The most undervalued sporting attribute?
I often get asked what is the hardest attribute to teach a new sporting audience.
In my case, I’m regularly teaching rugby league to Latin Americans, translating a largely Anglicised game with 120-plus years’ history to predominantly Spanish and Portuguese-speaking audiences where the sport is in its infancy.
If you break down performance components for most contact sports you have a list that usually includes size, speed, agility, power, stamina and toughness (or mental durability).
The inclination of most pundits is to theorise that size would be the attribute most lacking with Latin Americans.
Certainly, several Latino nations – namely Bolivia and Peru – are regularly featured on lists detailing the world’s shortest populations.
Yet, after seven years working on this project, my belief has solidified that the hardest attribute of all to impart is timing.
Yes, that’s right, it’s an attribute that doesn’t involve lifting weights or running laps at all.
And perhaps that is why timing has such an ambiguous and mysterious quality.
Stepping back after my interactions with Latin America, I realise that in my last few years playing in Australia that timing is something I also noticed as an underdeveloped quality with those considered ‘native’ to the sport.
So much of our focus in contact sports is centred on how much momentum you can build by increasing acceleration, strength and power.
But the truth is that these easily-quantified improvements are often miniscule and time-consuming.
You can spend years incrementally improving your 40m sprint time, your bench press or squat.
However, across a whole range of sports you still might be beaten in a decisive moment by somebody who has impeccable timing.
Having a feel for how the play will unfold, anticipating the tiniest changes in pace and distance, when the ball will sit up, or how long it will take you to bridge a defensive gap are all highly refined skills.
I could as easily be talking about tennis or cricket or basketball or volleyball here.
The longer you play a game, you realise being the first person to the ball – in the fastest time possible – is not always advantageous, although it certainly is in a lot of cases.
There are occasions when trailing the action by several seconds as a support runner is going to allow you to score, or taking measured steps to the ball will allow you to get a better read on the situation.
Alternatively, zooming straight into the action might see you cut down as soon as you receive a pass or force you into taking an unwise option.
But rarely do we ever train for the former, in comparison to the latter.
As coaches and athletes we become obsessed by the firm and fast at the expense of a 360-degree view.
If we step right away from the ‘power play’ philosophy and become more abstract in our thought, a sports field is a dimension where time and space are constantly changing.
What is a scoring opportunity one second can become a dead-end road the next second. What is a beautiful pass or run at one point, can later be interpreted as a wasted endeavour with the smallest alterations in variables.
Vice-versa, what seems a terrible option can become a trump card in the blink of an eye.
It truly is a case of sliding doors.
Where this becomes even more interesting in the modern sporting ecosystem is when you consider the association between timing and the predictability of game plans and player behaviour.
Athletes have grown stronger and faster with every generation, but arguably also more predictable as development systems have become more rigid and video resources allow better opposition scouting.
Timing intersects closely with predictability, as being at the right place and time comes largely from learned anticipation.
If you consider manoeuvres like a goose-step, slower ball or a jab fake, they were previously designed to disrupt the senses of anticipation, distance, speed and time.
That was until they became more widely used and opponents adapted to include them in their scope of anticipated scenarios.
The next time you watch a sport, keep an eye out for scoring opportunities that inadvertently come about from what are initially mistakes.
An attacking player losing his footing and slipping over while in possession can sometimes disrupt the defence more, should they over-read the play and mistime their tackle.
I was in attendance at a game very recently where a player was running at speed for the corner to score a game-deciding try, but was neck-and-neck with the cover defence.
In an unpredictable outcome, the attacker stumbled awkwardly on a tuft of grass and thus deviated noticeably in his body positioning and speed.
It was entirely unplanned and accidental, but it completely bamboozled the defenders and gave the attacker a narrow window to plunge over the line.
Other times you will see a wayward pass end up with an irregular kicker, who launches the ball in such a way that conventional coaching cannot nullify it.
And how many ‘play of the year’ contenders do we see that feature an unexpected deflection, a dropped ball or something else completely out-of-the-box that affects timing and anticipation?
In this aspect it could be argued that developing a sense of timing is just as vital at the elite level of the game as it is at the grassroots.
The difference is that, when teaching under-8s or instructing a Bolivian rookie, the timing focus might be all about hitting the advantage line or passing behind the body.
At the professional level, it’s about tipping that on its head and preparing to play in a way that breaks rhythm, defies norms and creates spaces that previously weren’t there.
Whatever you do, don’t disregard timing when considering the attributes of your team – or underestimate how hard it is to teach.
Have you thought about how you can instruct your team on the benefits of timing and anticipation?
Coach’s Companion has competency tests and appraisal techniques coming soon to assist you take advantage of this x-factor.
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