As the saying goes ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. It is quite remarkable how readily we will override our capacity for critical thinking in the face of a story we want to hear. As we will see, if the message on offer appeals enough to a particular desire or bias, it appears we will happily overlook whatever shortcomings in methodology and inconvenient flaws in logic are apparent. In this way, we can be active participants in ‘group think’.

We might then question our roles in upholding the conventions that abound in performance sport. Upon closer inspection, there is rarely logic in convention. It is beguilingly easy to fall prey to participating in such group delusion. On some level, we could argue that we willingly enter into this to prop up a particular tenet of our belief system in relation to theory and practice.

LONE VOICES AGAINST ‘GROUP THINK’…

In the field of physical preparation John Kiely is a prominent voice against ‘group think’. Kiely poses uncomfortable questions that challenge the foundations of conventions common in training. In particular, Kiely is perhaps best known for his publications on the topic of conventional periodisation models and how tenuous the foundations and rationale for these models proves to be under closer scrutiny.

When he speaks about periodisation models he uses the analogy of the Emperor’s New Clothes. This is a particularly apt analogy of how we collectively choose to agree to distort our perception to uphold whatever fiction has been agreed upon, despite it being at odds to the truth of what is evident in front of our eyes.

A CASE STUDY…

Another example of this phenomenon is evident for any observers of the workload and injury publications in the sports medicine literature over the past decade or so. As we will return to later in the post, the 180-degree shift in the message peddled by the same authors over this period has certainly made for some incredulous viewing for those who have been paying attention. What is also extraordinary is that some of the same data are cited to support the authors’ polar opposite conclusions, according to the date of the publication.

‘If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything…’

Ronald Coase

However, more extraordinary is how readily these entirely incongruous (indeed polar opposite) messages have been swallowed whole by a range of audiences encompassing both practitioners and learned individuals in the fields of sports science and medicine.

There are two potential conclusions to explain this phenomenon. The first is that practitioners and academics alike simply don’t trouble themselves to read the relevant research publications. The second is more troubling, which is that people have been content to reconcile the volte face on the basis that the new story is more appealing to a fondly held bias or desire. In the latter scenario essentially if the message is beguiling enough we voluntarily suspend our critical thinking.

A CLOSER LOOK…

So let’s look again at the workload and injury ‘train smarter and harder’ revelations and how this message has been received by different audiences. Perhaps this will shed some light on which of the above scenarios best explain this phenomenon.

At first glance, the fact that international guru status has been bestowed on the lead author who over a period of nearly a decade previously published numerous studies with the opposite conclusion might indicate that these audiences simply must not have tuned in over this period:

In 2004: ‘These findings demonstrate that reductions in pre-season training loads reduce training injury rates in rugby league players’ – British Journal of Sports Medicine

2004 again: ‘as the intensity, duration, and load of… training sessions increased, the incidence of injury is also increased’ – Journal of Sport Sciences

2011: ‘the harder rugby league players train, the more injuries they will sustain…’ – Journal of Sports Science and Medicine

Same publication in 2011: ‘high strength and power training loads may contribute indirectly to field injuries’

As recently as 2012: ‘risk of injury was 2.7 times higher when very high–velocity running (i.e. sprinting) exceeded 9 m per session’ – Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research

EXPLAINING THIS PHENOMENON…

Whilst what is quoted above might have surprised some readers, the explanation that there was some sort of media blackout over this period nevertheless seems a bit implausible. Indeed there are commentaries and reviews on the topic, including this one from 2013: ‘Reducing Injury in Elite Sport – Is Simply Reducing Workload Really the Answer?’.

This leaves us with the second explanation. For the respective target audiences, the more recent message in the four years since the ‘train smarter and harder’ rebrand have simply been so enthusiastically received that everybody is happy to selectively ignore what came before.

