Wednesday, December 18, 2013



In his bestselling book “The Signal and the Noise” author Nate Silver tells of two types of mindsets, the Hedgehog and the Fox.

A Hedgehog mindset is the type of person who has formulated a theory but when a situation arises that either can’t be explained by the theory or the theory doesn’t work for that particular situation, they call it a “one-off”, an anomaly and disregard the situation as being outside their control.

The world champion All Black rugby team were Hedgehogs. Being the best team in the world for over 100 years meant that they were favorites every four years when the Rugby World Cup would come around. But after winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987 the All Blacks were beaten in each of the following World Cups for a variety of reasons. Often losses could be attributed to situations that were almost impossible to prepare for ahead of time such as injury to key players and errors of human judgement at critical times.

The All Blacks disregarded those losses as anomalies and as results that could not be avoided. Their mindset was probably something like “Our current preparations for matches have us ranked number 1 in the world. How can we prepare for outside-the-box situations that occur infrequently and so randomly”? This is classic Hedgehog thinking.

A Fox however looks at anomalies and the “one-off” situations differently. Fox’s say “If it happens, then I must prepare for it” and they tweak their theories constantly whenever a loss outside the boundaries of their current knowledge occurs.

Several years ago the All Blacks began to think like Foxes and looked at the “outside-the-box” situations that cost them the World Cup and they came up with several reasons for their losses.

The first was that in the dying moments of matches sometimes wrong decisions were being made. If the decision maker in the team was on the wrong side of the field at the most important moment, decisions were being made by players who were not experienced at making those types of decisions. Chances to snatch victory in the last few moments were sometimes not taken because of poor decisions and lack of leadership experience across the field.

The All Blacks now have 5 senior leaders or captains throughout the team who are empowered to make crucial decisions during matches.

Another anomaly was if the All Blacks were sometimes left to finish several matches of a World Cup campaign without their first choice player in a particular position on the team due to injury. They would sometimes need their 3rd choice players to play the most important matches near the end of the World Cup and those players were often in key positions within the team.

The All Blacks have worked hard over the past few years to have 3rd and sometimes 4th choice back-up players who can fit-in seamlessly in the most intense matches and without the team momentum suffering one bit.

The All Blacks have become perfect Fox’s and have gone from being a very good team to an exceptional team. They are now winning matches in the dying minutes of a game and often with substitute 3rd and 4th choice players who don’t just make up the numbers, but contribute immensely to the cause.

Tennis coaches and players need to adopt the Fox mentality. Look at your perceptions of the problems and weaknesses in your game and see if you are not over-looking these problems and weaknesses by saying they are outside-the-box and therefore occur so infrequently that it’s not worth the time and effort to work on it. Try to identify anything in your game that sometimes hurts your performance and see if it can’t be addressed in training and eradicated or strengthened.

An example would be to imagine that the problem is a faulty serve when under pressure in a match. Most of the time you hit a great serve, dominate your opponents who are lower ranked but inexplicably the serve fails you in pressure situations against higher ranked players. The Hedgehog says “My serve is fine most of the time and I just hope it goes well again today”, but the fox looks at why the serve fails at these infrequent but important times during the year and works on eliminating the problem. The Fox doesn’t care if this particular problem only comes once in 20 matches, a Fox wants to fix it! 

It could be that the serve simply gets tight during a match under the constant pressure of someone ranked higher. A Fox will go through all the possibilities until the problem has been solved, while the Hedgehog will continue looking at the wins and disregard the rare losses.

As players rankings improve they sometimes feel that they have the full package to become great players. Many top players believe that winning is about executing their game at the right level and the win will come. This is only partly true. This is a Hedgehog mentality.

It’s important for players and coaches alike to continually question themselves anytime they experience a loss, because only in this way can both the player and coach continue to get better.