Group versus Individual
“Solo practice works because it’s the best way to 1) seek out the sweet spot at the edge of your ability, and 2) develop discipline because it doesn’t depend on others. A classic study of (top performers) compared world class performers to top amateurs. The research found that the two groups were similar in every practice variable except one: The world-class performers spent five times as many hours practicing alone.” – Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle
In the past years I have had many dialogues, debates, and heard many people chime in with their opinions regarding the efficacy of group training. There are two sides of the spectrum. On the one side are coaches built in the athletic development culture who think working out in groups is ineffective and worthless. The other side consists of coaches, primarily who found group training as their first form of physical exercise/sport development, claiming that it is the necessary aspect of training to create a more intense competitive environment.
I have always thought I had a grey perspective on the issue, understood both sides of the argument, knew that it depended on the demeanor of the person, and knew that trying to express the ‘grey-ness’ of my opinion would be extremely difficult. But after reading the above quote, I thought it was a good time to share my thoughts to the TTT community.
I believe that the individual goals of the person will be the largest factor in determining the importance of solitude versus community in training. The more the goal requires the attainment of physical potential, the more solitude is required to refine the craft. And the more the goal is to maintain a specific emotional state in the person, the more the group training is valuable. Most people who argue in favor of group training talk about ‘having fun,’ being with friends, knowing where one "stacks up" versus others, getting an extra push etc. All of those, from my perspective help to maintain whatever emotional state the athlete wants more than they develop the actual talent of the athlete. They might need validation that they are better, might need to motivate themselves through negativity of being worse than the group they are in, might enjoy not having to face their own thoughts being alone, might want to look at the beauty of the people around them, or a variety of other things that go through the unique psyches of the individuals that comprise a group. I will concede that it is definitely true that having fun instead of feeling like it is a job can extend an athletic career. Being with friends makes the time pass more quickly and builds camaraderie. Knowing where you stand is valuable in your long term planning, and the intensity generated from competition is valuable. However, those things are distractions if you really want to be a top performer because they are a smaller component of the overall picture than developing fundamentals. In this sport, fundamentals means the minimization of weaknesses, the development of techniques for the various movements in the sport, the building of your aerobic/anaerobic engines, the development of strength, the maintenance of your quality of movement, etc. Based on how unique each individual person is, a singular program cannot transcend the group and will leave some people in the group progressing and some people in the group stagnant. It won’t be optimal for any individual. Additionally, being in a group environment makes it fundamentally more difficult to get into the ‘flow’ state required to truly achieve greatness at a skill.
In the sport of fitness, an individual seeking their potential requires spending time working on specific techniques of the various movements in the sport that aren’t developed yet (generally weightlifting and gymnastics skills), targeting specific weaknesses that your training partners may not share with you (long workouts versus short workouts, heavy workouts versus light workouts, a lot of contractions versus few contractions, squatting workouts versus pulling workouts versus squatting + workouts), learning how to change the self talk in your mind, learning how to push when you are by yourself (because in the end of the day we are often by ourselves on competition day out in the middle of a field with thousands of people staring at us), learning to understand the subtle nuances of fatigue in your own body, etc. AND, to be clear, this doesn’t mean I believe all top athletes should train by themselves nor all social trainees should train in groups. It just means I believe if you want to find your potential you may spend A LOT of your training time doing your own thing.
Occasionally people will reference top level CrossFitters whose training programs are on the internet for all to see when they are sharing met-cons, doing strength work together, etc. BUT, what you don’t see is that these athletes eat, sleep, breathe, and live almost exclusively to train. In addition to what you do see, they also spend countless hours in their own garages refining their technique, adding in specific mobility/soft tissue work, preparing their food, visualizing competition days, planning their pacing structures, hitting workouts on their own, and working with skill specific
coaches. The videos you see, then, are only a fractional portion of their overall commitment and dedication to greatness. It’s always easy to see the rewards of a journey and forget to think about the grind that person went through to reap the rewards they wanted.
If YOUR fitness/health/performance/body goals are less serious to you and you want to be in community first then a group-training environment is probably a great alternative. It allows you to improve while still having all the emotional benefits of the community that is there to support you. BUT, if your goals are number one on your priority list, you should really reflect upon whether or not the path you are choosing to attain those goals is the most effective. High-level performances are never as fun as the media portrays them to be. They are full of periods of high stress, frustration, self-doubt, isolation, emotional breakdowns, endocrine fatigue, injuries, and a variety of other things that cause road-blocks to the long term goal. If you want to be a high performer, even if that is specific to your potential and you never envision yourself as a high level athlete, then you most likely need to incorporate a lot more ‘alone time’ into your training.
So, to reiterate, my stance on whether solitary training or group training is more effective is the same as it is on most questions: IT DEPENDS! Step one should be self-reflection. Sit down and ask yourself what is most important to you. Do what most people are afraid of doing and dare to be emotionally honest with yourself. Are you telling people that you want to be a champion, but not willing to put the sacrifice in to get there for fear of failure? Are you telling everyone you want to be a champion when you really want to train hard enough to eat bad foods guilt free? Have you resigned yourself to the goals of the community you are in instead of focusing on what is important to you as an individual? If you find your goals are not being served with the path that you are on, then you should think about changing. That might mean leaving an individual coach so you can go back and focus 100% of your time on ‘fun’ instead of the suffering required to actually become better OR that could be accepting that in order for you to see if you have what it takes to become the person you envision yourself to be in your dreams, you have to pull yourself out of your community and do individual training. Think about it deeply and make sure you are setting yourself on a path to success for whatever you want!