Systems are very important to running an effective and replicable high performance programme. Without a defined structure, it can become near impossible to repeat the stuff you did well, or remove the things you did poorly with each iteration of the programme. Likewise, if you are dealing with an inexperienced staff, or training athletes at multiple satellite locations (pretty much every Premiership academy), systems are the key to delivering a consistent level of quality training to your athletes no matter where they are.
But now, let’s take a minute to think of some of the most famous historical scientific discoveries:
- Alexander Fleming developed penicillin after finding bacteria would not grow on petri dishes containing a particular type of mould.
- The ancient Greeks built their theory of the globe (not a flat earth) based upon the off-chance observation that ships appeared mast-first over the horizon when returning to harbour.
- Newton was prompted to write Principia Mathematica after observing an apple falling from a tree, and wondering why it happened.
- Percy LeBaron was initially building the microwave as a weapon, but decided to change his device into a cooking oven when he stood in front of the weapon and it melted a candy bar in his pocket.
- Viagra was first developed as a heart disease drug, but subsequently made billions giving withered old men diamond cutting erections that would put a teenager to shame.
Moving closer to home, there are plenty of examples of random events leading to knowledge creation and improved coaching practice within sport:
- Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky stumbled upon delayed transformation (the physical rebound following overreaching) when one of his athletes became pregnant and was forced to drop out of an intense training study. She continued to be evaluated, and her numbers shot through the roof. Delayed transformation was born.
- East German coaches were sometimes rumoured to infect their athletes with retroviruses just prior to competition after it was noticed that personal bests often preceded an illness. The steps taken by the body to bolster its defences before the virus really hit provided significant boosts to performance, so they started artificially creating illness to take advantage of this effect at major events.
- Chris Korfist related a personal story to me in our podcast: It was only when he sat down on the 1080 sprint machine to stop his athletes dragging it down the track that he noticed his best sprinters maintained their stride width the best. Now it is one of his most important attractors when teaching his guys to sprint.
Would these discoveries be possible if the system is so strict that there is no wiggle room for random events and observations occur? Nassim Taleb would argue not. Certainly, there is no innovation or random discovery occurring in highly systematised businesses like McDonalds or Starbucks. In companies known for their innovation and creativity, opportunity for tweaking, discovery and random projects are actually built into the structure of the business. Google and Atlassian are two of the most prominent examples.
What does this mean to strength and conditioning practice? It means that whilst structure is your friend, we should try to build opportunities in the programme to occasionally go off script, to try something new, or develop a new way of doing things. If the structure is too rigid and fixed, we miss out on the potential benefits.
Personally, I tend to do my tweaking and experimentation with rehab players. The longer term nature of rehab projects, the higher number of contact hours, and the receptiveness of RTP athletes to try anything to hasten their return lends itself to tweaking. If ideas show promise, they can be rolled out to the entire squad at the next convenient opportunity. If they don’t work, at least the trial has been contained to a limited number of athletes who will not feature in a game for several weeks or months, whereas with main squad players any potential effects may be felt only a matter of days later in the next game.
Think about your programme… do you have opportunities for experimentation and tweaking built into your coaching? Are you opening yourself and your athletes up to random discovery? If you don’t have any structure to what you do, address this flaw. But once you do, look to loosen things up a little bit if you want to iterate and improve your programme over time.