The Critical Nature of Thinking



ALTIS is an elite training environment for athletes, and a global leader of education in sport performance.

This article is written by ALTIS Intern Matt Kline. Before joining ALTIS as an Intern in the Spring of 2019, Matt worked as a Director at Power Train Sports & Fitness in York, Pennsylvania. This role came after completing a B.S. in Health and Exercise Science from Messiah College. In this article, Matt shares with us his thoughts on Critical Thinking, which serves as the foundation of the ALTIS Internship Curriculum.

As a young coach continuously seeking information on how to progress through the Sport Performance industry, I often hear a similar narrative from individuals involved in hiring processes – the ability to think critically is a highly sought after trait!

Having noticed this pattern – I’ve spent ample time thinking about what ‘thinking critically’ actually means and looks like in practice. Fortunately, my experiences as of late have shed some more light on the topic…

My original thought of critical thinking:

Taking a complex problem and figuring out the best solution or direction to proceed.

This is a very surface level definition and I haven’t taken the time to ponder what it actually involves. Having some experience within coaching, the concept has always been apparent that it is needed but was never taught.

As of late, critical thinking has taken on a new meaning for me…

The exploration, deciphering, and teaching of information that is presented and applied in different settings.

Completing an internship at ALTIS has given me the opportunity, through different resources, to deeply consider what critically thinking means to me. This new definition has been shaped by the teaching of the coaches here, articles on diversifying thought within a team, and a video of Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on chaos and reductionism.

Since arriving at ALTIS, the first thing that I noticed is the deep level at which interaction occurs between the staff and the athletes – developing an integrated training approach for every athlete. This interaction was very interesting to see amongst the entire team because I’ve never been immersed in that level of integration before.

What I’ve come to find out is that on an individual level everyone knows their respective fields of expertise. At the same time, each member of the group knows a portion of the information in the different specializations of the others. In this environment, it leads to a better understanding, collectively, of what’s happening during the training of an athlete and how to appropriately respond when things venture outside the acceptable parameters for that athlete.

For example, at ALTIS, all the staff travels from the track to the weight room and they’re engaged every moment the athletes are present. Furthermore, the coaches and therapists explore new ways to manage issues that arise with the athletes after their training day has finished. These management plans are discussed at morning meetings which end with an educational piece of why this plan may be effective for that individual. A majority of the time, I had never heard of the topic being discussed while all the others seemingly knew what the concept was and how it could be applied. This was key for me to observe because it opened my mind and encouraged me to explore the new information on my own time.  

Furthermore, an article that I read about how diversity of thought within the workplace is a good thing rather than a bad thing helped to shape my new definition of Critical Thinking. The article explains how diversity of thought shouldn’t be something that is intimidating to us, rather it should be embraced. The article states:

“Diversity is what makes us stronger, not weaker. Biologically, without diversity we die off as a species. We can no longer adapt to changes in the environment. This is true of social diversity as well.”

The Stormtrooper Problem: Why Thought Diversity Makes Us Better

I found this to be a powerful statement considering my background within coaching. The majority of my time has been spent within a company which was trying to mold employees to one system of thought – anything outside of those parameters wasn’t considered. For example, at a facility of a previous employer there was a template for workouts and a list of exercises to use with every client.

In addition to that, trainers would be encouraged to maintain a client:trainer ratio with a clear time limit for every workout. The training staff was limited in what they’re able to do as far as the management of their clients because of these constraints. It led to the development of a shared mentality for trainers within that system, which doesn’t allow for true critical thinking. What I mean by that is that you may believe you are thinking critically about a problem but it will always be through the lens of the system you’re currently in.

We can combat these more singular viewpoints through ‘diversity of thought’ which allows, and welcomes, the use and introduction of different lenses for the same problem. In my experience with ALTIS, everyone takes the lens they have specialized in and applies it to the topic at hand. They then share their perspective with the group. This way of thinking allows for the individual to learn how to process the same problem through other lenses and encourages them to better themselves. In turn, this leads to an increased knowledge base and improved ability to discuss a topic, or problem, at a higher level. The entire team becomes more diverse, but at the same time more unified and better off than it was previously.

One example that comes to mind is the discussion on the consideration of chaos and reductionism in sport and how this relates to Systems Thinking.

