Category Archives: Ben Oakley

Getting the message across: interpersonal communication

By Ben Oakley

If you only have a hammer in your tool box, then everything is a nail.

In other words, you approach every job in exactly the same way. Hammer it in. If it doesn’t need hammering, tough luck – hammer it anyway.

Now apply this to communication. Do you approach every situation in exactly the same way? Or do you vary your approach according to the requirements of the situation and the needs of the people involved? Which of these approaches do you think an employer would prefer?

Knowing yourself: a self-evaluation questionnaire

A key part of effective communication is being able to evaluate your own communication strengths and weaknesses and beginning to understand how others perceive you. One tool that can help is use of a short one page self-evaluation questionnaire (see link below). You may complete this yourself but it would be more powerful if you also asked trusted friends or colleagues to also rate your skills.

Communication Skills: Self-Evaluation Questionnaire

We are not presenting this as a golden nugget solution to communication; however, it will help you begin to identify how you interact. Developing self-awareness is a feature of those who are able to effectively communicate.

Ideally you might also complete the questionnaire and think about the subtlety different ways you respond to different groups such as work or classmates compared to closer friends.

Any feedback on this questionnaire would be gratefully received.

Sport and Fitness Student Induction: Student Hub Live

On Tuesday 26th September 2017, as part of our induction for sport and fitness students studying at the Open University, we held a live induction event through our Student Hub Live platform. If you missed the session you can watch the full video here on the link below or you can watch the individual videos of each session below.

Session 1: Sport and Fitness Qualification Overview (Caroline Heaney and Ben Oakley)

Session 2: Sport and Fitness Blog and Social Media (Helen Owton and Karen Howells)

Session 3: The Role of the Tutor (Helen Owton and Ola Fadoju)

Session 4: E117 App Demonstration (Ben Langdown and Caroline Heaney)

Session 5: The Student Journey (Jess Pinchbeck and Caroline Heaney)

What do the Olympic medal tables say about your nation’s sporting priorities?

By Ben Oakley and Simon Shibli

Each time the Olympic and Paralympic Games come around, a small minority of nations tend to do well. On average, only 25% of competing nations at the Olympics will win a gold medal – and they’re pretty much the same ones year in, year out.

Intrigued, we dug into data spanning back to 1948 – derived from our colleagues at Gracenote Sport – to unravel how different countries approach sport, and how that affects their chances of Olympic success.

Looking back over the last 20 years, we found that the top 20 nations have consistently won more than 70% of the medals at each games. Despite the fact that some progress has been made over the last five games, the figure below demonstrates that this trend has persisted throughout modern Olympic history.

It follows that if some nations consistently perform very well, others repeatedly do not. One group which appears to perform relatively poorly is Muslim nations – which we define as those nations where around 50% of the population is Muslim. We found 53 nations that meet this definition, which collectively account for 18% of the world’s population.

Econometric models have consistently shown that bigger populations and greater wealth are closely linked with medal success. But based on these trends, Muslim nations perform well below what we might expect. For instance, Muslim nations only won 61 (6.3%) of the medals awarded at London 2012. By comparison, the top-ranked nation at the games (the US) racked up 104 (10.8%) of the medals, with only 4.5% of the world’s population.

There are several reasons which could explain this relatively poor performance. For one thing, the Olympics largely features typically European sports, such as swimming, rowing and cycling. All of these require significant facilities and investment to develop medal winners. This doesn’t play to the strengths of many Muslim nations, which tend to be more successful in combat sports and weightlifting – events where there are comparatively fewer medals up for grabs.

The gender balance

All things being equal, you would expect nations to win medals in proportion to the medals available for each gender (47% women, 53% men). The fact that women won just 15 (25%) of the Muslim nations’ 61 medals at London 2012 indicates that Muslim nations under-perform in women’s events particularly.

When we considered the top ten nations in London 2012, we noticed that Korea and Italy also under-performed in women’s events, and over-relied on men for their overall success. By contrast, in recent years China has actively targeted success in women’s events. This has proved to be a highly successful strategy: 57% of the nation’s medals in 2012 were won by women, which led to second place in the medal table.

