Generality, Specificity, and Emergence in Sport Preparation

Photo: Christine Vogel/ Framework BJJ

Photo: Christine Vogel/Framework BJJ

I just got done listening to Joe Rogan's interview of John Danaher (1), and came away seriously impressed. Danaher's training as a philosopher shines through in his critical, rigorous, and systematic way of thinking about grappling.

Towards the end of the interview, Danaher and Rogan have a brief discussion about strength and conditioning for mixed martial arts. I want to address some of the things that were said, and more broadly aim to answer the question: what are we doing when we use strength and conditioning in preparation for sport?

Generality and Specificity

In discussions of strength and conditioning for sport preparation, the term specificity is often used, but rarely defined. It is generally understood to mean something like strength and conditioning practices which have significant and direct carryover to the athlete's primary sport. I will refer to this as the direct carryover (DC) account of strength and conditioning.

Specificity is an important concept for strength and conditioning, but I think this definition is at least lacking, if not totally misguided. This is because strength and conditioning is necessarily general and necessarily indirect. No matter how specific you strive to make your S&C, it will always be a (very) distant second to your sport practice in this regard. Some degree of specificity is required (football players shouldn't train to run marathons), but there is a sharp rate of diminishing returns, and attempts at increased specificity can quickly become asinine.

Instead, strength and conditioning should aim to improve general fitness characteristics for indirect carryover. I will refer to this as the general carryover (GC) account of strength and conditioning.

As an example, consider the potential benefits of using the squat to develop strength for MMA.

The squat is wholly unlike anything that happens in MMA. For the most part, fighters are in a staggered stance, they will typically produce the majority of their force from one leg at a time, and if they find themselves standing with their feet in a line, pushing into the floor as hard as possible, something has likely gone very wrong. On these metrics, squatting is extremely non-specific to MMA. So why not substitute leg strengthening exercises with a greater degree of specificity? Lunges are more specific on this account. Performing double leg shots while wearing a weighted vest or a heavy resistance band would be more specific still.

Certainly there are coaches who take this approach. It is possible that those exercises have some merit, but I think they fall short of using simple squats to develop strength, despite the apparent lack of specificity. This is because squatting does a far better job of developing general strength qualities than the other options listed above, and the improvement of general qualities is the point of strength and conditioning, at least on the GC account, which I will argue for below.

Emergence

This leads us to the question: how do we build a bridge from the general to the specific? Once we have developed general fitness characteristics, how do we maximize transfer to the athlete's primary sport?

The DC account is built on the idea that by utilizing movement patterns in S&C which are as close as possible to the movement patterns exhibited in the primary sport. This assumption causes the DC account to miss a vitally important concept in sport preparation, one which, unlike specificity itself, is rarely discussed. This concept is called emergence.

When we spout that tried and true cliché "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts", we are referring to emergence. Emergence is what happens when a combination of phenomena creates new phenomena which are not explicitly part of the constituent elements of the original phenomena. We call these new phenomena emergent properties.

Danaher alludes to emergent properties when he describes MMA as a "transcendent sport" as opposed to an "eclectic sport". When you combine Muay Thai, Boxing, Wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, and whatever else, new properties emerge which are not present in any single one of the original sports. The possibility of wrestling takedowns changes the boxing in MMA in ways that neither boxing or wrestling alone can account for, or even anticipate.

The DC account runs into trouble when we begin to consider emergent properties. This is because it begins by deconstructing the primary sport into a series of movement patterns, and then making the leap to assuming that those movement patterns, removed from the context of the sport, maintain their most important qualities.

As an example, consider the double leg. Above, I said that on the DC account, lunges would be more specific to the double leg than squats, and some form of resisted double leg shot would be more specific still. Looking at the movement pattern alone, this is certainly the case. But the similarity begins to fall away when we look at the double leg in the context of the sport as a whole.

When an athlete initiates a double leg takedown in sporting context, they do so from a state of constant movement. They are using feints to set-up the entry, they may change stances to throw their opponent off, and they will move from side to side to get the angle they want. All of these are crucial elements of an effective double leg, and none of them have anything to do with the movement pattern of the double leg itself. Where does this leave the DC account? Lunges may be more specific than squats, but they are still very non-specific in context. If there is a way to account for this variety of factors (without turning strength and conditioning into just more sport practice), I am unaware of it. I do not think it is possible.

If we take the DC account to it's logical conclusion, it becomes self-contradictory in application. Squats are less specific than lunges, which are less specific than resisted double leg shots – which are less specific than unresisted double leg shots on a tackling dummy, which are less specific than unresisted double leg shots on an unresisting opponent, which are less specific than unresisted double leg shots on a resisting opponent, which are less specific than just giving up on S&C and practicing the primary sport. Why bother with S&C at all, if the DC account is correct?


By way of contrast, the GC account draws a clear distinction between S&C and sport practice. We select for the general qualities most important to the sport and train those qualities. This allows sufficient specificity (when I said "football players shouldn't train to run marathons", what I meant was "the general fitness characteristics needed for football are very different from the general fitness characteristics needed to run marathons"), and that is as much specificity as is required from strength and conditioning practices, because carryover from strength and conditioning to the primary sport is an emergent property. It arises from the combination of sufficiently specific general S&C with appropriate sport practice. There is no way to create this effect with a top-down, reductionist approach. The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts.

