The Simplicity and Complexity Paradox in Training and Coaching

In a presentation last year I used the concept of yin and yang to describe the inter-relationship between physical and technical in track and field athletics. In essence, yin and yang describes how opposing elements (light and dark, fire and water) paradoxically serve to complement and ultimately define each other. Much the same applies when considering simplicity versus complexity. There are many instances where each of these elements apply in the realms of coaching and various facets of practice in elite sport. In this post we will explore the paradoxical - or yin and yang - relationship between simplicity versus complexity in the fields of coaching, physical preparation and sports injury.

Know your sport or event in its utter complexity so you can teach it simply
— Greg Hull

@@There is a strong case for simplicity when it comes to coaching and instruction@@. As we spoke about in a previous post there are apparent benefits to being sparing and concise with the explicit instruction employed to steer an athlete's learning when acquiring new skills. Essentially, the less cognitive 'noise' or baggage that accompanies the learning process, the more robust the skill is likely to prove under pressure.

From this viewpoint, capturing the essence of the movement to keep things as simple as possible when introducing new concepts and movement skills has clear advantages. Finding ways to relate new skills to what the athlete already knows is one tactic that allows the amount of 'new' information during the learning process to be kept to a minimum.

@@If you cannot explain it simply you do not understand it well enough@@
— Albert Einstein

So if simplicity is so valuable in teaching and learning, does this mean that by definition the simplest solution is always the best?

Clearly this will depend somewhat on the situation, but in short, the answer is typically 'no'. Herein lies the paradox.

@@For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong@@
— H.L. Mencken

Most coaches and practitioners will be familiar with the scenario of a brash young upstart who thinks they have cracked it and that they possess the solution to fix every problem. Essentially if you only have a hammer in your toolbox, the likelihood is that you will see everything as a nail. This folly is beguiling and the only known cure is acquiring deeper knowledge and experience.

Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves, it is likely that to some extent this scenario describes our younger selves, before sport and the complexity of biology and individual responses taught us a lesson.

Irrespective of the area concerned, no single approach offers a panacea; there is no one universal remedy. Moreover, there are numerous examples of the superiority of multifaceted or 'complex' interventions over simple single-mode solutions.

For instance, when training to develop the capability to express power, 'mixed methods' approaches generally show superior results in comparison to single training mode interventions. Interestingly, the blended approach can also yield additional improvements that are not evident when the respective training modes are applied in isolation.

In the area of injury prevention, it is similarly evident that when respective approaches are employed in combination the outcomes are far more positive, with respect to movement kinematics, injury risk factors and rates of injury reported after the intervention. Indeed, investigations have reported that when the same single interventions are employed in isolation they may fail to elicit the desired changes.

Once again, it is the blend or 'complex' of different approaches which is the factor that differentiates between successful versus unsuccessful outcomes.

So, there it is, the yin of simplicity is complemented by the yang of complexity. Irrespective of your area of specialism, both elements are likely to be required in practice. Simplicity in communicating ideas and instruction; complexity in the selection and blending of approaches when devising coaching, training and treatment interventions.

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