Other nations with strong contributions made by women include the US – where college sport provides a fruitful pathway to develop young talent – and Australia, which has targeted elite sport success for men and women since the 1980s, when it set up the Australian Institute of Sport. Meanwhile, with their successful equestrian programmes, Germany and Great Britain won nearly 10% of their medals in mixed or open events at London 2012.

Positive approaches to women’s sport will only become more significant, as the International Olympic Committee works towards its goal to achieve gender equity in the 2020s.

Paralympic power

As you might expect, there is a strong correlation between the nations which dominate the Olympics, and those which succeed at the Paralympics. But a few nations buck the trend: some perform better in the Paralympics than the Olympics, and others significantly worse.

To illustrate this point, the figure below shows the index scores of Paralympic success compared with Olympic success for London 2012. An index score simply enables us to make a like for like comparison between the two events. For example, the US won 6% of medals in the Paralympic Games and 12% in the Olympic Games. So, the US has an index score of 50 ([6% / 12%] x 100 = 50), which means that it achieved only half the success in the Paralympic Games, relative to the Olympic Games.

The higher the index, the greater the nation’s Paralympic success, relative to its performance in the Olympics. We did this calculation for all nations which won at least 15 Paralympic medals.

North African nations Algeria and Tunisia – which also happen to be Muslim nations – excelled at the Paralympics relative to the Olympics. Of the traditional Olympic powers, better performances were also seen by Ukraine, Australia, China, Canada and Spain – three of which have been recent hosts (Sydney in 2000, Beijing in 2008 and Barcelona in 1992).

By contrast, the US and Japan performed relatively poorly at the Paralympics, suggesting that elite disabled athletes may not be receiving the levels of support which are provided to elite able-bodied athletes.

Fuller explanations for these variations are complex, but social attitudes towards disability must play a part. For instance, British parliamentarian and multi-Paralympic medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson cited the role of television coverage as a key factor in the US’s modest Paralympic performance.

Bizarrely, in a country where you have Title IX about women’s entitlement to sport at university and they have had scholarship programmes for disabled athletes for 40 years … the public do not get to see it [on television].

As the Olympics and Paralympics play out in Rio throughout August and September, we’ll probably see the same old suspects dominating the medal tables. But dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find that the results can tell us a thing or two about each nation’s sporting priorities: especially when it comes to the success of their elite women and disabled athletes.

The Conversation

Ben Oakley, Head of Childhood, Youth and Sport, The Open University and Simon Shibli, Professor of Sport Management, Sheffield Hallam University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why watch Chasing Perfection?

In a previous blog post we told you about an exciting new TV programme, Chasing Perfection, co-produced by The Open University and presented by Michael Johnson. In the video below, Ben Oakley, one of the academic consultants on the programme, tells us a little more about Chasing Perfection and how it links to a new module (E314 Exploring contemporary issues in sport and exercise) we are developing for our BSc (Hons) Sport, Fitness and Coaching qualification.

Chasing Perfection will be screened on Channel 4 on Sunday 15th November and Sunday 22nd November 2015 at 7.05am. It will also be available to watch on demand on All 4.

For more information visit:

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/chasingperfection
http://www.channel4.com/programmes/chasing-perfection
http://www.channel4.com/programmes/chasing-perfection/articles/all/insights-from-chasing-perfection

Are we any good at sport?

By Ben Oakley

Team sports dominate the general public’s perception of sporting success. The UK proudly looks forward to supporting all four of its national teams in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. But, if some, or all, fail to qualify for the final stages of world or European Championships – as happened with the football teams in 2008 – there is collective gloom at our demise. After all, many team sports were developed in Britain – so shouldn’t we be good at them?

We tend to judge ourselves by success in team sports which are closely linked to national identity: football, cricket and rugby. Although national teams can do well in cricket and rugby, these are essentially not seen as ‘world’ sports since they reflect colonial dissemination – we should do well, given the small number of nations who play these sports professionally (less than 15). Consider the data on registered rugby players in England (340,000), Wales (73,000), Scotland (49,000) and Ireland (97,000) compared to top ranked New Zealand (148,000). Click to see this infographicExternal link 10 from World RugbyExternal link 11 for more information and statistics.

