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Complexity versus Simplicity: Human Factors in Sports and Fitness

The substantive purpose of this article is to demonstrate the importance of an athlete’s understanding regarding the nature of their training program. Similar to machines, training programs are designed with an implicit set of conditions required for their successful operation: choosing the right training program involves understanding both the conditions necessary for success as well as the resources available to the athlete. Despite societal incentives for complexity, a simplistic training program may, in certain conditions, be the best option available to the athlete.

The Central Problem: Failing to Understand

Sometimes when I imagine back to the day I began coaching, I chuckle at the thought of my overconfidence: I really thought I had the world of sports and fitness figured out – I told myself: “every single one of my athletes are going to add a couple hundred extra pounds on each lift within a year”. You see, I seemed to have thought that coaching athletes was going to be similar to the game of chess: myself being a chessmaster, I would carefully and thoughtfully guide my athlete’s pawns, rooks, and knights until we had checkmated our opponent – the status quo. I thought that for every athlete we would carefully play each game, sometimes altering the strategy accordingly, and in each game we would win over the oft-sought prize of athletic progress.

But after getting a few years of coaching experience under my belt I learned a vital lesson: that sometimes the chess pieces don’t move where you want them to. Simply put, if the athlete doesn’t completely understand the nature of your strategy, they will act in ways that undermine the efforts to achieve long-term success. An easy example of this would be a Crossfit athlete that performs excess non-programmed volume prior to a max-effort lifting day during a strength-focused mesocycle: going for a 10 mile “recovery” the day before they’re scheduled to test their 1RM on deadlift. Unfortunately, it is specifically these athletes that seem lost as they try to determine why their so-called training plan isn’t producing the results that they desire.

Simply put, many athletes lack success because they attempt to perform programs that they don’t understand. In the search to find the shiniest and newest training program, these athletes stumbled across one that they had neither the comprehension, need, or desire to complete under the conditions for which it was designed: in an attempt to be cutting-edge and advanced in relation to their competition, they failed.

Human Factors in Sports and Fitness          

Open up any “Introduction to Human Factors in Engineering” textbook and I’m willing to bet that the first chapter will contain a single overarching theme: regarding the relationship between humans and machines to produce a given result, almost every failure is a user-error. If the consumer used any given machine in the exact way in which it was designed, there would almost never be any failures to produce any given results. Think back to the last time you had a piece of technology that was absurdly difficult to operate: no matter how hard you tried, you could never get it to do what you wanted.

For me, I remember having an extremely difficult time operating the sunroof on my first car. No matter which button I pressed (there were 38 buttons on the dashboard – yes, I counted) I couldn’t get that damn sunroof down. Until one day, I happened to be looking for loose change in the ashtray around the center console and stumbled upon what I swear was the most elaborately hidden compartment ever designed: after accidentally pressing what I thought was the compartment door for the old cassette player, I was greeted with the controls for that pesky sunroof.

In this particular situation, it wasn’t that the sunroof was broken or that the inputs for its operation were missing: it was the complexity of its design that prevented me from successfully achieving its operation. To the designer of this sunroof, I must seem like a damn fool: to them it would simply be a matter of pressing that “easily accessible group of buttons comfortably housed above the ash-tray” (so I later read in the user manual). But I didn’t have the user manual during my time of struggle nor was I able to understand the thought process of the designer: much like the aforementioned crossfit athlete that performed non-programmed volume, I failed to achieve success because I didn’t understand the design of the machine.

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Understanding Complexity

I know what you’re thinking: “damn Mark, that was an awfully long tangent you just went on there: get to your damn point already”. But, the reader must understand that training programs are no different than any other piece of machinery: they are designed to elicit a particular set of outcomes under a precise set of conditions. Much like a typical smart-phone won’t likely operate while underwater, an exclusively strength-focused high-volume training program won’t likely operate under an extreme caloric deficit.

As the training program increases in its degree of complexity, so do the set of conditions necessary for its operation. The nutritional, lifestyle, and sleep conditions necessary to achieve success in a Wendler program would be much less rigid than those necessary for a training program involving three sessions per day. Sometimes these conditions aren’t limited to physical factors: it would quite beneficial to have a basic understanding of physics in order to perform a so-called “dynamic effort” session from a Westside-style training program.

Yet, just like any other piece of machinery, humans are driven towards the more complex: just as the average smart-phone user wouldn’t be satisfied with an old-school flip phone, the average athlete generally isn’t satisfied paying someone to provide them with a cookie-cutter Wendler program. Which brings us to both an intriguing and alarming conundrum: there seems to be a growing culture against simplistic and yet effective training programs. In an effort to find the most advanced power-drill, we’ve forgotten how to use a simple screwdriver: in an effort to find the most complex training program we’ve forgotten that, under a certain set of conditions, a cookie-cutter Wendler strength program may be the most effective option.

The Solution

As athletes, we must learn to understand a training program before we attempt to operate it: whether it be through either personal research or hiring a professional to program/explain, the likelihood of our success will be amplified by the degree of our understanding. The crossfitter that understood the nature of their training plan would never perform a 10 mile “recovery run” the day before testing their 1RM: much like I would have easily operated the sunroof of my first car if I was initially in possession of the user-manual.

As coaches, we must learn that we are essentially the “user manuals” that amplify the understanding of our athletes: we are responsible for ensuring that our athletes understand and uphold the conditions intended by the designers of the programs we prescribe. If the aforementioned crossfitter was coached, it is equally the coach’s fault that their athlete lacked the knowledge necessary to place themselves in a better position to achieve success. One of the key aspects of a coach involves convincing an athlete that what you’ve programed is in their best interest: if you can’t convince your chess pieces where to move, you probably won’t win in a game of chess.

As both athletes and coaches, we must accept that training programs are no different from any other tool: determining which tool is best involves understanding both the current and required conditions for its operation. If an athlete has a full-time job, a family, and financial restrictions, then it probably wouldn’t make sense to attempt to find success in a training program that required that strict sleep, nutrition, and time conditions be upheld. We must resist the urge to succumb to the incentives for prescribing unjust complexity: in some cases the screwdriver is better than the power drill. Although it may seem redundant, the results produced by a consistently performed simplistic training program will always be better than those of an overly complex training program performed half-assed.

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