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Toughness: Reconciling The Military And Sport

I recently returned from the 2018 Physical Preparation Summit where Steve Magness was the keynote speaker. Steve spoke about conditioning for track and field and team sports, “toughness”, and the relationship between intuition, data, and objectivity. He seamlessly navigated between the micro and macro much like he does in Science of Running and Peak Performance.  

His toughness talk really resonated with me because it reconciled many of the practices I encountered in the military with psychological preparation for sport. Developing “toughness” has become a multi-million dollar enterprise and a series of hashtags and platitudes paying homage to things like “grinding”, sleep deprivation (he/she who awakens the earliest is the toughest), crawling through mud, and training offensive lineman like middle distance runners. In sport, coaches and executives sometimes misguidedly implement practices from the military, particularly the special operations community, in an effort to develop athletes’ toughness. As articulated here and here, sport practitioners frequently confuse military selection and talent identification with technical and tactical training. Using Steve’s toughness model as a guide, military and sport practices can be harmonized without mysticism and theatrics.

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Antifragility and Adaptive Reserve In Sport

What is really the point of physical preparation and strength and conditioning? Human performance professionals sometimes fixate on concepts like transfer and specificity but attempting to mimic sport outside of a practice or competitive setting squanders an opportunity to introduce novel stressors that improve readiness through seemingly indirect means. Nothing transfers like playing the actual sport so if it’s mainly transfer or specificity we’re after, it’s hard to make a case for doing things like squats and running at maximal velocity in a straight line. Moreover, transfer is very difficult to quantity as so many variables influence sporting outcomes. Nevertheless, linear speed development and strength training can and probably do positively influence sporting outcomes but not necessarily because they mimic the game. Challenging physiology off the court or field is worthwhile because it helps develop Antifragile systems.

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Is Periodization Dead?

It depends on how one defines “periodization”. If periodization is defined simply as a systematic training plan, then it is most certainly not dead. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is a popular saying in the military. In other words, combat is highly unpredictable and very difficult for which to plan. Consequently, mission plans are seldom followed to the letter. Nevertheless, military leaders who acknowledge this reality are not advocating that planning be totally abandoned. Some degree of planning allows one to improvise and adapt when unpredictable situations arise. Similarly, coaches need to be adaptable while also adhering to some type of conceptual framework or planning process to better respond to an athlete’s fluctuating readiness. The relationship between forecasting/planning and improvising is really a conversation about rigidity and chaos. The potential need to deviate from a plan does not diminish the utility of planning. Complete faith in one’s planning reflects an extreme degree of rigidity. Totally abandoning planning because life is unpredictable is succumbing to chaos, however, and is equally unhelpful.

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Tone and Message In Coaching

Recently, I’ve observed coaches from all levels sharing and celebrating the above tweet. On a micro level, Gerald McCoy should be commended for his mature, professional reaction to the manner in which his coach provided feedback to him. Understandably, many highly paid professional athletes exercise power over coaches and executives; fans don’t buy tickets to watch aged or unathletic people in suits play sports. The power pendulum has probably shifted too far in the athlete’s direction at the youth level, however, where children and their parents can coerce school boards into firing coaches on a whim without any kind of due process or reasonable standard. Athletes should be able to respond favorably to criticism, even that which is delivered loudly. McCoy’s response is a refreshing reminder to athletes of all ranks about the importance of personal accountability. The question on a macro level, however, is whether yelling at a player enhances the reception of a message in a way that betters outcomes. While I think McCoy’s conduct is praiseworthy, the above video does not make a definitive case that the tone can be totally separated from the message.

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Transfer of Training Is So 1960’s

The relative proportion of general aptitude and specialization required for high-level performance is a timeless question in virtually every discipline.  In the physical preparation field, most coaches believe that their training methodology “transfers” to the game or somehow influences winning on the field.  So many factors influence the outcome of the game, however, that it is difficult to determine if what one does in a weight room or on a running surface does indeed directly “transfer” to a court or field independent of other variables, mathematics and statistics notwithstanding.  To be clear, the challenge of quantifying transfer does not justify, as an example, running repeated three hundred yard shuttles to prepare for American football. Embracing uncertainty should not preclude one from applying that which is already generally understood.

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