Systems Thinking is, generally speaking, the realization that variability has a role within the interactions of different elements that make up a system while the conditions of those interactions and the system could change. How those elements interact with each other within that system and how that system interacts with other systems are only observable by following each interaction. Every subsequent interaction is affected by the one prior. The only way to see the product of these interactions is to follow the interactions as they take place.

Upon the brief introduction into systems thinking, I learned about reductive thinking. Reductive thinking is representative of a viewpoint, generally speaking, that complexity can be broken down into simpler parts. If we understand one element of a system, we are able to see what would happen when that part interacts within the system it’s in. The ability to understand how the system works is based on the interactions of the individual part with the system without the consideration of variability. This was the way of thinking that I was comfortable with and that I filtered everything through.

How does this relate to thinking critically?

The realization that there is another way of thinking than I currently settle into is the most important part. The notion that there are multiple ways of thinking is common sense but doesn’t come as easy as people lead you to believe. In my experience, someone has to take you through the process of:

1.) Showing you there’s another way
2.) Challenging and encouraging you to explore it

Mentors have played a significant role in challenging me to explore new thought patterns. These new patterns, along with the previous ones, tailor how and why I look at things, while also explaining how and why to apply it in a given context. Knowing that within the Sport Performance field in particular there are varying ways to get the same result, I’ve seen and experienced different systems and thought patterns on how to get from point A to point B. Much of what we know about training philosophies and the adaptations doesn’t change very quickly. It’s how we apply the information to better manage a problem that’s ever changing.

With this in mind, there has to be a consideration of bias. Biases are everywhere and they shape our way of thinking, seemingly unnoticed. Recognizing a particular bias or the role of the bias in context can give a good idea of the thought patterns of the individual regarding the problem at hand.

In an environment where there’s coaches and therapists with a diverse background, it leads to a better understanding, collectively, of what’s happening during the training of an athlete. While everyone understands through their lens, or lenses, they also share why they have those views. Together, they figure out if there is a bias and address it to become unbiased. The team encourages everyone to pursue new ways of thinking outside of their field of expertise while constantly challenging biases. All of this leads the team to become more diversified, but at the same time more unified and better off to think ‘outside the box’ in their pursuit to better manage the athletes they work with.

So what’s the take away from this?

It’s the last and most important piece of my new definition. Once you know how and why you look at things, explaining how and why you apply it or react to what you look at is just as imperative.

Teaching is the end result.

It is an ability that sits at the pinnacle of critical thinking.

It requires a deep understanding of the topic at hand, the biases that are present, the lenses used to guide our view.

Often, critical thinking will bring new, more complex problems. Lifelong learners will embrace this cycle. Others will not.

How do I embrace this cycle and improve my own critical thinking?

For me, any change or improvement starts with mindset. More specifically in this case a growth mindset.

Having a growth mindset is the willingness to embrace being outside your comfort zone knowing that there could be failure. Failure isn’t a negative thing, rather it has the potential to be a springboard for success. As I have learned, and continue to learn, mindset can shape bias and thought process without any recognition. Having a growth mindset can extract a further understanding of why I hold a certain bias or way of thinking. This understanding often encourages me to seek more knowledge about the subject. Within this process, there is often much more I learn about myself and the people I surround myself with than the specific information I’m researching.

I’ve been extremely lucky to have key influencers in my life to encourage me to pursue new challenges, venture outside my comfort zone and think critically about the beliefs I hold. Looking at one commonality of these people, I’m very thankful that they have a mindset of continued growth. Reflecting briefly on my life, I’m grateful for these people because I’ve realized that a growth mindset could be the greatest benefit or biggest barrier to my personal development in critical thinking.

In a field with an immense amount of information, much bias, and varying ways of thinking, being exposed to different opportunities and experiences can improve your understanding of the Sports Performance field. With this, the application of critical thinking for understanding why and how to apply this information to a given context is vital.

Coming to ALTIS has allowed me the opportunity to consider critical thinking at a deeper level and encouraged me to have a growth mindset. Don’t get me wrong, ALTIS has taught me many different techniques for training and the reasons why and when to use them. But the more important piece, at least to me, is the development of my mindset and critical thinking.

Critical thinking to me is the exploration, deciphering, and teaching of information that is presented and applied in different settings.

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