Part 1 – Specialization

The health of athletes is generally not much better now than it was decades ago, despite the best efforts of the emergence of multiple disciplines and professions, and the professionals working within them.

Performances generally tend to trend upwards, and it seems that this pattern is continuing; but it is very difficult to compare across generations, especially when you take into account the technological advancements that have had significant impact on so many different sports.  If you use the world-best performances as metrics of generational advancement, it also brings into play the influence of performance enhancing drugs on sporting results. For example, there are a great number of women’s track and field world records that still exist from the 1970s drug-impacted Eastern European sports culture that no athlete has come close to in decades.  

The complexity makes judging performance progression really challenging, but even if we accept that the general progression of performance has improved over time, very few of us could argue that it has been significant, especially when you consider the technological advancements that have allowed for much of it.

The reality is that the specialization of society – and how this specialization has affected the industry in which we work – has perhaps not lived up to the promises that have been made.  

Specialization is the price we pay for the advancement of knowledge. But it often steers us away from understanding in terms that help us in our daily environments.  The more specialized the vision, the sharper the focus – but also the greater the potential blind spots.

As a society, we have become increasingly specialized over the centuries. And with this, we have often lost the ability to solve general problems.

200 years ago, the average American child might work in a mill or factory, or perhaps on farms. Their work day could start at dawn, and their tasks might include “cutting, splitting, or carrying firewood for the stove or fireplace, tending to the farm animals, carrying water to the house, putting up or repairing fencing, working in the gardens, fields or orchards, and hunting, trapping or fishing to provide food for the family. Girls spent long days cooking, milking cows or goats, collecting eggs, churning butter, making breads and cheeses, preserving foods, cleaning, doing laundry, making candles, sewing clothes for the family, preparing fibers like wool and flax to spin and weave, caring for younger brothers and sisters and helping elderly family members.”

The industrial revolution changed all that, and we began to become more and more specialized – to the point now, where the average American child would have trouble  with any of the general tasks outlined above – but would no doubt have much better understanding of today’s more relevant specialized tasks such as operating an iPad, or posting a picture on Instagram, or playing a video game.

The flip-side of this is obvious – specialized knowledge has led to significant advancement of every part of society.  As Steven Pinker argues in his book Enlightenment Now, human life is becoming safer, healthier, longer, less violent, and more prosperous; we are better educated, more tolerant, and our lives are generally more fulfilling than at any time in our history.

Consider the state of medicine 200 years ago, for example:

Perhaps you had a fever.  No problem, the Doctors of the day would say – “we will just drain your blood”.  Perhaps you were on a boat crossing the Atlantic Ocean on your way to the new world, and you got scurvy:  “Ah – simple fix – drink this pint of seawater!”

The physicians of the day operated on the basis of an omnipotent ‘god-like’ being whose good judgement outweighed all else. You received the treatment you did because the physicians had great faith in their judgement.  This was a pre-science world, where the omnipotent judgement of the good Doctor outweighed all else – if it didn’t work, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.

The point is our science is young.

Our methods are young.

And we just haven’t quite figured out how best to deal with many of the problems that we currently face.

Specializing the Sciences

“… I came to see that that there are no economic, sociological, or psychological problems but just problems, and they are all mixed and composite. In research the only permissible demarcation is between relevant and irrelevant conditions.”

Gunnar Myrdal, 197

As society became more specialized, as did the sciences.  

It wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century when new categories of knowledge began to emerge.  What had began centuries earlier as simply philosophy and ‘natural’ philosophy (science) began to make way for more and more specialist disciplines, as scholars would create disciplines out of their individual areas of interest – professions within these disciplines resulting from these classification systems.  

Discoveries in the physical and biological sciences, along with the rise in industrialism, led to the need for newer kinds of knowledge, which spurned further specialization, and ever-increasing numbers of scientific disciplines, to the point where today, it is estimated that – depending upon your classification scheme – there may be up to 500 separate scientific disciplines.  

As society advances, academic fields adapt to accommodate the kind of knowledge the world requires.  This is purely an additive process; as the world changes, we rarely retire disciplines, they simply take a lower rung on the hierarchical ladder.

The Problem with Multiple Disciplines

“Nobody owns a problem – every problem is universal” Russell Ackoff

Disciplines don’t tell us anything about the problem.  They only describe the point of view of the person who is looking at the problem.  Disciplines are simply labels on the files; they don’t actually tell us anything about the content of the files.

The obvious metaphor that has been repeated often is the parable of the blind men and the elephant, as we discussed briefly earlier.  Ask the same problem to 10 different specialists, and you will get 10 different answers – all from the individual points of view consistent with each specialist discipline.  

In essence, you started with one problem, and now have 10!

The Rise (and fall) of Inter-Disciplines

The response in many fields – including elite sport – has been to approach problems in an inter-disciplinary manner.  Interdisciplinary work “involves the integration of perspectives, concepts, theories, and methods from two or more disciplines or fields to address the focal problem.”

Many academic institutions are espousing the virtues of working across disciplines, with some even offering degree programs in interdisciplinary studies.  They argue giving students opportunities to bridge disciplines will forge new connections between disciplines, and lead to new ways of thinking about problems.  It encourages collaboration, critical thinking, and the development of ‘real-world’ skills.