An Ontology of Sport Specific Fitness

Alright, but what's all this got to do with John Danaher and Joe Rogan?

During their brief discussion, two points were made which I think indirectly describe the general way of thinking about S&C in mixed martial arts (and, I think, in sports in general.) I want to explore those points because I think they are suggestive of a conception of the role of S&C which could be more critical, rigorous, and systematic. In other words, I want to try to do for strength and conditioning what John Danaher has done for grappling: namely, do philosophy to it.

One of the more interesting (schools of thought), this is Nick Curson, Marv Marinovich, that camp, they believe that you already know how to fight, and that what the camp really should be about is just radical strength and conditioning.
— Joe Rogan

This line of thought is very common. It treats strength and conditioning as a simple skill amplifier. Take an athlete who is sufficiently skilled at their sport (whatever that means), improve their physical capacity, and the outcome is an athlete who is more able to apply their sport skill against a resisting opponent.

This account ignores the fact that there is a constant tension and interaction between the athlete's physical capacity and their sport skill. As the athlete's capacity changes, their sport skill must absorb and adapt to the changes in capacity.

We see this frequently with the snatch. When a weightlifter makes significant improvements in leg strength, their snatch technique often suffers temporarily. Their force curve changes, they are pulling the bar higher, and as a result their timing is off. The athlete must adjust their sport skill to accommodate the new capacity.

The same effect can be observed in endurance sports. If, in the off-season, a 5k runner has a great basebuilding period and comes back to sport specific training with a much higher aerobic capacity, they must practice their pacing (a hugely important sport skill in endurance events) in order to adapt to their higher level of general fitness. If they fail to do so, the capacity will not result in better competitive outcomes.

All of this is suggestive of emergent properties which result from improvements in general physical qualities combined with sport practice, and there is no reason to believe that the same phenomenon does not exist in combat sports. Pacing is a hugely important component of MMA, and if a fighter enters a camp with much improved physical capacity than they had in their last camp, there will be an adjustment period. If the camp is viewed simply as a period of improvement of physical capacity, there exists the very real and very risky possibility that the fighter enters the cage with tremendous fitness, but poor application to the primary sport.

Danaher seems to take the opposite approach.

I’m not a big believer that you’re going to create big, significant, fight-changing physiological changes in six to eight weeks. It’s not really my experience. But I can show someone a single technique which can have a direct impact on a fight, I can show them that in five minutes. I’m not gonna claim to be a medical expert who has a deep understanding of these things, but my experience in coaching is that physiological changes take time, and you’re not gonna get it done in a fight camp.
— John Danaher

Danaher is likely wrong about the ability to make significant physiological change in a six to eight week period (see the Tabata Study (2), for one famous example). It is especially possible to make such changes if the athlete trained intelligently leading up to the camp, in way which set them up to improve their physical capacity greatly in that short period. In fact, athletes do this all the time, and it's a fundamental part of sport preparation, usually referred to as "peaking".

But I think there is something more important going on here. When Danaher asks Rogan "how much could you raise your VO2 max in six weeks?", he reveals the underlying current of thought about strength and conditioning in sports. The thought is that improving some set of physiological metrics is equal to improvement in physical capacity. This is not dissimilar from the physiological model of health, which I've written about before (3).

The problem is that at high levels of competition, these metrics don't necessarily correlate with sport performance. Sometimes, they might even be inversely correlated with some aspects of sport skill (4).

I think all of this alludes to a problem with the way we look at the idea of fitness for sport performance. It seems that the common view is to take physiological metrics independent of the athlete's real application of their capacity, and then either prioritize building those metrics, or building skill, in the lead-up to a competition. Of course, I'm sure that members of both camps still consider the "other" part to be important – that is, I very much doubt that Danaher thinks an athlete can safely neglect their physical fitness during a fight camp, and I doubt just as much that Curson and Marinovich think fighters can spend the last six to eight weeks prior to competing doing nothing but strength and conditioning. But nonetheless, both camps seem to make an ontological distinction between the athlete's physical fitness and their sport skill.

I think that a more robust definition of fitness for sport performance encompasses the emergent properties that result from the combination of physical fitness and sport skill. To be as "fit" as possible going into a fight, an athlete needs to have found the happy medium of improving their physical capacity to the highest point they can without impairing sport specific skill. This means that the athlete cannot spend so much time and energy on their strength and conditioning that their sport practice suffers, but it also means that the athlete's sport practice must be executed in such a fashion as to allow them to make strategic and tactical adaptations to improvements in physical capacity.

By taking this view of sport specific fitness as the intersection of physical capacity and sport skill – rather than viewing physical capacity as a complementary but ontologically distinct amplifier of sport skill – we enable ourselves to write training plans which make the best use of the athlete's time and effort in preparing them for the day of competition. Improve general physical characteristics, practice your sport, and allow the emergent properties that result to define your fitness.


