By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
At the 1980 Winter Olympics, Team USA went up against the Soviet Union in one of the nation’s most chair gripping, thrilling hockey matches ever seen on American television. The Team USA underdogs going against the brute force dominant Soviet hockey team that had won every Olympic gold medal in the four previous Olympics. Anybody who has seen the movie “Miracle” knows the story of course. What made this hockey match different than all the other matches wasn’t the extension of the Cold War into a proxy on ice, nor was it the indomitable spirit of a bunch of rag tag college kids that played for the first time only seven months prior. It came down to the team organization and playing style lead by head coach Herb Brooks that took Team USA to a gold medal. So, how did he do it?
In our previous article “Complexities of Coaching” we dove into how current coaching methods take on a reductionist approach to coaching. That is the coach develops the team by breaking down individual skills, drills and practices by isolating the areas of improvement, developing them and plugging them back into the whole of the team. Like taking a part of the engine out of the car, fixing it and putting it back in. This is the approach that the USA took when formed an All-Star team of the best NHL hockey players to take on the Soviet Union, and they promptly lost. In the article, we argue that coaching is simply more complex, that the team is greater than the sum of its parts. Rather than thinking of the sport as a car with individual parts to be fixed, it’s better to think of it as a flock of birds. In a flock of birds, each bird operates in a basic set of rules or constraints that govern their actions, but those actions all affect the birds around it which in turn affect the birds around then and so on which drives the behavior of the flock as a whole. Unlike a car, if you add or subtract a bird from the flock, the very nature of the flock itself changes.
Do you approach your coaching like a mechanic fixing a car or like a flock of birds?
The flock of birds analogy is known as a Complex Adaptive System. A complex adaptive system is defined as “a theory of change that tries to capture, study and understand the structural transitions and behavior of the system together with the environment.” (Torrents, Carlota Balagué, Natàlia 2018; Corbetta, Verijken, 1999). Another definition “is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system's behavior” (Miller, John H., and Scott E. Page, 2007). Complex Adaptive Systems have been used to understand everything from the economy, ecosystems, human brain, behaviors and so much more. In this case, we’re using it to understand coaching. For example, you can examine the statistics of each player on a hockey team as an individual athlete, but that analysis won’t help you understand the behavior of the team as a whole.
A Complex Adaptive System is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system's behavior.
You can model almost every aspect of sports as a complex adaptive system. The “system” as a construct represents the different elements you select and their interactions with each other. Elements such as individual athletes, coaches, managers, doctors, locker rooms, equipment, entire teams, entire organizations, tournaments, and so on any scale can make up a system. Understanding the role of the coach involves understanding how the coach as an element of a system influences the behavior of system as a whole. The coach’s role is to help guide the team’s resiliency and capability to adapt to a dynamic environment.
A key component to the stability of a system is its resiliency and capability to adapt to a dynamic and changing environment.
Reductionist coaching methods are always built around the ideal environment. As if the training or competition takes place in an environment perfectly suited for the moment; perfect temperature, perfect field conditions, perfect weather, and so on. As any athlete or coach will tell you, things never are “perfect.” So, why do we seek perfectionism when that’s not the reality of our competitive sports environment? Exercises that focus on perfect movements, drills that emphasize perfect technique, plays that play out perfect strategy; will these things ever *be* perfect come game time?
At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, during Michael Phelps’ 200 fly final; he was prepared to swim a “perfect” 200 butterfly, with perfectly clear goggles, smooth water, super-fast tech suit, etc. Yet, the moment he dove in, things suddenly weren’t so perfect. When he hit the water, his goggles suddenly filled up with water and he was essentially swimming blind. Definitely not “perfect” and in a sport where an Olympic gold medal can come down to less than 1/100th of a second, having your goggles fill with water can kill your whole race. Years of preparation all lost because of a small failure in your equipment. However, they don’t call Phelps the “GOAT” (Greatest Of All Time) because of his wins, they call him the GOAT for his resiliency and ability to adapt to a dynamic environment.
In competitive swimming, it is well known that goggles can sometimes fall off or fill up during a race. From youth all the way up to the Olympic level, you’ll be hard pressed to find a swimmer who hasn’t experienced this. Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman knew that even at the Olympics, things like this happen. So, they incorporated this possibility into Phelps’ training by having him practice without goggles and water filled goggles while Bowman guided him to develop strategies and techniques for his races that did not depend on goggles. As soon as Phelps’ goggles filled up during his race, he knew how to adapt. As a result, he kept moving forward right into a world record and an Olympic gold medal. That is resiliency and ability to adapt to a dynamic environment.
