Complexity to clarity, part 1: A team that sees the whole elephant
Late last year I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the European Athletics Coaching Summit Series in Sweden. I decided to tackle a topic that I’ve spent a lot of time discussing with colleagues but never had the opportunity to formulate as a presentation and share with an outside audience. That is, how the combined expertise of a performance support team working with a coach and athlete(s) can help to bring clarity to the complexity of sports performance. These thoughts are based on my personal experience working in a variety of such teams over the past ~15 years.
The ultimate outcome in sport is dependent on a multitude of factors that span physical, technical, tactical and psychosocial domains. A coach needs to have knowledge of all of these factors to prepare their athletes and for them to deliver the desired performance in competition. The best coaches are, therefore, expert generalists. However, at the very top level of sport, where athletes are separated by the tiniest of margins, additional depth of knowledge in one or more domains may be necessary to address specific performance questions. So, it is common in elite sport for individual specialists to be brought in to provide their expertise.
Specialists in sports medicine, physiology, biomechanics, psychology, and other areas can make invaluable contributions to support the coaching process. Sometimes, though, their view of a situation may be unintentionally biased towards their own area. While their observations or diagnoses may be very accurate, they could overlook or under-appreciate important elements of the big picture. This reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before each tries to learn about it by touching a different part of the elephant’s body. They then report very different descriptions of what they felt – the one who touched the tusk saying it is hard and smooth like a spear, the one who touched the ear saying is it some sort of rug, the one who touched the leg saying it is a solid tree trunk, etc. Even though all of their descriptions are honest and accurate, based on their own experiences and from their individual perspectives, none capture a comprehensive description of the animal. In some versions of the parable, the men even get into physical fights because each insists that their version of the elephant is correct.
Such isolated reductionist views are problematic when trying to understand sports performance. Rather, a systems thinking approach is becoming popular in sports, because performance can be thought of as a complex, adaptive system, where each of the component parts are interconnected and interdependent. This complex system is also non-linear – a small change in one component can have a disproportionately large effect on another, or vice versa. Indeed, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (much like the elephant!), and so the individual specialists need to work together to share their different perspectives.
In an attempt to create a more coordinated performance support system, many organisations have adopted the “multidisciplinary teams” approach. Here, the specialists are managed by a performance support lead (who may or may not also be one of the specialists themselves) in order to bring their expertise to different components of a specific performance question or problem. This should be an improvement on having multiple individuals working independently, but problems can still arise if certain components are functioning well while others are not and there is no effective mechanism for integration. For example, the strength coach may have an excellent programme in place with good adherence from the athlete, but is not seeing the expected results due to poor nutrition or other recovery behaviours.
These types of scenarios have driven the reframing of multidisciplinary teams as “integrated performance support teams” to prevent practitioners from operating in silos. Instead, the integrated team adopts an interdisciplinary approach – identifying a collective purpose, combining and building on each other’s expertise, and sharing the problem solving responsibility.
Despite the potential benefits of specialist expertise around the coach and athlete, adding more people to the team can run the risk of overcomplicating the environment if it is not managed appropriately. In part two of this blog series, I’ll suggest important operational considerations to facilitate smooth functioning of the integrated performance support team.
This isn’t my usual science-based post, so this isn’t a usual reference list… My views on this topic are largely formed by personal experience in the field and the influence of many people I’ve been fortunate to work with, including Roger Barrow, Ross Tucker, Jimmy Clark, Shona Hendricks, Hennie Kriel, and others. There are people creating a lot of excellent content on this topic online as well – such as @StuartMcMillan1, @Blended_Team, @JordanStrength, @InformedinSport. This article in the BJSM by @Ben_Sporer and @JohannWindt is also a great read.