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  • Writer's pictureJo Clubb

The Hedgehog vs the Fox in Decision Making

Sports scientists practitioners use research and data to help athletes and teams achieve their goals. However, the nature of sports requires us to navigate a complex and dynamic environment, where different problems and challenges may arise.

It is essential that we are able to adapt our approach and use a combination of strategies. Perhaps surprisingly, we can take inspiration from types of strategies that have been associated with hedgehogs and foxes to make informed and effective decisions.

The hedgehog and fox metaphors were described by philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox''. According to Berlin:

  • hedgehogs are individuals who have one big idea or goal that guides all their decisions

  • while foxes are individuals who use a variety of ideas and strategies to make decisions.

These two approaches have been widely used to describe different ways of thinking and problem-solving in various fields. So let’s consider their application in sports performance.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehog-like Decision Making

Hedgehogs tend to be more single-minded and focused, often having one specific goal or objective that guides all their decisions. They reduce every problem to one organising principle.

To me, this sounds like a bit of a criticism. But this approach can underpin success. Most commonly, it is related to business. Indeed, in "Good to Great", Jim Collins reported that great companies focused only on one thing: they took the hedgehog's approach.

And surely, this fits with many of the greatest athletes we've had the privilege of watching. Kobe, Ali, Pele, the Williams sisters. Perhaps they think like hedgehogs?

For us, when developing a training programme, a sports scientist may use a hedgehog-like approach by focusing on one specific goal, such as improving the athlete's speed, and using that goal to guide all decisions related to the training program.

This approach can be very effective in achieving specific results. However, rarely is a programme focused solely on one specific goal, particularly in team sports...

Fox-like Decision Making

On the other hand, foxes tend to be more adaptable and open-minded, often using a variety of ideas and strategies to make decisions. They have different strategies for different problems, and are therefore comfortable with nuance. And as the facts change, they change their mind; fitting in well with the scientific method.

For hedgehog thinking, it is Single-minded, one big goal guides all decisions. This is shown with a target and a single arrow in the centre. For foxes, they are Adaptable and change strategies for different problems. For them an icon with a lightbulb, pencil, and strategy document are shown.

When evaluating an athlete's performance, a sports scientist may use a fox-like approach by considering a variety of factors and using multiple strategies. For example, we might use a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach with multivariate data streams to identify areas for improvement. This approach can be very useful in a dynamic and ever-changing environment, as it allows us to consider different perspectives and adapt to new situations.

Context Specific?

In general, both hedgehog and fox-like approaches can be effective in different situations, and the best approach may depend on the specific context or problem at hand. Indeed, in the original essay Berlin suggests that we all have components of both fox and hedgehog within us. Maybe we should consider this concept as more of a continuum, rather than an over-simplified dichotomy.

For example, when working with an elite athlete who is training for a major competition, a hedgehog-like approach may be more appropriate, as the focus should be on achieving specific results in a short period of time. On the other hand, when working with a youth athlete who is just starting their sports career, a fox-like approach may be more appropriate, as the focus should be on developing a wide range of skills and abilities.

The nature of sports science, requires us to navigate a complex and dynamic environment. In this context, it is essential for sports scientists to be able to adapt their approach depending on the specific context and problem they are trying to solve.

Such adaptability, to be able to switch between hedgehog and fox-like approaches, requires not only an awareness of the situation, but also empathy to others and their goals. Yes, scientists seem to be foxes. But we frequently support hedgehogs, our athletes who have their one big goal in mind. So it is not just about our approach, but the approach of those we're working with.


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