Bibliography

(1) Joe Rogan and John Danaher, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkBXzkD6tis
(2) Tabata, Kouzaki, Ogita, Miyachi, "Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2 max"

(3)  Tsypkin, "Physical Autonomy"
(4) Lucia, Hoyos, Perez, Santalla, Chicharro, "Inverse relationship between VO2 max and economy/efficiency in world-class cyclists"

 

Epistemological Ease in Training

Jacob BW 74.jpg

Introduction

Ever think about thinking? It’s a lot to think about.

I’ve been working on the epistemology of training post(s), and boy, it’s a big topic. I knew that going in, but I keep finding myself wanting to do more research before committing anything to the page. I think that’s the right call in this case, but I also want to keep some momentum going with the blog, so I decided to put together a shorter post on a related concept, which I will term epistemological ease. By use of the word “epistemological”, I mean to imply that the concept will be centered around knowledge and belief in training, and by use of the word “ease”, I mean to imply that the concept aims to help us write and implement programs which maximize our ability to collect, analyze and utilize the information gleaned from the execution of the program.

Epistemological Ease and Justified True Belief

In the pursuit of epistemological ease in training, we strive to structure, implement, and interact with programs in ways which give us the greatest access to truth and the most justification in believing something to be true.

In thinking about the epistemology of training, I am using the justified true belief model of knowledge. The understanding of knowledge as justified true belief is by no means settled, and there are numerous problems with the idea – some which may even be relevant to knowledge in training. For the purposes of discussing and implementing epistemological ease, however, the JTB model is sufficient.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy illustrates the justified true belief model as follows (1):

S knows that p if
(i) p is true;
(ii) S believes that p;
(iii) S is justified in believing that p.

The implications of this model are that S cannot know that p if (i) p is not true, (ii) S does not believe that p, or (3) S is not justified in believing that p. In english: you can’t know something that is false, you can’t know something you don’t believe, and you can’t know something that you don’t actually have rational justification for believing. Below, I will present concepts and strategies for maximizing our access to truth in the sphere of training.

III. Program Design and Implementation

The first step in creating conditions of epistemological ease is to structure programs in such a way that you can utilize the information derived from their implementation as easily and readily as possible. The most effective way I have found to ensure this is to write self-contained programming.

Programming is self-contained insofar as the decision-making process between exposures to a given stressor is informed by data gleaned from within the cycle itself, as opposed to drawing on information external to the particular training cycle. Contrast the two following squat progressions:

Note: 5 @ 8 = a set of 5 with two reps left in the tank, 5 @ 9 = a set of 5 with one rep left in the tank. This is a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) method derived from Mike Tuchscherer and  Reactive Training Systems.

Note: 5 @ 8 = a set of 5 with two reps left in the tank, 5 @ 9 = a set of 5 with one rep left in the tank. This is a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) method derived from Mike Tuchscherer and Reactive Training Systems.

The self-contained program is only dependent on the athlete's state on the day of training, rather than measuring against some previous metric which will have necessarily limited applicability at any given time. This offers at least two advantages over the externally contained program. First, it allows the athlete to work to the best of their ability on the day, rather than holding them to an external standard. This is best not only for the athlete's safety and longevity (by allowing them the flexibility to push for a harder stress when they are able to or to back off to a lower stress when necessary), it is also better for the athlete's mental state – they are invested in the process rather than an arbitrary goal. If the task is to squat a set of 5 @ 9, they can complete that task regardless of what the weight is. If the task is to squat sets of 5 with 82.5% of 1RM and that proves to be too much for the athlete on the day, they may leave the gym feeling that they have failed to complete the day's training.

Second, the information gleaned from the athlete's day-to-day and week-to-week results on the self-contained program is more relevant and applicable than the information gleaned from the externally contained program. This is because what an athlete did on any given day is of limited relevance to what they did or will do on any other day, and the further in time those days are removed from each other, the less relevant to each other they become. If a athlete set a 1RM back squat 12 weeks prior to today's workout, there are 12 weeks of variables between the two, each of which may impact the athlete in such a way as to reduce the relevance of the established 1RM. By implementing a self-contained program, the athlete is able to perform the workout based on the most currently relevant information. Even if the program is stretched in order to base workouts on the previous week, that is still far more relevant than basing workouts on metrics established multiple weeks or even months ago.

Ultimately, all of this is the case because of a rarely discussed or understood aspect of programming: the training program is a proxy for a training effect. The program has no ontology of it's own. When we write a program, what we are actually doing is presenting the athlete with a stressor or series of stressors which will elicit a specific adaptation. The program is the codification of our understanding of the response between certain stressors and certain adaptations in a format which is easy to communicate and for the athlete to follow. The first workout in both the self-contained progression and the externally contained progression could be expressed as follows:

Perform a movement focused on hip and knee flexion followed by hip and knee extension, while isometrically stabilizing the trunk. Use a rep range and load selected for submaximal but relatively high force production, relatively low velocity, and moderate hypertrophy adaptations. Keep all sets submaximal, and perform a total volume of twenty working reps.

But this is not only a tremendously inefficient use of language, it is also likely to be very confusing to the athlete – even if she is reasonably well educated with regard to effective training practices and the reasons behind them, there are myriad ways which this statement could be taken, as indeed there are myriad ways to accomplish the intended effect.

