It was the kind of grudge match that’s usually settled by the slimmest of margins.
But at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the netball gold medal match was a blowout.
Australia beat arch rivals New Zealand by 18 goals. It was the Diamonds’ first Commonwealth gold in 12 years, and they took it 58-40.
“They just knew where we were going to pass the ball,” Silver Ferns goal shooter Maria Tutaia said afterwards.
And according to Mitch Mooney, the Aussies’ senior performance analyst: “In some strange way, we kind of did.”
Dr Mooney’s bizarre plan, based on the mathematics of fish movement, had paid off.
A medal drought leads to lateral thinking
The previous gold medal match, four years earlier in Delhi, left an indelible impression on the Aussie team.
It was the longest netball game in history, stretching into sudden-death, double-extra-time until the Kiwis sank the winning goal after 85 minutes.
“The pain of defeat is sometimes too much,” head coach Lisa Alexander said. “It took a long time to get over that.”
So as the 2014 games approached, Alexander and her team searched for inspiration — for anything that could give them an edge. As part of the rebuilding process, they welcomed a new performance analyst to the coaching staff: Dr Mooney.
As an Aussie Rules guy who did his doctorate with the University of Ballarat and Essendon Football Club, Dr Mooney landed in the Diamonds camp like a fish out of water.
“He didn’t know netball,” Alexander explained. “So he had to fight through a little bit of ego from some of our coaches.”
What’s more, Dr Mooney wasn’t prepared to be just another performance analyst, shooting video and collecting data. He wanted to find a different way to think — and was looking for inspiration from outside sports science.
That came in the form of a 1994 speech by “systems thinker” Russ Ackoff. The talk centres on the idea that a system is greater than the sum of its parts.
Professor Ackoff explained the idea using the metaphor of a car: “The essential property of an automobile is that it can carry you from one place to another. No part of an automobile can do that. The wheel can’t, the axle can’t, the seat can’t, the motor can’t — the motor can’t even carry itself from one place to another. But the automobile can.”
If this holds true for a car, thought Dr Mooney, then could it work for a netball team?
Enter the fish tank
The idea that set Dr Mooney’s imagination alight is, in fact, the cornerstone of a relatively new scientific discipline.
The same idea excites Ash Ward, head of the University of Sydney’s Animal Behaviour Lab, who works in a humming, humid room lined with tanks full of exotic fish.
“Although we’re studying fish, what we’re hoping to do is find out more about the collective behaviour of other animals,” he said.
“It often comes as a really big surprise to people that the collective behaviour of fish is very similar to the behaviour of humans.”
This science is driven by the same principle as Professor Ackoff’s automobile: the whole — the flock, or the swarm, or the shoal — is greater than the sum of its parts.
“These animals look as though they’re all of one mind,” Professor Ward said. “They look as though they’re all connected by some kind of collective consciousness.”
For a long time, that was scientists’ best guess at what was going on: shoaling or flocking animals were, at some level, sharing a brain.
But with the rise of computing power, scientists started to model and simulate the behaviour of large groups — with astonishing results.
Given a simple set of rules — don’t move too close or too far from your neighbours, and when you’re at the right distance, copy what they’re doing — dots on a screen can produce bafflingly complex group behaviours.
Of course, dots in a computer simulation are a long way from living, breathing animals. Were these simple rules also what fish and birds use in their flocks and shoals?
“That’s where we came in,” Professor Ward said. “We started to physically test these ideas. What we found was that actually the computer guys have done an extremely good job.”
Professor Ward and his team found that in a school of fish all the individual animals are just minding their personal space, watching a few nearby fish to make sure they don’t get too close or too far away from each other.
Yet when you zoom out, the sum of all those simple decisions is a majestic, seething shoal, spiralling through the ocean, seemingly of a single mind.
As far as we know, the individuals in the group aren’t even aware of the breathtaking patterns they’re producing.
Birds don’t think about flocking, fish don’t think about shoaling; these patterns emerge spontaneously from aggregated, simple interactions.
Fighting the forest, not the trees
These same phenomena are at play right across the animal kingdom, and humans are no exception.
“I’m not saying that we’re sheep or that we’re fish, but the similarities are incredible,” Professor Ward said.
“That gives me the encouragement that we can start with some experiments on fish, but we can generate ideas that we can then test in other species and potentially have real world outcomes.”
This sort of thing was music to Dr Mooney’s ears.
And in the lead-up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games, he had his eye on one gold-plated “real world outcome” in particular.
“If we looked at a team, like New Zealand, as a biologist does — like a school of fish, as opposed to individuals — maybe that can give us some sort of advantage on the court,” he said.
Instead of devising tactics to win the one-on-one, player-on-player match-ups, Dr Mooney started looking for a way to tackle the opposition as a whole, unified flock.
It was an unusual pitch. But luckily for Dr Mooney, the Diamond’s head coach used to be a high school science and maths teacher.
“I was a real sports jock at school,” Alexander said. “But I also did science and physics, and maths, and I guess that connection between sport and academic work just came naturally to me.”
So she set aside six months for Dr Mooney to develop the idea.
To begin with, Dr Mooney adopted a similar method to animal researchers: watching hours of videotape.