In global football, on the other hand, England’s recent achievements are lamentable and reaching the last four (last achieved in 1990) of the World Cup seem a distant past. The rhetoric in the build up to such events is astonishingly optimistic but the hope often belies reality. But in terms of the Premier League football commercial ‘product’, we are world beaters with it surpassing the American football equivalent (NFL) in 2012 for global broadcast and sponsorship revenues.

Two England Rugby players

Creative commons image Credit: By David Barkhausen [CC BY-SA 2.0External link 12], via Flickr Creative CommonsExternal link 13

But what of other sports? Britain has a more diverse range of sports than many other countries, and with some esoteric examples such as Octopush or ‘underwater hockey’; we should celebrate this plurality.

From 2000-08 the UK’s Sporting Preferences survey asked some 2,000 British people in which sports they would ‘most like to see British teams achieve success’. Athletics and football easily topped the polls, depending when the survey was undertaken. Swimming came next followed by tennis, gymnastics, boxing, rugby, cricket and other sports.

The public then, does also particularly connect with Olympic sports, and we are very good at them as the 2012 Olympics showed. The trouble is such sports have got harder and harder to win as more nations have been formed in the post-1989 democratisation era. In addition, many nations such as China have entered the ‘sporting arms race’ to gain recognition. This means, rightly or wrongly, more and more is being spent on nurturing sporting champions, including sophisticated methods for nurturing those who show promise. Sadly though, British celebrations of the Olympic Games have recently got a lot harder with the loss of BBC’s control of broadcast rights for the Games from 2022, being sold to Discovery, owner of satellite channel Eurosport.

In the increasingly competitive Olympic environment, Great Britain is excelling, with Olympic squads in sports such as rowing, cycling and sailing dominating the world stage and our Olympic athletes’ behaviour contrasting strongly with that of some footballers. The British team arrive at the 2010 Winter Olympics, led by Shelly Rudman

Creative commons image Credit: S. YumeExternal link 14 under CC-BYExternal link 15 licence

However, winning margins at this level are tiny with, for example, five of Great Britain’s gold medals in 2004 won by a total margin of 0.545 sec. A wobble here, an incorrect body position there or a failure to use a new training aid can mean second place rather than first. The role of sport science and psychology in understanding these small performance margins is immense, and people’s interest in this subject, as well as blossoming employment opportunities following the 2012 Olympic legacy has underpinned the success of The Open University’s degree in Sport, Fitness and Coaching16.

Great Britain has enhanced its Olympic rankings with the use of National Lottery money with the National Lottery Act being specially amended in 1997 to make this possible. There have been dramatic improvements in results in the 20 years since the nadir of 1996 when only one gold medal was won (15 medals in all): the improvements have been by a factor of four with 60 medals (20 gold) anticipated in Rio 2016. There is also evidence to suggest that national sporting success does matter to those in power. Indeed in 2002, government economists searched to find economic links between sporting success and productivity and GDP. They concluded that the ‘feel good factor’ alone was worth the use of public money to help achieve success.

So, we might be better at sport than we think. In fact we ought to celebrate all success, regardless of how well we do in the team sports which so often dominate

This article originally appeared on the OpenLearn website. Click here to read the original article. OpenLearn also has a Rugby World Cup Hub containing many more interesting articles.

The other giant leap for mankind: how this athlete set a world record that’s still standing 20 years later

By Ben Oakley

In the late evening Scandinavian sun at the 1995 World Athletics Championship, Jonathan Edwards, a British triple jumper, was the tenth t jump out of of 12 finalists. He took a minute to collect himself, then sped down the runway to jump 18.16m, breaking his own world record by 18 centimetres.

Edwards wandered around in a contented daze, waiting for the distance to be displayed when he heard the crowd roar as they saw the scoreboard before he did. The jump was valid. Then, 25 minutes later Edwards went again; he looked incredibly relaxed before he sprinted for his second celebratory jump, whose rhythm and smoothness produced a further distance of 18.29m. The stadium exploded in a tumult of shared joy of witnessing something very special.

And very special it was – that record has stood for 20 years now. In a world where athletes constantly shave millimetres, seconds and nano-seconds off previous bests, that jump in 1995 is assuming the status of a mythical feat. The closest anyone else has got is 20cm away – Kenny Harrison (USA) at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. More recently, Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo’s steady annual improvements have seen him come within 21cm.