Nonetheless, the prescription "Back Squat 5 @ 9, plus three down sets (load drop -10%)" is precisely a more efficient way of expressing the description above. The purpose of the workout is not to complete the workout, but to elicit the adaptations referred to therein. Further, those adaptations will be more or less the same whether the athlete performs the work sets with 290 pounds, 300 pounds, or 310 pounds. The difference in load is marginal with regard to stress imparted to the athlete – so why do we bother tracking it at all?

We track it because it is informative. It gives us a glimpse into how the athlete is responding to their training, and with enough glimpses, we can make more effective decisions about how to manipulate the program for better results. It follows that if these quantifiable metrics are important primarily for their informative value, the athlete is best served by a program which allows the information to be as relevant to their current status as possible.

Once the program is written in a self-contained manner, it must be implemented in such a way as to further the goal of maximizing epistemological ease. To this end, the athlete or coach must have an established protocol of bottom-up management.

Bottom-up management just means that the program is modified based on the athletes day-to-day and week-to-week results. Obviously, this goes hand-in-hand with self-contained program design. The self-contained program ensures that the information at hand is maximally relevant, and bottom-up management enables us to leverage that information quickly and effectively, since it is based entirely on the athlete's actual results, rather than on general principles of training.

This is not to suggest that general principles of training should not be applied – only that they are applied responsively. In other words, bottoms-up management means that we take the athlete's results, use our understanding of training principles to determine how to modify the (self-contained) program, and then implement those modifications. Rinse, repeat.

As the language suggests, the opposite of bottom-up management is top-down management. In a program which is managed from the top down, general principles of training are applied to the athlete before the athlete actually implements the program. If the program is self-contained, this is less of a problem, but it still prevents challenges which can be mitigated or eradicated with bottom-up management. First, general principles of training describe the general relationship between a given stressor and a general adaptation, but they definitionally cannot describe the precise relationship between that given stressor and a particular athlete's particular response. This means that we can design a program with those principles in mind, but unless we manage it from the bottom-up, the athlete will always be beholden to general principles absent the reality of individual variation.

This may seem obvious in theory. But what many coaches and athletes lack is an established protocol for bottom-up management. In other words, while they may make modifications to the program based on the athlete's day-to-day or week-to-week results, they lack an established protocol for doing so. This makes it much harder to determine what changes are most effective for any individual athlete, and further makes it harder to amalgamate data in such a way as to refine our understanding and application of general principles.

Good athletes and coaches already, often intuitively, utilize principles such as self-contained programming and bottom-up management in order to establish conditions of greater epistemological ease (even if they are unaware that they are doing so.) By becoming conscious of these tacit tendencies, organizing them, and applying them with intent, the collection, analysis, and implementation of athlete results becomes a more efficient and effective process.


Bibliography

(1) Ichikawa, Jonathan Jenkins and Steup, Matthias, "The Analysis of Knowledge", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/knowledge-analysis/>.

Physical Autonomy

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Unnecessary Disclaimer: The biggest impediment to my writing is my perfectionism, particularly my desire to avoid publishing anything which doesn't include all the possible implications, questions, and domains which would be suggested by a given idea. This is obviously ridiculous, because it would mean never publishing anything – or at least, nothing less than a book. In an effort to actually write more, I'm forcing myself to avoid falling into that trap, but I feel the need to clarify that this post (and basically everything on this blog) are a sketch of thoughts about a particular idea I'm grappling with, and not meant as a complete representation of my thoughts on the matter.

Although it is probably possible to achieve "better health" in the absence of a clear and actionable definition thereof, it is very likely to be a less efficient and efficacious process than it would be with such a definition in hand. A full exposition of the commonly accepted definition of health, the problems with that definition, and possible options for reconciliation and redefinition, goes beyond the scope of this blog post, and perhaps of this blog entirely (no promises, though.) For some great work on that subject, I recommend Georges Canguilhem's important book "The Normal And The Pathological." But for my thoughts on one aspect of a clear and actionable definition of health, just keep reading.

The concepts "health" and "fitness" are typically treated as related but distinct, with the implication being that one's level of fitness can contribute to or detract from their health, but cannot define health in and of itself. I have no disagreements with this approach. However, those aspects of fitness which are usually included in a measure of a person's health are those which can be measured with the standard tools of physiology: things like muscle mass, resting heart rate, oxygen uptake, etc, and even more distantly, things like triglycerides, blood pressure, and body fat percentage.

It is not my intent to question the usefulness of such metrics as part of the measuring and connecting of fitness with health. When research is well conducted, we can draw reasonable conclusions about the relationships between fitness-related physiological measures and health outcomes. However, these metrics leave us unable to account for the impact of the lack of some characteristics of physical fitness on one's quality of life – characteristics and impacts which, I contend, can and should be considered part of our definition of health.

Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, used (some version of ) the following example to illustrate the gap in the commonly accepted definition of health:

Imagine two men, both 80 years of age. Let's call them Bob and Joe. Bob has a perfect health panel – no notable diseases, not overweight or underweight, normal blood pressure, normal triglycerides, no heart problems. However, he is confined to a wheelchair, and lives in a nursing home for assistance, since he cannot get around effectively on his own. Joe is physically active. He walks to the store and carries his own groceries home, up the stairs to his third floor apartment, and exercises at the gym three days per week. But Joe has been diagnosed with cancer.

