Craig Pickering’s top reads of 2021

On a personal level, 2021 was a big year for me, as I became a father. Anyone who has had a baby will know there isn’t much time (or energy) for doing much else aside from working, looking after them, and recovering. For me, this was a double-edged sword; it meant I didn’t have the time or energy to read quite as much as before, but, from a positive side, I became much, much better at giving up on a book, or skipping sections that weren’t interesting to me. Whereas before I might have preserved, now I discard.

As a result, I “read”, in some form or other, fifty books this year—comparable to other years, but with a lot of these only being read in part. Out of those books, I would strongly recommend 12 of these. Therefore, in no particular order, let’s take a closer look at my favorite reads of the year:

  • Winners: And How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell – this book is an overview of key behaviors Campbell noticed from the various winners he has interviewed. The provides some key principles around strategy, leadership, and teamship—Campbell’s Holy Trinity—along with an understanding of how to effectively utilize data, mindset, resilience, and crisis management.
  • The Five Steps to a Winning Mindset by Damian Hughes – In this book, Professor Hughes, an organizational psychologist and cohost of the High Performance Podcast, outlines his five STEPS to a winning mindset; Simplicity (the essential core of our culture), Thinking (getting people interested in our ideas), Emotions (getting people to care), Practical (making our ideas clear), and Stories (getting people to act). Hughes has extensive experience in elite sport, making a lot of what he writes high practical to coaches.
  • Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them by Edward Russo – We all understand how important decisions are, but few of us spend time trying to get better at making them. That’s the key principle underpinning this book, which highlights ten common barriers to effective decision making, providing some insight on how we can all improve on this element of our practice. Given the ever-increasing abundance of data in today’s sporting world (see #9 below), getting better at making decisions is crucial for all of us—making this book a very worthwhile read.
  • How to Win by Clive Woodward – This book, written by the coach of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning team and Performance Director for the British Olympic Association at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, is an exploration of Woodward’s principles for success, which he has applied far and wide.
  • Winning! by Clive Woodward – A second book by Woodward, this one is semi-autobiographical in nature, covering his life up until England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Within this story, he provides the framework and techniques he utilized in taking England from also-rans to world beaters—an aspect he expands on in How to Win. Like Campbell, Woodward highlights the principle of Teamship (indeed, Campbell stole this from Woodward after the two worked together on a Lions tour in 2005), which he defines as the collective standard of behavior understood by everyone in the team environment.
  • The Innovation Book by Max McKeown – As with his other book The Strategy Book, this book is a great overview of innovation. Innovation is a word that is often found in strategic plans, best practice principles, and high performance—but people very rarely undertake innovation in practice. The six sections of this book detail how to develop our own creativity, manage innovation, create innovation, winning with innovation, key turning points in the innovation process, and, finally, a comprehensive toolkit of models and ideas to drive innovation.
  • Innovation for the Fatigued: How to Build a Culture of Deep Creativity by Alf Rehn – Building on The Innovation Book comes Innovation for the Fatigued; here, the concept is that we’re all so bored and worn out by the concept of innovation, that it’s lost all meaning, and hence effectiveness. Instead, Rehn proposes the concept of deep innovation; trying things even if we don’t know how we will use them, and a form of innovation that is highly challenging and hard to do. Similarly, Rehn proposes that we don’t have too few ideas, but too little time to actually develop them; we use our cognitive surplus on things that don’t really matter. In today’s busy world, this is an important message for us all.
  • Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram– You might not have heard of John Boyd, the eponymous hero of this story, but you likely have heard of one of Boyd’s creations, the OODA loop. This book is an exceptional look at this amazing thinkers’ career, and his impact on the wider world—something which I tried to apply to the sporting domain in my summary of this book.
  • The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics by Tim Harford – How we use data and information on a daily basis has changed substantially over the last couple of decades, and it will continue to do so. In this book, the author explores 10 key rules that everyone should follow in order to become more discerning users of data—delivering important lessons for all of us involved in sport.
  • The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results by Stephen Bungay – We all have a plan, but the difficulty is in ensuring that it is carried out. In this book, Bungay identifies three key gaps in our effectiveness; the knowledge gap (the difference between that we need to know and we actually know); the alignment gap (the difference between what we want people to do and what they actually do); and the effect gap (the difference between what we expect our actions to achieve, and what they actually achieve). This then leads to some key strategies we can use to close these gaps, including back-briefing. Given the importance of developing a strategic training plan, many coaches will experience these gaps on a regular basis; as such, understanding how to close them is crucial.
  • Computational Thinking: A beginner’s guide to problem solving by Karl Beecher – Computational thinking is an approach to problem-solving that requires us to utilize a set of principles from computer science to formulate a solution that can be executed by a computer; in essence, it’s formulating a question in a way a computer can answer. It’s becoming increasingly important (indeed, at the recent AIS Sports Technology and Research Symposium, Professor Sam Robertson described it as a crucial emerging skill), in part because of how much data we have available, and how we often analyze it—utilizing computers. This book is a great introduction to the topic, which can then act as a springboard to further reading if required.
  • Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution by Jared Diamond –Here, Jared Diamond tells the story of how a group of outsiders revolutionized the striking technique in baseball, leading to a massive increase in home runs, eventually influencing how the game is played at the highest level. The book outlines the process of a paradigm shift, something I explored further in The Structure of Sports Science Revolutions.

I also want to give provide honorable mentions to two books: The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made by Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore, and Accelerating Excellence: The Principles That Drive Elite Performance by James King. Both have really good content about key traits of elite athletes and elite performance across multiple domains. But, given my professional role and experience, didn’t provide anything particularly new to me – you may, however, have a different experience!