have hundreds of games played by the same rules to look through.

Fans don’t often understand or appreciate the role risk plays in a team’s philosophy. Italian Soccer teams were often criticised for playing too defensively in the Catenaccio style. In Soccer Against the Enemy, author Simon Kuper spends a day with Helenio Herrera, the coach credited with popularising the tactic, who vigorously defends that the principle was always to counter attack in situations of advantage. In essence it was a low-risk/high-reward tactic. Perhaps fans just prefer to see a team attack in more than just the advantageous situations that present themselves in a standard soccer match. Playing low-risk/high-reward isn’t necessarily easier than playing high-risk. It demands having a strong defence that can create opportunities to score points while stopping the other team from doing so. Strong defence requires organisation, coordination, skill, discipline, trust, unselfishness and the mindset to do the right thing instead of just being seen to do the right thing.

In business, risk-taking tendencies are often associated with entrepreneurship. In his New Yorker article The Sure Thing, Malcolm Gladwell presents an alternative view of entrepreneurs as having more “predatory” instincts. Predators aren’t risk-takers, but rather attack in a low risk situation when they are at an advantage. The successful entrepreneurs profiled in the article often found a market anomaly, which presented a low-risk/high-reward situation that their competitors failed to recognise, and exploited it until it closed. Often this opportunity isn’t obvious because it presents a high “personal risk” that exposes people to some sort of embarrassment but a low “professional risk”. For example IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s decision to get his furniture manufactured in communist Poland in the 1960s presented a small professional risk but a high personal risk in terms of public opinion. Thinking about it in this light, there’s certainly a predatory mindset in playing Catenaccio.

Like business, competitive advantages can be gained in sport by finding different ways of assessing and managing risk. For example, it’s assumed that a block is exposed to the most risk if there are gaps between the blockers and their hands. I was surprised to learn at a setting seminar that some short Italian setters used the tactic of blocking wide with their hand next to the antenna, even if it left a large gap. The spiker, trying to exploit the shorter block had a greater chance of hitting the antenna, and otherwise the short setters could  manage to get 1 or 2 positive touches a game. What looked like a High-Risk/Low Reward tactic was actually Low-Risk/Moderate-Reward.

Other than being adapted into a movie that Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for, Michael Lewis’s book The Blind Side documents the evolution of American Football from a running oriented game to a passing oriented game, and the corresponding rise in the perceived value and salaries of Quarterbacks and Left Tackles. Before the 80s, throwing the ball was considered to be high-risk. It was Don Coryell and later Bill Walsh who designed a way to make passing low-risk/high-reward by making short passes that stretched the defence.

Sometimes playing higher risk can bring success. I was surprised to also learn at the setting seminar that the 8 top teams at the 2002 Men’s World Championships included the 2 teams that made the least errors as well as the 2 teams that made the most errors. I heard one retired professional player recently say that he’s heard coaches in teams tell a jump server to aim for 2 errors for every ace to get them serving more aggressively (it’s usually aimed at servers who are consistent who err on the side of conservative). In Coaching Confidential: Inside the Fraternity of NFL Coaches Giants Quarterback Phil Simms recounts an instruction from coach Bill Parcells, “If you don’t throw at least two interceptions today, you’re not taking enough chances. Take some Chances now.” Maybe they’re playing higher risk. Or maybe it’s a calculated risk and they’ve found a creative way to manage the game.

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2 Responses to “Risk Part 2: Creative Risk Assessment”

  1. Brendan Says:

    I like the theme Hugh. I’m currently coaching some 14-16 yo girls to jump serve (for some its the only serve they have been trained in doing) and I cant wait to see how most will transfer the skill from training matches into games. Some will try it, some wont know any better and get mixed success an some will struggle with the thoughts they might not suceed, and others will absolutely shine. As a coach its exciting and motivating to see what the outcome of implementing ‘high risk’ (percieved high risk) methods are going to be.

  2. Hugh Nguyen Says:

    That sounds pretty exciting! Also, it can only make your service reception stronger too. I recall at a AVF level 2 coaching course being presented with some data that shows that the world’s best jump servers in beach volleyball didn’t have a higher error rate than the best standing servers.

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