Who is healthier: Bob or Joe?

This thought experiment brings to light an important aspect of health which often goes ignored, and which is what I want to explore here. I will call this concept physical autonomy.

Defined briefly, physical autonomy is an individual's ability to navigate the physical world without relying on assistance. This autonomy exists is not something that an individual either has or does not have, but rather it exists on a spectrum, e.g. Bob has less physical autonomy than Joe, but perhaps he has more than Mike, who is paralyzed from the neck down. And Joe, though considerably more physically autonomous than Bob or Mike, may be much less physically autonomous than Alex, who is a twenty-five year old athlete in his physical prime.

Most of us implicitly include physical autonomy in the way we define health. That's why the question of Bob and Joe is tough to answer: the way that we actually interact with the physical world seems obviously important to us, but there is little room for it in the way the western world generally conceptualizes health. As a result, the bridge between fitness and health is built only on physiological metrics, rather than on a combination of those metrics alongside some set of physical abilities. It may even seem incongruous to ask a question like "how many pullups can you do?" or "can you run a mile without stopping?" in assessing someone's health. These questions are relegated to the related, but distinct domain of fitness.

This all points to a larger problem with the commonly accepted definition of health referred to throughout this article. Consider Bob and Joe: convention would suggest that Joe is the less healthy of the pair, but for most people, that isn't a particularly satisfying conclusion. Why is that?

I contend that it is because, if health is measured primarily or exclusively as a collection of physiological metrics being within a certain range, it is theoretically possible to determine a person's physical health with no regard for their experience of the physical world. Over time, this model – I'll refer to it as the physiological model of health – has become so entrenched that physiological metrics have become the sole standard for determining a person's status as healthy or unhealthy. It seems to be unimportant that in most cases, an upsetting of these physiological standards is discovered as a result of the patient reporting a change in their interaction with the physical world – they are unhealthy because the levels are off, not because their experience of the physical world has changed for the worse.

Within the practice of medicine, those professionals who choose to pursue fields such as physical therapy are often viewed as somehow second class – a medical student once told me that physical therapists weren't "real" doctors because they cannot prescribe medication. Fitness professionals are rarely even regarded in the conversation about health – it's standard practice to check with your doctor before beginning a fitness regimen, the implication being that medical doctors are the best equipped to judge the safety and effectiveness of an exercise or nutrition program. Often, this is blamed on the apparent litigiousness of western society, especially in the U.S., but I think it runs deeper than that. It is reflective of a strand in medical culture which naturally derives from the physiological model of health: if health is a set of physiological metrics, then the "real" doctors are the ones who can correct those metrics, often via pharmaceutical intervention.

I want it to be clear that I have no issue whatsoever with the use of pharmaceutical drugs when appropriate to treat patients, nor do I have an issue with the use of physiological metrics as part of the assessment of a person's health. But I do believe than the over reliance on this model is a large part of what is keeping Americans and westerners in general from being able to deal more permanently with their health problems. A reconceptualization of health may be the first step in effectively bridging the gap between the physiological model of health and the lived experience of the individuals actually dealing with personal health.

Note: I'd be remiss here if I didn't note that there are medical professionals working hard to implement a more holistic definition of health into their practice, implicitly or explicitly. For a couple of great examples, check out Barbell Medicine and the Docs Who Lift.

What Is Sport For?

Photo: Chrissie Vogel/Framework BJJ

Photo: Chrissie Vogel/Framework BJJ

From the mainstream to the fringe, sport is a major part of our cultural fabric. As it inspires great passion, it inspires great controversy, and leaves us with many questions: How should we feel about performance enhancing drugs? How should we expect professional sporting organizations to deal with members who engage in criminal behavior? How should we treat transgender people with regard to their participation in sport? Should we be opposed to metagaming?

All of these questions, and many more like them, are important, given the role sport plays in the lives of so many. Unfortunately, they are largely unanswerable without first answering the question: what is sport for?

Without a clear understanding of why we engage in sport, and why we consider it to be a valuable exercise, it is impossible to answer questions like the ones above. To take one as an example – how should we feel about the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)?

The answer to this question changes quite drastically depending on what we perceive the purpose of sport to be. If sport is about learning to follow rules, and the rules disallow PEDs, then it seems we should be opposed to their use. But what if the rules didn’t disallow PEDs? Should we still have a problem with their use? Are they morally condemnable in and of themselves?

To be a highly successful businessperson, some bending of the rules is often required, and the financial rewards are often remarkable . If we think the purpose of sport is to prepare young people for success in their future careers, perhaps we should endorse the use of PEDs by young athletes, so that they can learn to bend the rules as a means of professional development?

The purpose of sport is little discussed, even by those who are intimately involved in it – coaches, athletes, avid fans. Treated as ubiquitously understood, it seems clear that our understandings often differ greatly. If we wish to have meaningful discussions about issues such as these, we must come to some agreement on the topic.

