Jerva Performance

Alternative Approaches in Sport Science Research

◆ ☕️ 6 min read

If we lived in an ideal world, all of our training principles would be evidence-based. Since this is not really the case, we are talking more about “training theory” rather than actual “training science”. Whereas theory can be based on scientific knowledge, it is not always fully so. Much of theory is based on models.

What we know about physiology and biomechanics is largely based on models. But models are a simplification of reality. Even though all models are wrong, some are useful.

The actual scientific basis for training models is quite limited. This is mainly due to the fact that there are so many factors at play in training adaptations.

The interactions between numerous factors in training create a situation so complex that it is hardly possible to realistically analyze what goes on in the human body as an adaptation. This results in a scenario where singular factors are chosen to be studied by researchers.

Whereas this provides for a simpler study design, the identification of those factors that really play a crucial role in a specific training setting is a difficult task.

The fact that the researcher cannot rely on facts entirely and has to make a biased decision about their research in relation to what factors are important for the desired outcome has been termed the reductionist approach.

The Reductionist Approach #

Reductionism relates to how the reality has been reduced to more basic terms.

This is the common approach to research. We might decide that “strength” is an individual factor that is important for training adaptations.

In case we decide to focus on studying this singular factor of the overall biological system that is the human body, we have to make an assumption that studying "strength" on its own will allow us to make valid statements about how the system as a whole will operate.

According to this approach, we can identify major factors that will result in large scale impact, and minor factors that will not. Leaving the minor factors out of the measurements completely will then make the process as a whole more manageable. The manageable measures will then be used in research to try to make statements about how the system will operate.

But even if we use the means of reductionism to collect a large amount of data, the whole research process is still built on the basis that reality is made up of a finite amount of underlying principles that maintain a stable and dominant impact on the system. The minor parameters identified as less impactful are ignored.

An individual’s training history can be monitored and a trend in how adaptations occur can be deduced from that data, but the actual impact of training might not be reliably assessed. As such, predicting the impact of training cannot be done accurately, as the process is based on the assumption that the limited number of major parameters can meaningfully reflect the reality of the training.

That is the approach employed in periodization models by the majority of the legendary coaches and researchers in the field, like Verkhoshansky, Bompa, and Issurin. Even though there is a lot of research behind what those great men have laid out, a lot is still to be found out. The main thing proven by those advanced training periodization models is that they work better than training without periodization. But why should one periodization model yield results superior to another is still largely unclear.

As such it could seem that training adaptations remain relatively unpredictable events and excluding the impact of the minor parameters from the discussion is unhelpful.

The Dynamic Systems Approach #

The criticism of the reductionist approach in relation to how the minor parameters cannot be excluded has directed more focus on the dynamic systems approach.

The dynamic systems approach aims to not discount the impact of the minor parameters and considers the behavior of a complex system in its entirety.

The dynamic systems theory states that the principles of the reductionist approach are only valid for simple systems. This means that only the behavior of systems that are built up from a limited number of parameters can be accurately interpreted by the reductionist approach.

It is argued that the human body is not a simple system, and thus the dynamic systems approach should be considered in evaluating its behavior.

Applying the reductionist approach to a complex dynamic system has no predictive value.

In the case of training an athlete, the seemingly insignificant parameters that a reductionist approach might ignore altogether could result in a major impact on the training adaptations that occur.

A “major” physiological system, such as an energy system of the human body we might try to influence, will respond differently to training stress under different conditions of seemingly smaller "minor" systems, such as diet, sleep, motivation, hormonal changes, familiarity to such training and so on. These minor parameters might have a significant impact on the adaptations that occur.

Obviously, the fact that there are many more factors involved in the process will result in far more uncertain responses to training stimuli. This is, understandably, a chaotic environment to try to control for in a research setting, but it serves a key function in the ability of the organism to adapt to the surrounding dynamic environment.

As Frans Bosch has said, a biological system must be able to respond flexibly to the changing demands of its environment. A rigid system that adapts in rigid ways will not survive.

An organism that is essentially controlled by the central nervous system and works from blueprints (such as a dominant brain) is a rigid system.

Central control fails to provide the necessary flexibility for survival. Flexibility requires chaos caused by decentralized noise, meaning the noise occurs throughout the organism. That, in turn, means that the processes in the organism aren’t directed by a dominant command center, like the brain, but are created everywhere at once.

The physiological response to training isn’t caused because a single centrally controlled stimulus for training adaptation is transmitted, but because an array of influences that shape the eventual adaptations occur throughout the organism. This is just a complex way of saying that the minor parameters in research cannot be ignored and disregarded for simplification purposes, as they have a role to play in the overall adaptations of the body.

Now this doesn't mean that one ideology is superior to the other or that the reductionist approach is wrong. The likes of Verkhoshanksy, Bompa, and Issurin have provided a lot of value to the sport performance field. Their principles of training periodization are used globally.

But at the same time, the somewhat controversial ideas of Frans Bosch about the dynamic systems approach are necessary to help move the conversation in the right direction and help advance the field of sport science through deepening our understanding of the human body.

It's no longer acceptable to train athletes like powerlifters. Improving just their strength on the big lifts doesn't mean their performance will directly improve. A more thoughtful integrative approach that increases the transfer of qualities from the weight room to the field is necessary for sport performance.

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