Craig Pickering’s top reads of 2020

At the end of each year, I like to do a round-up of the books I read over the preceding 12 months, as it often serves to remind me of some key ideas and concepts. In 2019, I read 50 books, and in 2018 it was 59; this year it was 56. Here’s the list of what I enjoyed the most or found the most useful; hopefully it’ll provide some good recommendations for you to get stuck into in 2021.

The top 5

  1. The best book I read in 2020 was Paul Gamble’s Prepared: Unlocking Human Performance with Lessons from Elite Sport. Often books come along and match up to something that is going on in your personal or professional life; I read Gamble’s book just as I was doing a lot of thinking and work around what high performance and high performance coaching is. In Prepared, Gamble explores four key themes around developing humans towards their potential; optimizing the environment; leading and coaching others; contemporary lessons from elite coaches; and managing the self. So often we look at coaching through the lens of technical knowledge, whilst Gamble forces us to think wider and deeper.
  2. Second on the list is Game Changers: How a Team of Underdogs and Scientists Discovered What it Takes to Win by Joao Madeiros. Similar to The Talent Lab, which was one of my top-3 books last year, Game Changers takes us through the story of how sport science developed in the UK, from a few renegades at Liverpool John Moores University to the development of the English Institute of Sport, and the UKs Olympic success in 2012 and 2016. The book uses mini-stories that comprise separate chapters, with a common theme throughout. If you’re looking for ways that you can apply innovation to how you support and develop athletes, this book will get your brain churning.
  3. Third is The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Lose Their Way by Ryan Baldi. I wrote about this book in-depth here, but it’s a brilliant examination of the multitude of reasons “talented” youngsters don’t develop into world class performers, told through the lens of football but with lessons to all sports.
  4. Fourth is One of Us, by Asne Seierstad, which tells the story of Anders Breivik and the 2011 Norwegian terror attacks. The book is exceptionally well-researched and written, and I’d recommend it just for the narrative, but for me there are also some key messages. Firstly, success or failure often hinges of a knife-edge; small things that happened on that day and in the run-up both allowed the attack to occur, and also prevented it from being much worse—a great reminder of the importance of small decisions, and the role of luck in every major event. The second is that everyone experiences these events in a different way, from a different perspective, and this is important to keep in mind when we’re trying to analyze what happened after the fact.
  5. Fifth is two books (I’m cheating), Soldier Spy and I Spy, from Tom Marcus, the pseudonym given to a former solder who then worked for MI5, tracking terrorists and enemies of the state across the UK. The books are engrossing, and they’re a great example of how obsession can take over your life. Through the very nature of his operations, Marcus had to be a meticulous planner, whilst also maintaining an ability to be flexible during a complex, fast-moving operation, making smart decisions and staying cool under pressure. All of this takes a toll on Marcus, who develops PTSD and struggles to continue to perform – a great reminder to us all of the negative consequences of continued stress and pressure.

Thinking

  • Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking (Matthew Syed) – this book is a great overview of diversity, and how differences of opinion, thought, and experience are crucial within organisations to support effective decision making.
  • Good Strategy / Bad Strategy (Richard Rumelt) – I got quite interested in the strategic process in 2020, mostly through the prism of athlete development; how can we use strategic principles to better develop sportspeople? I wrote about this in depth here and here, but Good Strategy / Bad Strategy is a very cynical take on the strategic process as it plays out in many businesses. Essentially, in a good strategy, one or two critical issues are identified, and then the whole process concentrates on bridging the gap that exists in those areeas. Bad strategy, on the other hand, tries to be all things to all people, and mistakes goals—where we want to get to—with strategy, which covers how we get there. The parallels to sport are obvious, and, as a result, it’s a very useful read.
  • The Personal MBA (Josh Kaufman) – I know it’s a tired analogy, but I’ve really enjoyed attempting to draw parallels between sport and business the year. The Personal MBA is a great introduction to business principles, and the sections on inter-personal communication and systems thinking are highly applicable for coaches.
  • Learn to Think in Systems (Albert Rutherford) – I’ve started to try and develop my “systems thinking” ability, as it’s a useful way of a) seeing how things interact, and b) discovering where any intervention may have the largest effect. This book is a useful introduction to the concept of systems thinking; you might wish to pair it with The Fifth Discipline, which I’m currently reading, or The Personal MBA.

Sport

  • There Is an I in Team (Mark de Rond) – an interesting perspective on how to manage and support high performance teams; when compared to some of the prevailing myths, it makes for a refreshing and stimulating read, and doesn’t shy away from the problems that tend to be present when performing at the highest level. Pair with Doctors at War, which is de Rond’s memoir of when he was embedded in a military field hospital in Afghanistan, where he examined the performance of the surgical team—a high performance team from a difference domain.
  • Heroes, Villains, & Velodromes (Richard Moore) – This book is ostensibly about Sir Chris Hoy, six-time Olympic Champion, and his career. It provides a great insight into the mindset of success, and how a champion bounces back from failure and disappointment, including missing the 250m World Record, and Hoy’s main event being dropped from the Olympic program. In the background is the story of how British Cycling went from also-rans to world dominance; this story has been told elsewhere, and it’s lost some of its sheen with recent scandals, but it’s still really interesting.
  • Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? (Ben Hunt-Davis) – I read this back in 2013, and revisited it earlier this year. It’s a great example of focusing on what is important and cultivating a high performance mindset, and would be a great read for athletes early in their career.
  • Alex Ferguson’s autobiographies My Autobiography and Managing my Life – Alex Ferguson was the manager of Manchester United from 1986-2013, the most successful period in the club’s history. Ferguson took United from mid-table to global giants, and both of these books tell the story behind this journey.

Other

  • The Fifth Risk (Michael Lewis) – Lewis is an exceptional storyteller, so I’d recommend reading everything he writes. This book is no different; it’s an examination of some of the less “sexy” arms of US government, and the important but uncelebrated (and unexpected) role they play in society. So uncelebrated and unexpected are these roles that the Trump administration largely ignored them—in many cases exposing the US to substantial risk, as Lewis explains.
  • Knowledge Management: A Theoretical and Practical Guide (Emil Hajric) – organizations often employ good people who do exceptional work, but don’t take steps to retain and recycle the knowledge of these experienced high performers.  Similar to systems thinking, I’m trying to read more about the principles of knowledge management, and how organizations can better “learn”. This book is an accessible introduction to the topic, with implications for how sporting teams and organizations retain their knowledge and hard-won lessons.
  • The Program: Lessons from Elite Military Units for Creating and Sustaining High Performance Leaders and Teams (Eric Kapitulik) – this book, authored by two former US Marines, provides an outline of a leadership development framework they have put together for various clients, including sports teams. As a coach, you are leader of your team, and so spending some time upskilling in this area would no doubt be worthwhile.

I’m always on the look-out for more reading recommendations, so if there is a book you’ve found particularly useful or insightful, please let me know.