However, despite the apparent benefits, there are many pragmatic  challenges to such a system. As long ago as 1982, Thomas Benson identified 5 significant challenges of interdisciplinary studies in higher learning.  Included among these five is the time constraint of a typical 4 year degree program. Benson argues that a “substantial commitment to integrative studies in the undergraduate program will impede the student’s development of an essential disciplinary competence.”  He felt that without the specialist disciplinary expertise, students simply wouldn’t gain the knowledge necessary to become useful members of the workforce.  

The question he poses; whether students will gain the required disciplinary expertise, without actually specializing within a discipline, is a fair one.  Whether it is best to go deeper into one discipline before expanding into other disciplines is a useful thought experiment to run, and it just might depend on a number of factors.  Ignoring the fields that simply require great specialist study as a matter of course, the unique psychological perspectives of some individuals may be the single biggest determining factor of the success of such a system.  

Some individuals simply are better at more lateral, abstract thinking, and can approach problems from multiple angles simultaneously; while others are better with more structured, hierarchical approaches to their learning, and would be more successful with an educational process that respected this linearity.

We argue that coaching – as discussed previously – is cross disciplinary , rather than mono disciplinary (meaning – the best coaches are those who know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little).  

We also argue that the best sport scientists are cross disciplinary; but without exception, they also have specialized disciplinary expertise – most-frequently gained through their formal education process.  Any cross disciplinary interest and further expertise usually has stemmed from their post-formal educational experiences.

And finally, we feel that the best therapists are those who can look at a problem from a number of varying perspectives.  It’s a bit of a cliche now, but we always speak about the value of a therapist who has a big tool belt.  It goes without saying though, that the very best therapists will be expertly adept at at least one of their many tools.  

The common thread amongst all of the above is not simply that the best practitioners work across disciplines, but that they have expert-level understanding of more than one specialization discipline, and at least basic understanding of the whole of the performance ecosystem in its entirety.  

In more cases than not, a well-meaning interdisciplinary team simply does not work.

Bringing in members of multiple specialist disciplines and asking them their opinions on certain problems will generally serve only to muddy the water.  Each specialist expert will have their own unique take on a problem, perceived through the lens of their own unique discipline.

What was meant to be a system to integrate performance teams has often done the opposite; each member preferring to fight their own corner.  

As we discussed, disciplines arose in science out of societal requirements feeding the adaptation of academic institutions to provide the knowledge for these requirements.  

This system led to ever-increasing specialization, and a concomitant decrease in any cross-disciplinary studies (and therefore, appreciation).

But systems thinking tells us that any attempt to make sense of the whole out of the analysis of its constituent parts is doomed to failure.  This strategy is backwards; systems thinking derives understanding of the parts through the behaviour of the whole.

Disciplines are taken by science to represent different parts of the reality we experience; but the disciplines by themselves don’t do this; they are simply different aspects of reality – different ways of looking at it.

In effect, we have been led to believe that sport performance (and indeed, science) should be organized in the same way as Universities are.

A systems thinking perspective tells us that the whole can only be understood by viewing it from all the perspectives simultaneously


A pluralist approach to problem management respects that the view that many phenomena require multiple accounts, and multiple perspectives.  A pluralist respects the diversity and the multiplicity of interests we have in our approach to problems.

“The old scientific ideal of episteme – of absolutely certain, demonstrable knowledge – has proved to be an idol. The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative for ever. It may be corroborated, but every corroboration is relative to other statements which, again, are tentative. Only in our subjective experiences of conviction, in our subjective faith can we be ‘absolutely certain’.”

– Karl Popper

As we’ve discussed in quite some detail already, one of the biggest mistakes we can make when looking at the ideas of others is to ignore the context from which these ideas emerged

This does not mean that there is an open invitation to subjectivity.  We may have different lenses through which we look at a problem, and ultimately, even different strategies with which we can manage a problem, but it is still essential that everything we do is based on the best-available evidence.  

a pluralist does not need to maintain that there are no single, objective answers to ultimate questions. […] what makes him a pluralist is that he is able to understand, by some kind of imaginative empathy, how is it that people living under [different] circumstances […] should believe in these other things.”

Isaiah Berlin

Different from an interdisciplinary approach, pluralism requires that various viewpoints are accommodated – rather than compromised.

Many interdisciplinary teams do not currently carry out truly integrated practices or research. In science, there is almost always a dominant discipline, with multiple others ‘tacked on’ that are clearly of secondary or tertiary importance (Miller, 2008). In sport, hierarchies and egos often lead to this same arrangement – there’s an obvious lead voice whose point of view is emphasized above all others (who merely serve as ‘support staff’).

A truly integrated performance team must share a pluralistic mindset – all members being to be open to the fact that there are multiple ways to look at complex problems (Chang, 2012).  This is an instance where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. The lines are blurred between specialty areas; no one is concerned or reminded to ‘stay in their lane’, because there’s an understanding that everyone is in the same car. While there are certainly times when one person is steering, the lack of silo-like segregation allows for constant, on-going and open conversation.

The result of this is a much greater understanding of all of the component parts by each member of the performance team, and thus, a greater appreciation of the importance of those parts and their contribution to the desired outcome. In essence, we maintain the knowledge of our particular specialty while becoming more generalist though our experience as part of a pluralist performance team.

By the way, the fact that a phenomenon is multidimensional, and that it can be looked upon in multiple different manners, has long been understood.  Aristotle offered a pluralistic approach of four kinds of explanation for the cause of a thing, for example:

  1. material cause (what it is made out of)
  2. formal (what it is to be)
  3. efficient (what produces it)
  4. final (what it is for)

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