It seems that every four years, upon the return of the summer olympics, people take to social media to have the same passionate discussions. What “secret” methods a given athlete is using, who got busted for doping, why Michael Phelps in covered in purple spots, and so on. One of the reoccurring debates pertains to why certain countries tend to dominate a given sport. Whether it’s the East African distance runners, Chinese weightlifters, Jamaican sprinters, you name it, there are a myriad of theories thrown around. Most of which can be explained with a bio-psychosocial model that covers a broad range of attributes including biological factors (genetics), psychological factors (behaviors), and social factors (cultural and socioeconomic). To often we focus on the former or assume a given country is using the most sophisticated and cutting edge training modalities, but we seldom consider that the social freedoms, or lack thereof, in a given country create the perfect storm for developing athletic potential. Take Soccer, or Futbol, in Brazil of example.
In 1930 a teacher in Montevideo created a team sport, similar to soccer, that could be played indoors on basketball courts with no more than ten total players. This sport, which came to be known as Futsol, was played on hard wooden floors, versus grass, and used a smaller ball than what would typically be used in soccer. According to Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code , Futsol players touch the ball six times more often per minute than soccer players, in essence compressing soccer’s essential skills in a small box, which allows them to learn far faster, and develop more technical ball handling skills than their counterparts in other countries. This isn’t to say that Futsol is the only reason why the Brazilians have risen to the top in soccer, but it is certainly a contributing factor. Too often we think of constraints, like poverty in this case or a lack of resources in this case, as purely negatives; and certainly some constraints like a lack of time, resources, money, and so on hold us back, but there is often a positive side. Just as the constraints of Futsol forced Brazilians to develop superior ball handling skills, they can also drive your own development and creativity. In many ways, eliciting these traits is a matter of choosing the right constraints or letting go of those that don’t serve you.
I used to believe that theories developed in the academic world were the drivers of applied practice- after all, my background in science is rooted in this notion. But, stories like the above where trial and error practitioners refine their tactics through their own means prove otherwise. This isn’t to say that one approach is better than the other, as both play a role in driving progress, but too often we bias one or the other. A person who thinks all the time, has nothing to think about except thoughts, so they lose touch with reality and live in a world of data, whereas those that simply react to their environment fail to see the big picture or recognize the underlying principals driving success. In the past i’ve gotten so caught up in research, focusing on averages, and analyzing the data presented to me that eschewed what’s equally important… you know, like connecting with people. That was a major paradigm shift for me. I stopped looking at athletes like biological systems, or adaptive organisms, and started to see the missing pieces of the puzzle. External factors play a much bigger role than any controlled study can account for, and human perception impacts the outcomes of training in ways we still don’t entirely understand, which is why part of the coaching process needs to be intuitive. These external factors like time, resources, and equipment, as well as internal factors like our physiology, psychological state, and finite energy reserves are all constraints that force us to make hard decisions in training, like prioritizing specific elements, and create new methods or ways to elicit a given adaptation with less damage, or stress, whether that’s physical or physiological.
Whether or not we think of it in this way the parameters of a given sport can act as a constraint as well. For example lets take running, cycling, and swimming. The most effective way to develop general aerobic qualities for a runner is to… well, run. Similarly, a cyclist can log hours in the saddle when trying to elicit said adaptations. This becomes less of a reasonable option for swimmers- after all, how many athletes in the sport are logging 90-120 minute continuous swims on a regular basis. From an outside perspective it wound seem that the constraints posed by the demands of swimming give coaches and athletes less options. Where runners utilize tempo runs, long runs, farklets, continuous bouts of work, and interval methods swimmers are confined to the later. Sets and reps are their bread and butter. Rather than throwing in the towel, or simply eschewing certain types of sessions, swimmers are forced to get creative. Whereas distance runners perform the majority of their easy aerobic work via longer continuous bouts swimmers do it via short aerobic intervals by properly manipulating speed, recovery, and so forth. Both methods will elicit the same adaptation, but through different means.
When dealing with Crossfit™ athletes specifically, the constraints are equally as plentiful. Similar to swimming a Crossfit™ athlete looking to develop aerobic capacity in a sport specific setting cannot maintain output, velocity, or even motion, indefinitely. Additionally, it wouldn’t be reasonable to load an athlete up with 500 thrusters, chest to bars, and snatches per week when trying to build their ‘engine’. No one’s joints are going to tolerate that for weeks, months, or years on end. Because of this, coaches and athletes in our sport need to get creative- we can use cyclical modalities to get general aerobic adaptations (i.e- rower, airdyne, skierg, running), we can create intervals with various rep/ set lengths, recovery times, and intensities, or we can continue to create new training methods. The standard cookbooks, set/ rep tables, and energy system charts won’t do us justice with the later. Instead we need to make educated guesses based on the current science, or our understanding on how a given athlete adapts to training (n=1), asses the results and rework accordingly. Another constraint applied to Crossfit™ athletes is that of time and finite “adaptation currency”, which amounts to how much work they can both perform and effectively recover from. This constraint forces us to create protocols which allow us to target multiple adaptations simultaneously with a minimal cost of adaptation or impact on an athletes recovery.
The final constraint we need to factor in, when dealing with athletes, is that each individual’s mental and emotional state is uniquely their own; and the limits they impose on themselves, or the way they perceive themselves in the world, will dictate how they respond to training. We can plan individual workouts, training cycles, and perfectly dial in the dose response of training, but at the end of the day we are not dealing with machines. Just because a given input ‘should’ yield a specific output doesn’t mean it will at all times. In fact, recent research from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine has shown that athletes derive more physiological, and neurophysiological, benefits from training when they believe it will positively impact them. While this may seem trivial it has huge implications- we can’t reap the full rewards from our physical training if we don’t take care of the three pound grey lump between our ears. Because of this athletes mental states pose a constraint; and we must ensure that the psychological impacts of training are managed accordingly.