How did Edwards do it? He described it as a magic combination of timing and speed, power and touch. And studying his 2001 authorised biography, A Time to Jump, and his subsequent public comments can give us more insight.

Early years

A key ingredient in Edwards’s success was a genetic blueprint that meant he had raw speed on the track (according to his biography, his best 100m time is 10.48 sec). Speed as you approach take-off in triple and long jump is one of the key pre-requisites of success, since it translates into horizontal distance when jumping. But genetic potential is the relatively easy part; the rest is a blend of multiple factors.

Growing up in Ilfracoumbe, a modest town in Devon, South West England, helped. Where you grow up influences the likelihood of sporting success with small towns enabling a more supportive developmental climate. It’s often better to be a big fish in a small pond. West Buckland private school also allowed Edwards to thrive in a diverse range of sports including rugby, basketball, tennis, athletics, cricket and gym.

Participating in a rich mix of different sports in childhood is the optimal preparation for future success in most sports. Learning to move in varied ways is the best foundation, rather than specialising in one sport from an early age which might be called “extreme nurture”. Edwards eventually concentrated on jumping at the age of 21.

At school, his diminutive stature earned the nickname of “Titch” and a birthdate in May magnified his late physical development in comparison with others in his school year. A concerned PE teacher was frightened to select him for inter-school rugby fearing for his safety. Children born in May, June, July and August, the youngest in their school year, are less likely to get selected for squads in adolescence, but are more likely to achieve senior professional status: a reversal of the relative age effect. The additional challenge experienced by these initially disadvantaged younger athletes is thought to build resilience – a key component for success.

18 metre man.
John Giles/PA

Faith and training

To succeed, champions need to learn their craft. After graduating in Physics from Durham University, the 1988 Olympics was his first major event at the start of his elite development. Fortunately his body responded well to training and he mostly stayed injury-free, both of which are starting to be recognised as having genetic components.

An international athlete’s craft involves refining diet, responding to coaching analysis, conditioning in the gym and making wise travel arrangements. While in the arena, optimising the warm-up, saving energy for competition and coping with pressure all need to be incrementally developed through experience.

After six years of full-time training, aged 27, following disappointment at both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, Edwards made the World Championships podium (bronze) having leapt 17.44 metres. Jumping a whole metre further seemed impossible at that time.

Athletes need to be fascinated with this process of improving. The paradox is that they need to be able to make sense of this seemingly selfish pursuit; a need to be content with the purpose of their lives. At times Edwards battled with realising his talent and fulfilling his strong Christian obligations which until 1993 meant he would not compete on Sundays. His evangelical faith helped make sense of optimising his jumping talent: it was in service to God. Many years later, in retirement and after losing his faith, he said that looking back “faith gave me more perspective on success or failure, it was my sport psychology in a way”.

A further ingredient of success is rest and recovery. Edwards was forced to recuperate after contracting Epsterin Barr virus in 1994; it meant he was revived as he eased his way back into training. It also gave him time to think deeply about his jumping technique including a new two-arm swing skywards.

The big jump

The final ingredient in the mix is supreme confidence. Edwards’s 1995 season started well. A national record in his first contest, he was on his way. Then in June he achieved the longest leap of all time, 18.43m in Lille. Unfortunately the jump was only a hair’s breath, 0.4m/sec, over the legal wind threshold. But he had re-defined the parameters of the sport.

He first broke the world record properly weeks later in Salamanca with 17.98m. Then came Gothenberg and his place in history. Watching the footage of his second, record-breaking jump, you can see that on the runway he is relishing the moment having just broken the world record again minutes previously. He knows he might do it again and is supremely confident and relaxed.

Later, he admitted that if he could combine the physicality of Gothenberg with the technical perfection of Lille he believed 18.60m was possible. He never achieved such a distance, but five years later he won gold in the 2000 Olympics, aged 34.

Jonathan Edwards’ path from a cherubic vicarage schoolboy to the 20th anniversary of his enduring triple jump world record reveals rich insights about the complex jigsaw of podium success.

Often discussions of elite athletics all too easily fall into a facile nature-nurture debate. Probing athlete’s biographies alongside research can reveal fascinating and varied routes to the top. And there are few higher (or further) athletic achievements than that great leap in 1995.

The Conversation

Ben Oakley is Head of Childhood, Youth and Sport at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.