I will not aim to foster that agreement here. Instead, I will sketch out some possible purposes of sport – some plausible, some less so – which seem to be relatively common positions held, if implicitly, by the people who discuss the matter. For the most part, I do not believe that these purposes are mutually exclusive, and it is likely that the conceptions most of us hold are some amalgamation of the positions discussed. This outline is not meant to be comprehensive or present any particular argument  – it's just a semi-organized presentation of some of my thoughts on the subject.

Sport as a Career Path

First and quickest. Although there is a small contingent of the population who view participation in sport as a viable career path, mostly made up of parents who are unwilling to accept the overwhelming odds that Little Johnny isn’t really that great a pitcher, the idea of sport as professional development seems incongruous with the way most of us think about it.

Although some parents really do think their kids are destined for the majors, the majority seem not to harbor that illusion, and still think that participation in sport is valuable for their children. Further, few people seem opposed to the idea of adults participating in recreational sports.

I felt compelled to include the possibility of viewing sport as a career path because so much of what we do is viewed in this way. So many of the decisions we make are framed with regard to their influence on our career prospects, that it seems to me that we must at least entertain the notion of sport as professional development. However, given the way most of us seem to actually view sport, this position seems to be the most implausible.

Sport as a Means to Physical Health

If we consider the health of individuals to be important, then it is certainly reasonable to value sport as a means to physical health. The participation in sport, given the right conditions and instruction, can help young people build habits which will improve their health over a lifetime. Sport can be a far more engaging way to exercise than non-sport modalities, which may help engage sedentary adults.

If, however, we wish to view health as the purpose of sport, our actual approach to sport is in need of a serious overhaul. Although I am of the position that any exercise is better than none so long as it promotes improved health, there is room to ask if the way we treat athletes, in particular young athletes, is in fact health promoting.

To take the most obvious examples, contact and collision sports have the potential to be very dangerous, sometimes to the point of being life threatening. Football in particular has a heinous record with regard to bodily injury, inclusive of likelihood of brain injury ranging from an arguably tolerable risk at the high school level to the near certainty of the NFL. Most other contact or collision sports carry moderate-to-high risk of musculoskeletal injury, so this must be taken into consideration when viewing sport as a means towards physical health.

Generally speaking, I do not hold the position that most sports are sufficiently destructive of physical health, at least not to the extent that I would consider them too risky compared to a sedentary lifestyle. However, we must at least consider the ousting of some sports from inclusion based on this outlook.

Sport as Moral Instruction

The idea of participation in sport as a form of moral instruction, again particularly for young persons, is particularly common. Although this seems an attractive position, I’m skeptical of the utility of sport in playing such a role, both in theory and in practice.

Perhaps the most major roadblock is that we don’t all agree about moral values, and as such the use of sport to instill particular morals, at least in a public institution, seems problematic. If a particular coach holds ethical positions contrary to those of the players (or the players parents in the case of minors), it seems unfair to expect the players to adhere to those values for the sake of inclusion in sport.

Some of the values often touted by proponents of this position are uncontroversial. Just about everyone agrees that things like a sound work ethic and a sense of fair play are moral goods. But often, attitudes reflected by coaches may conflict with very reasonable ethical positions. For example, many coaches will engage in practices meant, in their perception, to build toughness and weed out weakness. Implicit in these practices are claims that toughness is desirable and weakness is undesirable, and it doesn’t take much of a logical leap to interpret this as presuming toughness to be moral and weakness as immoral.

Often, and particularly for cisgendered males, engagement in sport is accompanied by the ingraining and moral valuing of heteronormative roles. Hazing, both formal and informal, is a common practice on sports teams, and athletes who do not fit the heteronormative mold are common targets. The use of language which degrades non-heteronormative persons or behaviors is alarmingly normalized in sport environments. Behavior of this type is frequently ignored and sometimes encouraged by coaches.

Membership on a sporting team can also be exclusionary and accompanied by an elevated social status which lends athletes certain types of power and immunity which non-athletes may not have. In a youth environment such as a high school, this may allow athletes to behave in immoral ways towards others with little or no consequence for their actions.

At the highest levels of sport, blatantly immoral conduct is often ignored by organizations where the coaches or athletes involved are successful in the realm of competition. Are boxing organizations establishing a laudable moral framework by allowing Floyd Mayweather to continue competing? The same question for the NFL. What about questions of exploitation of NCAA student-athletes? If sport is to be viewed as morally instructive, it seems reasonable to expect the largest and most influential sporting organizations to conduct themselves ethically.

Although participation in sport likely includes the instruction of some relatively uncontroversial moral values, it seems that, in the way it is actually practiced, there are at least as many moral harms being perpetuated. There are likely many ways of instilling the same uncontroversial values without mixing the moral signal with so much immoral noise. But more importantly, I suspect that the intractable task of getting enough people to agree to the same values and the same way of teaching them makes the implementation of sport as a tool for moral instruction seem implausible.

Sport as Development of Life Skills

Related to the idea of sport as moral instruction, sport is sometimes considered to be a valuable tool for the development of life skills. The ability to deal with adversity, commitment to a plan, following rules, leadership, and teamwork are all touted benefits of participation in sports.