Once again, if the message appeals enough to a strongly held bias or is something we desire to be true, either consciously or subconsciously we will selectively overlook inconvenient details. The aforementioned inconvenient details in this case include tenuous logic, flawed methodology, and the troubling fact that the same research group for years presented entirely opposite conclusions.

MOTIVATIONS OF THE TARGET AUDIENCE…

Let us consider the two major audience groups that have been the most willing converts to the new train smarter and harder movement. The first group is the support staff at professional sports clubs.

The use of GPS technology has become ubiquitous in professional sport, with the penetration of this technology being almost total in the top leagues in some sports, notably soccer and rugby. As a result, the staff working with these teams have been diligently gathering GPS data and associated metrics. This practice has been adopted for large part without any clear idea of how these data might be best interpreted and applied to inform practice. Essentially, a selection of clubs began using GPS, and so the others followed.

Against this background, it is not difficult to appreciate the relief and delight that greeted the ‘train smarter and harder’ international roadshow when it came to town. Swamped in ever-growing data in the high-pressure environment of professional sport, naturally, these staff were very receptive to the message that workload data were not only useful, but there was an easy and straightforward way to employ these data to help reduce injuries! In the circumstances, having been presented with such a welcome gift they could be forgiven for failing to question and examine the details more thoroughly.

‘For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong’

H.L. Mencken

The second group comprises sports medicine and physiotherapy practitioners. This group is perhaps more remarkable still, as they had also gleefully accepted the earlier reduce workload/intensity to decrease injury conclusions that pre-dated the advent of the ‘train smarter and harder’ revelations.

The only explanation that can be offered to explain this behaviour is that both messages, whilst contradictory, each appealed to their preconceived notion that training errors are responsible for a high proportion of injuries. Moreover, in either case, the message afforded the practitioner the moral high ground to advocate that their colleagues on the sports science and strength and conditioning staff should alter what they are doing. In the former case, they must reduce workload and restrict intense training; in the latter, they must obey the new testament of acute:chronic ratios when planning and prescribing training.

WHERE TO FROM HERE…

Perhaps the most obvious conclusion we can draw here is that we must abandon our critical thinking faculties far less readily, even in the face of a message that we find appealing. Skepticism is a healthy and necessary quality for applied practitioners across all disciplines, as well as those involved in sports science and medicine research.

‘Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.’

Brian Dunning

As illustrated in this post, another thing we need to guard against is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to seek out and selectively attend to what is in agreement with our preconceived beliefs, and disregard or discredit what does not comply with them.

The final remarkable aspect of the ‘train smarter and harder’ craze is that the few dissenting voices to speak up and challenge the tide of popular opinion have to date been summarily ignored. Any new developments in the field must be independently verified by empirical data from independent sources (i.e. other research groups) in order to ultimately be considered credible. The supporting evidence cited in ‘train smarter and harder’ presentations and publications almost exclusively comes from studies conducted by the same research group.

One of the best weapons against confirmation bias is possessing the self-awareness to recognise that we are prone to it. Equally, what must accompany this is a commitment to take active steps to seek a variety of sources and entertain differing perspectives in order to synthesise all relevant information and arrive at a balanced view.

Finally, we must be willing to periodically engage in a critical evaluation of all aspects of our philosophy and practice. Returning to John Kiely, one of the measures that Kiely espouses in his own practice is engaging in a review process at the end of each year where all aspects of his programming and coaching methods are subject to scrutiny. In his own words ‘nothing is off the table’. I think many practitioners would benefit from adopting such an approach. Critical thinking does not just concern others’ ideas; truly reflective practice which evolves over time requires that it should also apply to our own philosophy, principles, and methods.

By Dr. Paul Gamble, an applied practitioner specialising in physical preparation and athletic development. Paul has written four textbooks including the most recent ‘Comprehensive Strength and Conditioning’ published in 2015, and founded informedinsport.com in the same year to provide an online resource for coaches, practitioners and athletes. Paul can be found on Twitter @P_Gamble.