Talking Complexity in Sport Performance

In today’s sports performance landscape, a current push-pull that exists is complexity vs. reductionism.

We can see this manifesting in many ways, one of which is when we attempt to tackle complexity through reductionism. In other words, we try to cope with just how complex, unpredictable, and largely unknown much of the human body still is by breaking it all down into more simple, digestible, and categorical ideas or themes. For example, let’s say we have a new athlete here in front of us: we don’t know that getting this specific, individual athlete stronger will help them get them better at their sport. But, most coaches have seen enough athletes improve on the field or court while also participating in strength-training that it seems logical enough to strength-train this athlete, and maybe every athlete they work with. Many coaches take this blanketed approach: hoping to be generally right enough to make some athletes mostly a bit better (yes, the conviction was very much intentionally left out of that statement).

A blanketed approach to make some athletes mostly a little bit better

For others, though, the push and pull of complexity and reductionism can be seen on the other end of the spectrum: as over-complications. For example, when “data-informed” and “evidence-led” are taken too far down the rigid, inflexible, and non-real-world path of only acting on or applying what the literature has proven.

I have been reading a text lately that was written to explain why athletes fatigue in sport. So far (granted, I have not finished the text) the author has largely made the case that no literature currently explains why athletes fatigue, because the studies (whether they be on muscle glycogen, lactate, peripheral fatigue, etc.) all show correlations, not causation, and many of them contradict each other. Of course, it is important to highlight that we don’t truly know why most things in the human body happen, but if we wait until we do know why, specifically, before we act on, say, the acute fatigue of an athlete in front of us today, then there is a good chance that our athlete will be approaching retirement from the sport before we give them any recovery methods in which the scientific community has found consensus.

However, it is the evidence-led, data-informed approach (combined with a healthy dose of skepticism) that is there to keep the contraindications, as well as the unsafe, detrimental, or plain ole’ unproductive methods in check, while also spurring the sporting world to continue moving through its necessary evolutions.

So, which is the better problem to have, the more effective path to follow? One riddled with simplicity solely to make decisions easier, or one noisy with complications that are born in the name of precision? Surely, it is not one or the other, however, I actually don’t think the answer of whether to take a complex approach to sport or a reduced one is in the middle ground either. Rather, I think it is more about painting up and down the continuum between the two. Both ends of the spectrum bring value and have a place.

Reductionism serves a meaningful role in drawing people in and establishing new processes. We don’t welcome prospective coaches into our field of study (when they are in university or early the stages of their career) by throwing the caveat of it depends on every topic or academic module of performance training (even though an ‘it dependsdoes exist for every single aspect of our craft). No, we teach them the basics of anatomy, physiology, and biology, the tenants of coaching, and the principles of strength-training and physical development.

Does the sport matter? Does the current state of the athlete in the moment matter? Does the genetic potential, injury history, biological age, and mental make-up for each athlete matter? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But, nobody is expecting the novice coach to be thinking through each of these levels, let alone have the programmatic or coaching solutions to solve for them. In fact, coaching progression typically calls for various versions of “bucketing” or categorizing of athletes, grouping them in such a way that we can start to solve for these kinds of differences in a manageable way. In all reality, if we have 25 athletes, we ought to have 25 different “buckets”. But, few coaches are ready for this. So, do we just not train the athletes at all then? Of course not. We just do what we can handle by simplifying the complex problem at hand: bucket them by position, or by predominant developmental need, or by training age, etc.

Similarly, when we build new systems for our teams or organizations, we don’t dive right into the deep end and attempt to make it perfect from the beginning. Rather, we start with simple, teachable, and manageable steps that can be completed by a few people, which can then be replicated by more people; only over time do we begin to fold in the nuances that make the system as agile and flexible as possible to cope with the chaos of sport. To call back to the start of the article: at first we might… “use a blanketed approach in the hopes of being generally right enough to make some athletes mostly a bit better.” But, eventually, we learn how to fine-tune the system to cater to the nuances that each athlete and circumstance necessitates. Rather than a blanketed approach that hopefully does some good for most, we instead use targeted methods to improve each athlete in a very particular way.

Whether it be in decision-making for our athletes or in developing complex systems, we don’t just stop at the simple and stay there indefinitely. Acknowledging and accounting for complexity is incredibly important. Without respecting just how complicated, complex, or chaotic certain aspects of sports performance are, we can easily fall into all sorts of biases in thinking or stagnation of methods and processes. Thinking you understand exactly what and why something is happening just because you can seemingly boil it down into a simple mechanism — well, you can still be right quite often, but you will rarely know that you are wrong (and if you do, it will probably be too late). I like to think of the example of a house fire:

We all know that a fire in your house is a bad thing, right? And, we know that water can put a fire out. So, as soon as we see a fire in our house, we will most likely attempt to throw water onto it. And in most circumstances, this mechanism is true and is an effective approach. But, what about if the fire is in the kitchen — namely, in a frying pan? Well, hopefully you know that introducing water to a grease fire creates what is akin to an explosive effect because the water will cause the flaming grease to shoot from the pan, potentially setting ablaze its surroundings, and critically burning anybody in the vicinity; things can go from bad to worse with a grease fire when you approach it just like any other fire. While not the perfect analogy, the point is that not everything is as simple as we might think it is, even if we have seen similar and predictable results 90% of the time. Respecting complexity is what allows us to improve our knowledge and understanding beyond what we think we already know.

They say that you don’t know what you don’t know. But, if you know that to be true, then you have a real chance to learn.

Altogether, I can’t personally make a case for either complexity or reductionism on their own in sports performance. What I can do, however, is acknowledge the potential value in each of them, both for the sake of personal development as a coach or practitioner, and for the purposes of staff and organizational development.

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