However, this position seems considerably more plausible than sport as moral instruction, at least to me. In fact, it seems so plausible that I have relatively little to say about it. The distinction is that the idea of developing skills which may be applicable outside of the sporting arena is not accompanied by any value claim. Skills, in and of themselves, are amoral.

As such, I think the important questions are of implementation. Does sport actually impart skills such as those outlined above, or merely appear to impart them? Does it impart them as or more effectively than other means?

It seems to be the case that the development of various life skills associated with participation in sport is contingent, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the sport being conducted in a suitable environment and with the right kind of social connections (see here). In general, the outcomes seem to be positive (see here.) It is possible, however, that these positive outcomes are result of a selection bias of one type or another, wherein the people attracted to sports are already predisposed towards the development of certain social and life skills (see here).

I am admittedly unqualified to perform a really effective analysis of the results of the studies linked above. Assuming, I think reasonably, that they are not too far off base, the idea of sport as a developer of life skills seems quite plausible.

Sport as Self-Actualization

Participation in a sport is not often treated as a path to self-actualization, but it seems to me that it is often the implicit goal, particularly among adults who engage in sport recreationally.

This is probably the view towards which I am most sympathetic. Sport is primarily a self-actualizing endeavor for me, and in my coaching practice, I generally take on athletes based on my sense that they are somehow in pursuit of the same thing, and will contribute to the self-actualization of others in our community, rather than judging them by their competitive prospects.

In general, we tend to view artistic endeavors as self-actualizing. Music, painting, poetry, sculpture, and other mediums are considered forms of expression which can lead to actualization in not only the creator, but at times the observer. By contrast, sports may seem crude and lacking in meaning, a purely physical endeavor. One thought is that competition may have a corrupting influence on sport which precludes it from being a self-actualizing process.

An interesting bridge between the two exists in dance. Although there are dance competitions, the endeavor itself is considered an artistic one, and the fact of there being competitive elements in some cases does nothing to detract from this. There seems to be no obvious connection between the mere existence of competition and the removal of whatever self-actualizing processes take place in the creation of the art. I see no reason that this should not be the same with regard to sport. Further, I see no reason to assume that the self-actualizing processes present in the creation of art are not present in the practice of sport, assuming (in the cases of both art and sport) that the appropriate environment and motivations are present.

The self-actualizing elements of the creation of art seem to include, but are not limited to, skill development, self-expression, self-challenge, process orientation, and self-discipline. These elements are, or at least can be, present in the practice of sport, and there seems to be no obvious elements which would counteract these in a way such as to reduce their potential for self-actualization.

So, what is sport for?

It remains unclear. In sketching above a few possible positions on this question, I aimed to clarify my own thought and begin creating the underpinnings of a coherent position. I think it likely that physical health, development of useful life skills, and self-actualization are good and feasible purposes for sport, and I am skeptical that the pursuit of sport as a career path or as moral instruction is helpful or viable in most circumstances. There is much more to be said on the topic, with more clarity and greater nuance than I have provided here. I think it would be to the benefit of all participants in sport – athletes, coaches, and spectators – to engage in such thought, so that we can more thoughtfully answer questions about this obviously important part of our lives.

Does The Program Matter? Ethical Questions about Exercise and Risk

Imagine a fitness program. Devotees of the program are committed, and tend to see impressive results in various metrics of health and fitness (decreased body fat, increased muscle mass, improved cardiorespiratory endurance, improved strength, etc.) However, the program is plagued by claims of injury.

As a former CrossFit affiliate owner, who now works with a large number of athletes who compete in CrossFit, as well as CrossFit gyms, I don't need to do any imagining. This is a conversation I've been having for over a decade now. And although the reduction of risk of injury is certainly an important task which should be pursued by any exercise professional, I will try to argue here that discussion of exercise-induced injury is usually poorly framed, and fails to take into account factors which could drastically change the perspective from which we view the concepts of injury, safety, and risk.

Although my personal experience in this discussion centers primarily around CrossFit, my aim is not to mount a defense of that particular activity. Partially, that is because it turns out that the risk is fairly low, roughly similar to the risk involved in many other commonly employed fitness regimens (see studies on injury risk in CrossFit here* and here, and a literature review on injuries in running here), and so the arguments herein can be applied much more broadly. But in a larger sense, the argument which I wish to present need not depend on the empirical facts about injury rate in CrossFit or other forms of exercise, but instead depend on two other characteristics of injury: type and magnitude.

Type is the likely nature of injuries which may result from the activity. Magnitude is the severity of the effects of the injury. These factors are the primary concerns when considering injury, because they are what have the ability to impact a person's quality of life. Rate is a secondary concern which comes into play only when the type and magnitude of potential injuries are deemed to be sufficiently detrimental that they must be guarded against. If an activity had an injury rate of 100%, but the type and magnitude of the injury were such that they did not at all impact the participant's well-being, there would be no reason to avoid those injuries.