Both Dr Mooney and Professor Ward use software to search footage for reliable cues that indicate a pattern is emerging. While Professor Ward looked for cues in the behaviour of individual fish which might predict a pattern at the shoal level, Dr Mooney looked for things individual players do that might predict a pattern of play at the team level.
“You can’t independently evaluate a player without understanding what that player’s role is in the team,” he said.
For Dr Mooney, the holy grail of performance analysis was understanding what your opposition intend to do before they do it. And if you can identify what a team is about to do, you can intervene.
Knowing the next move they don’t know they’ll make
Dr Mooney won’t go into the specifics of what he uncovered.
“Then we’d be giving away our competitive advantage, wouldn’t we?”
But loosely speaking, he found three specific on-court scenarios that the Australian team could use to predict what the New Zealanders were going to do next.
It was as if he had a copy of the Silver Ferns playbook — but in fact, it was even better than that.
This wasn’t just a series of moves or a set of tactics to exploit.
Dr Mooney’s analyses uncovered an intuitive, collective style of play; just like the swirls of a shoal of fish, these patterns weren’t decisions that the players were making.
It was instinct, hard-wired into the whole team over decades.
Dr Mooney was surprised and delighted. And he discovered it wasn’t just New Zealand that displayed these team-level, instinctive behaviours. Every nation he analysed — New Zealand, England, Jamaica and, yes, Australia — had its own quantifiable patterns.
“All four countries have their own culturally significant way of playing. It’s almost like a different species,” he said.
When Dr Mooney dug even deeper into his trove of footage, he found these nation-specific instincts weren’t unique to the national, elite teams; the patterns were apparent all the way down to the junior level.
“It’s the way New Zealand thinks that netball ought to be played,” he said.
“The same goes with Australia. Australia believes that netball ought to be played in a certain way, so does England, so does Jamaica, so does every other country. And they play it accordingly.
“What we’re trying to do is uncover the rules associated with those ways of playing.”
Not your average team briefing
Dr Mooney’s next challenge was presenting his findings to the Diamonds.
It wasn’t a typical performance analysis session. Instead of starting with stats or player-on-player analyses, Dr Mooney dimmed the lights and pressed play.
A giant spiral of schooling fish appeared.
“When he put it on the screen, everyone was like, ‘What the heck?'” shooter Tegan Philip said.
“We just couldn’t believe he’d come up with this idea that a school of fish can relate to our netball team.”
“I’m an animal lover,” defender Sharni Layton said. “So I was like, ‘Yes! David Attenborough! This is what I’m about.'”
“We all thought he was a bit crazy,” shooter Caitlin Thwaites said. “But there was method to his madness.”
Once Dr Mooney had explained the idea of collective behaviour, thanks to the school of fish on film, it was down to business.
There was intel to deliver, tactics to be developed, and training to be done. Dr Mooney’s three scenarios, and their implications, had to be worked through.
Both he and Alexander were determined to empower the athletes, not lecture them.
“They’re experts, they know how the game works,” he said.
“They also know how to create these opportunities for themselves. We felt that it would be best if we let them do that, and use the coaches as the check and balance points of those ideas.”
When the Commonwealth Games finally arrived and the Diamonds fought their way to the final, everything was in place.
Their opposition, as expected, was the New Zealand Silver Ferns.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a last quarter like that’
The arch rivals, as ever, went goal for goal. When half-time arrived, Australia had edged to a 28-24 lead, but the Aussies’ secret weapon didn’t seem to be making much of a difference.
It wasn’t until the third quarter that the plan began to pay dividends.
“Watching the game from up in the stands, you could see the strategy actually playing out,” Dr Mooney said.
“But you could also see that we were starting to figure out little tweaks to the tactics. We started to really break the game open and get a lot of turnover ball, which was fantastic.”
Thwaites remembers finally starting to feel one step ahead after half-time.
“A lot of what we were trying to do was predict the opposition’s movements, rather than being really reactive to what they were doing,” she said.
“To have studied that particular group as a collective, we were able to predict where our intercepts were, and know where we could break through.”
As Australia’s lead stretched to 10 goals, the coaching staff dared to dream.
“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a last quarter like that,” Alexander said.
“I remember Steve Hawkins, our physio at the time, leaned across to me and he put his hand on my knee, and he said, ‘Lisa, I think you can just enjoy it now.'”
After all their years of one-goal victories and extra time deadlock, the Diamonds’ 18-goal win was a shock and a triumph.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely because of the fish. New Zealand had a tough tournament, with a lot of injuries, and the Aussies were in particularly good form.
But at an elite level of the game, where so little splits teams, it doesn’t take much to make all the difference.
Hearing the players talk about the school of fish, and what the story has come to mean for them, it becomes obvious how important this idea is to Australian netball.
“As we have new players join the group, we start talking to them about collective behaviour first, because that was the building block for us,” shooter Caitlin Bassett said.
Wing attack Madi Robinson, meanwhile, is confident that this different perspective provides an edge.
“I think it’s all about those little winning one-per-centers, that each team does to be successful,” she said.
“It’s cool to look back and go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember when we won a gold medal. I was talking about schools of fish. How weird!'”
- Reporting: Joel Werner and Jonathan Webb
- Images: Teresa Tan
Topics: mathematics, strategy, animal-behaviour, netball, sport, australia, new-zealand