Craig Pickering’s top reads of 2022

At the end of every year, I do a quick look back on the books I read over the preceding 12 months. This year is no different and my favorite books of 2022 are listed below. However one thing has changed over time: the older I get, the less time (or less energy) I dedicate to reading, Therefore I’ve become much more likely to give up on a book that isn’t holding my attention or interest. Author Ryan Holiday has a simple rule of thumb; if a book hasn’t drawn you in by the page number of 100 minus your age (in my case, page 74), then you should stop. Great readers, he adds, learn to quit books that aren’t very good. Taking this rule to heart, this year, I read 44 books. This is less than in other years, but a couple were month-long reads that took up a lot of time.

Here is a closer look at the 12 books I read this year that I would highly recommend to others:

  1. Developing Sport Expertise, edited by Damian Farrow, Joe Baker, and Clare MacMahon – Thomas Kuhn, the famous philosopher of science, wrote in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions about how most improvements are incremental in nature, which he termed as “normal”” science. However, the majority of major improvements come via paradigm shifts, huge changes in the way we think. This book is my paradigm shift. In it, various authors, all experts in the field, take us through the science of developing expertise, and how it applies to sport. Until reading this book, I’d never considered the area of expertise as being all that relevant to sport, but now I view it as crucial. I highlighted some of the key points from this book in this article, and, although it is a textbook, it’s a pretty easy read – making it highly recommended on my part.
  2. Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations by William McRaven – William “Bill” McRaven is a former Navy SEAL who was commander of Joint Special Operations Command during Operation Neptune Spear, commonly known as The Bin Laden Raid. This book, McRaven’s autobiography, is a great look into how special forces operations are planned, prepared for, and commanded, providing some crucial insights to sports coaches. On the Bin Laden raid, McRaven was asked by President Obama whether such a mission was possible; McRaven said it was, because his men would do 20-30 similar missions each night; all that would be different was the importance of the mission. McRaven could have confidence that his men could deliver a good performance because they had done so many times before; the key thing for him was managing their feelings around the magnitude of the mission, which he did by presenting it as just a standard task, with the same equipment and people as a normal night. The risks were high, but the outcome, as we know, was successful.
  3. Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath – This book is a gentle introduction to system thinking, and how, instead of constantly fighting problems, we might be better off trying to avoid them happening in the first place. Again, this is an important mindset for sports coaches to have; instead of trying to problem solve during the competitive season, take some time to consider what the common problems (or less common, but very serious problems) might be, and take steps to prevent them from occurring.
  4. Routledge Handbook of Elite Performance, edited by Dave Collins, Andrew Cruickshank, and Geir Jordet – Another textbook, this one is an excellent high-level overview of some of the key aspects of performance within elite sport. Comprised of seven main parts, the book explores elite coaching, applying science within high performance contexts—both from a uni- and interdisciplinary perspective—along with managing elite sport systems, the perspective of elite performers, and being able to tie all the key themes together into a coherent delivery model. It’s a really good read for all involved in elite sport, an environment that is often complex and ever-changing, providing crucial guidance for navigating through the noise.
  5. Edge: The Secrets of Leadership from Football’s Top Thinkers by Ben Lyttleton – Lyttleton’s previous book, Twelve Yards, is an exploration around penalty shootouts that has had a huge impact on how I think about preparing athletes for performance. In this book, Lyttleton explores what we can learn from key people in football—Graham Potter, Thomas Tuchel, Didier Deschamps—across five key areas; cohesion, adaptability, decision-making, resilience, and creativity, with some important take-homes for us all.
  6. Sevens Heaven: The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream by Ben Ryan – Ben Ryan is an English former professional rugby player, who became coach of the Fiji Rugby Sevens team, and took them to Olympic Gold Medal success in Rio 2016. This book is the story of that journey; how Ryan developed the physical capabilities in players with massive potential, but limited ability to apply it; how he developed a high performance mindset in a completely different culture, and how he managed his relationship with the literal dictator governing the country. It’s a highly entertaining read, with some really good messages throughout. Following his time at Fiji, Ryan is now the Director of Elite Performance at Brentford FC, in England’s Premier League (highlighting the importance of out-of-domain thinking), and has a successful podcast focused on high performance.
  7. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Stanley McChrystal – Authored by Stanley McChrystal, the former commander (like McRaven) of Joint Special Operations Command, this book explores the complexity of getting things done in organisations. It has a large carryover into elite sport, where performance is often delivered by multiple smaller teams; athlete/coach pair, performance support team, travelling team staff. How can all of these subgroups work effectively to deliver a successful outcome—in our case, winning? Some of the main methods, according to McChrystal, are around creating shared mental models (something that is gaining research interest in elite sport), and avoiding micromanagement by empowering individual groups to deliver on their own goals. For those in a leadership position in sport, this could be important reading.
  8. Patriot Reign: Bill Belichick, the Coaches, and the Players Who Built a Champion by Michael Holley – Holley spent two years behind the scenes at the New England Patriots, observing Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and others as they won two Super Bowls. Belichick is clearly an effective leader, setting the goals and responsibilities for the organization, and then ensuring that everyone is relentlessly pursuing those goals. The book is highly readable, giving valuable insight into how a team became, and sustained being, the best in the world.
  9. Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland – Rory Sutherland has a background in advertising, allowing us to expand our circle of knowledge by considering some of his ideas. Sutherland’s main thesis behind this book is that rationality and logic are two traits that are highly valued in society (and sport) today, but that, in having this high value on these traits, we might miss out of some ideas that—on the surface at least—appear irrational. It’s a very useful handbook on how to stimulate some creative thoughts and ideas, which, in the increasingly science-lead world of sport, might be a good idea!
  10. Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by Richard Wiseman – Ostensibly a story about how NASA engineered the moon landings, Wiseman uses this narrative to provide us with a guide on how to get big things done. Included within this is the importance of motivation; in the case of the moon landings, NASA were highly motivated to outperform the Soviet Union. The second is the importance of a big goal or daydream to sustain our motivation; in sport, this could selection to a national team, or winning a gold medal. Finally, Wiseman highlights the importance of having the freedom to fail, or, putting it in terms of a current hot topic, creating psychological safety. Failure is an important learning tool, and, so long as we improve as a result of it, doesn’t need to be unnecessarily feared.
  11. Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness by Owen Eastwood – Owen Eastwood is a culture coach; having worked with some of the world’s most elite sporting teams, this book is his way of highlighting the importance of developing a sense of belonging within a group as a means of delivering high performance. This can be done via three main stages; a connection to the past, a shared purpose for the present, and a desire to be a good ancestor for those that come afterwards. Whilst it might sound a bit fluffy, the book is excellent, and recommended reading for anyone who works in a team.
  12. Start at the End: How Reverse Engineering Can Lead to Success by Dan Bigham – Dan Bigham is an interesting man. An engineer by trade and a cyclist at heart, Dan tried for selection onto the British Cycling team, was unsuccessful, and so set up his own team with three friends, entering and winning on the World Cup circuit, before breaking the hour world record in 2022. This book is about reverse engineering; how, if we start with our desired outcome, we can set up the journey to get there. It’s an important book—part autobiography, part guide—that encourages us to test our assumptions and try new ideas; messages that are often lost in the day-to-day of elite sport.

So they’re the best books I read in 2022. My book pile is ever-growing, but in 2023 I hope to make my way through some of William McRaven and Stanley McChrystal’s other books, expand my knowledge of skill acquisition, along with key management and leadership principles pertaining to high performance sport, and, who knows, maybe I’ll even make a dent in Supertraining.