Safety and risk are often presented as two dichotomous, mutually exclusive potential features of an activity. Something is either "safe" or it is "risky". But in reality, they exist not in strict juxtaposition to each other, but on a spectrum. All activities involve some degree of risk (and therefore some degree of safety.) We might say an activity that has a 5% risk is 95% safe. The understanding of safety/risk as a spectrum is of great importance, because it begins to shape the context of questions about injury in a more pragmatic way: when we ask questions about injury, we must first be concerned with type and magnitude, and only then with rate. Risk is the intersection of rate, type, and magnitude, which is to say that risk is measured in the actual negative impact the injuries in a given activity may have on a person’s quality of life. Without accounting for type and magnitude, the mere rate of injury is meaningless.

Once we have a robust understanding of risk, and have assessed the risk within a given activity, we must add a dimension of compare and contrast: risk versus reward. Just as we cannot meaningfully calculate risk with only the injury rate, it is impossible to make a well informed decision about whether or not to take that risk without understanding the potential payoffs.

The National Institutes of Health reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for persons between ages of 1-85 years. Unsurprisingly, the American Heart Association holds that exercise can play a significant part in reducing the risk of heart disease.

Heart disease is followed by malignant neoplasms (cancer) at number two, chronic lower respiratory disease (asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, sometimes called “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) at number four, Alzheimer's at number six, and diabetes at number seven. Of the top seven leading causes of death, at least five can be positively impacted through exercise (cancer and exercise, CLRD and exercise, Alzheimer’s and exercise, diabetes and exercise**). The tenth leading cause of death (fourth among adults aged 18-65) is suicide, and it seems that exercise can play a role in preventing/reducing depression.

In Weisenthal et al (the first linked study on injury rates in CrossFit), the authors describe the type of injuries in CrossFit as “acute and fairly mild.” This can be reasonably extrapolated to exercise-induced injuries in general. When assessing risk as the potential for injury to reduce a person’s quality of life, it seems clear that the type and magnitude of exercise-induced injury constitute a very low risk when contrasted with the reward of avoiding far the more dangerous effects of the diseases outlined above.

When risk assessment accounts for the larger perspective of protection from disease, virtually any type of exercise is very safe indeed, assuming that our measure of the value of exercise is grounded in longevity and quality of life. Given that exercise rates among American adults are worryingly low, and that American children are getting less healthy and fit on average, there seem to be clear ethical grounds for encouraging any mode or model of exercise which gets people moving, with relatively little concern for the rate of exercise-induced injury.

There are at least two potentially troublesome questions which arise from this conclusion. First, if it is true that the ethical import of getting people exercising so heavily outweighs the concern for injury, does it then follow that individual fitness professionals should focus most or all of their time and effort on gaining new clients, rather than honing their craft to offer their clients a safer and more effective product?

There are two suitable responses to this question. First, we can safely draw a distinction between the fitness industry at large, and individual fitness professionals. Although any mode or model of exercise should be encouraged because the upsides so heavily outweigh the downsides, there are strong grounds on which to argue that individual coaches and trainers have a responsibility to provide the best service they can to their clients. The contract (explicit or implicit) between trainer and client can reasonably be seen to create an obligation for the trainer to not only provide exercise, but the most effective exercise they are capable of providing (where effectiveness takes safety into account), and therefore that the trainer should be consistently striving to improve the quality of their service/product.

Second, the question suggests mutual exclusivity between improving the service/product and gaining more clients. There is no reason to believe that these two objectives are opposed to each other, and in fact the inverse may be true. There is no inherent contradiction between promoting exercise of all types, while also insisting that it is incumbent upon fitness professionals to provide the safest, most effective product/service possible.

The second challenge is to ask whether exercise-induced injuries, which is to say musculoskeletal injuries of low magnitude and tolerable type, may cause people to stop exercising. If it turns out to be the case that relatively mild musculoskeletal injuries tend to discourage clients from continuing exercise in the long term, injury rate becomes a more significant ethical concern, since these mild injuries now have the potential to indirectly cause far greater harm by driving the injured persons back into a sedentary lifestyle.

I was not able to find any data specifically pertaining to this question, but it is a issue about which I feel confident depending on anecdotal experience. Though some clients who suffer exercise-induced injury may choose to stop exercising entirely, the vast majority will tend to overcome the injury, improve (often with the help of their trainer) the aspects of their practice which may have led to the injury, and continue exercising more or less unabated. I suspect that the experiences of many or most fitness professionals mirror my own.

The promotion of exercise for public health is an ethical priority. Given the measurement of risk as the intersection of type, rate, and magnitude of injury, and the contrast of the risk of exercise-induced injury against the rewards of improved physical fitness and reduced risk of dangerous disease, there are no moral grounds on which to oppose any form of exercise which falls within the normal parameters of exercise-induced injury. Although individual trainers should be expected to provide the best possible service to their clients, as a community we should support any individual or group efforts to encourage more people to participate in any mode or model of exercise.

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*I am indebted to Russ Greene and Russell Berger of The Russells for making it very easy to find the pertinent research on injury rates in CrossFit, and for their article “CrossFit, Injury, and Risk: A Paradigm Shift”, which discusses the issue of reframing the discussion of risk in exercise.
**Most of the evidence for exercise preventing or improving diabetes is with regard to type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetics likely see health benefits from exercise, but as of now the magnitude of the impact of exercise on type 1 diabetes seems to be significantly smaller.