This is where we split from reductionist or “traditional” coaching methods that only focus on the division of the components and training each component in isolation. It is important to train the various elements and strategies inherent in sports. I mean if you are going to have a swimmer swim butterfly or to shoot a puck; they need to know how to do it, right? It is important to understand how those elements you train influence the whole system. In traditional strength training, programs are designed by training the individual muscles using machines or free weights. Yet, many coaches and trainers fail to understand the role of those individual muscles to the strength of the whole body. Exclusive training on this level neglects other aspects including stabilizer and synergist muscles as well as neglect of the muscle’s kinetic chain as a whole. Do you train the Posterior Kinetic Chain one muscle at a time, or as an entire system?
You can train a team by emphasizing how to respond to changes within a system rather than focusing on isolated individual actions.
The individual actions should always be trained in the immersion of the overall system. This way, you can incorporate more variability of load into each of the athletes as well as the team as a whole. By changing the parameters related to training load, intensity, volume and type you increase the variability and allow the athletes more creativity within their movements. This is especially important in the beginning of the training season and as the training load becomes more specific to the demands of the competition, you can increase the variability of how the system can adapt to the competitive environment rather than make it “perfect.” Of course, this is all relative to the demands of the specific sport, thus training should remain focused on what is necessary in relation to the specific constraints of the environment.
“Supercompensation” that is, the destabilization of one’s fitness state so to allow a new fitness state to be built is an important component of training.
The ability to adapt in an infinite number of situations is part of the concept of supercompensation. That is, you are optimizing the athlete’s ability to adapt to a large variation of potential situations by making their physical and psychological systems more flexible and adaptable. Every game, every opponent, every facility, every player is different in some way; there will never be any two that are exactly the same. Even the same teams with the same players at the same facility will have changed in some way between subsequent matches. Minute details such as what the goalie had for breakfast, the captain in a bad mood or a player with a pulled hamstring for example, influence the behavior of the athlete, which in turn influence those athletes around and so on until the dynamic of the whole team has been affected.
A butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong can determine whether or not a tornado forms in Alabama.
This is best described as the Butterfly Effect and is often used as an example to model the development of weather systems. The Butterfly Effect is an analogy that posits that a small change in the sensitive dependence on initial conditions of a system can lead to the large-scale changes of the system. A team represents a system that is sensitive to initial conditions, and a change in these conditions can lead to long term changes in the development of the system. The capability of an athlete to adapt to changing circumstances is crucial for the long-term stability and success of the team. This isn’t just a negative aspect either, it’s a positive aspect. Every athlete in every sport, regardless of competitive level has strengths and weaknesses or better known as “things they could improve upon.” It’s all relative of course to the individual player and teams. Using the butterfly effect, each players strength influences the system, while their weaknesses are compensated for by other elements of the system. Where one athlete is weak, other athletes will make up for it. However, if the team is unable to compensate for these weaknesses, then the system will collapse into a state of chaos. Chaos is when the behavior of the system breaks down and becomes seemingly random and unpredictable. Even a chaotic system shows sensitivity to initial conditions and that even through the random behavior, patterns emerge. A flock of birds might appear “chaotic” but if you watch the flock fly, you’ll notice that within the chaos, patterns and behaviors emerge. The coach is a guide to identify those strengths and weakness for the team to learn and adapt to, allowing the chaotic system of the players to emerge into new patterns for a stronger and more resilient team.
Manipulation of the environment to destabilize an existing state is crucial for new states to emerge. Variations of the initial conditions allow for differential training methods to be applied.
This is what Coach Brooks understood when he began training and developing the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team. The previous teams fielded by Team USA failed, including an NHL All Stars Team because they only focused on fixing the flaws but let every individual player act within their own accord during the game, like watching individual birds of different species try to fly together. Brooks instead taught the players how to work with each other, how to operate within the flock and to adapt to the ever-changing environment. He used the strengths of the team to build upon the weaknesses and he always set up his plays to open up many options to adapt to the evolving nature of the game. The plays were more general rather than specific so as to allow the players themselves to be creative with their actions based on the current demands on the environment and how they could best respond. As a coach, Brooks instilled a sense of autonomy into the players by encouraging them to be creative, using their strengths and weaknesses as an advantage to work within the constraints of the system. This is the style that made it so Team USA could be competitive with all the elite level hockey teams at the 1980 Winter Olympics and ultimately helped them to win the gold medal.
Teaching new skills is important, but so is creating an environment for athletes to discover and try new skills for themselves.
Modern coaching isn’t about who’s boss, it’s about who’s leading. The resiliency of a system is built upon the creative freedom and flexibility to adapt to new situations. Instilling this creative autonomy into your athletes builds resiliency, trust and an inherent intrinsic motivation that will grow your team to take on challenges you never thought were possible; win or lose, that is what coaching is all about.
By Dirk Smith
Image Credit: Anaheim Ducks Twitter
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.