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What can we learn from “swarm intelligence?”

Nov 20, 2020

The question arose after reading an article in The New Yorker by Douglas Starr, professor emeritus of science journalism at Boston University.1  Although the article was written with regard to how the concept of swarm intelligence might apply to guiding a response to the current pandemic, Starr prompted me to consider how it might apply to sports and even more broadly.

First, a definition:  swarm intelligence is the “phenomenon in which groups of animals act in concert” or when people “come together to create a synergy that magnifies their individual capabilities.”  It differs from cooperation, in which people work together in a structured way to achieve a specific goal.  Starr notes that, “…it’s an emotional and reactive behavior, not a plan that can be written out on a flowchart.”  It’s the unified action of soldiers in battle, or the way that a basketball team can seem to move as one.

I drew from Starr’s article 5 essential elements of “swarm intelligence:”

  • Unity of purpose
  • Adoption of a spirit of generosity
  • “Stay in your lane”
  • “Check your ego at the door,” decline to seek credit or assign blame
  • Interpersonal trust and respect

In an interesting way, retired college football coach Urban Myers’ in a recent Twitter post, refutes the idea that “bad players” are the cause of poor team performance.  According to Myer, you have to “look under the hood,” where you will discover:

  • Trust issues – between players and coach or among the players
  • Dysfunctional environment – e.g., high-performance expectations, but a lack of discipline and hard work
  • Selfishness – a lack of generosity and mutual support among players

For both journalist and coach, exceptional performance as a team or in Starr’s case, a task force, requires a shared sense of purpose, a spirit of generosity and an environment of trust and respect.  These values are at work whatever your game.


Powerful words from Urban Meyer🎯
— (@thecoachtube) November 14, 2020