Nuance - The Path to Enlightenment in Athletic Preparation

Nuance is an under recognised keystone of practice in elite sport. We have spoken previously about critical thinking as a critical skill for coaches and practitioners in the Information Age, as a means to evaluate and integrate information from different sources. Nuanced understanding is equally critical for the steps that follow. Nuance is required to derive real meaning from the knowledge acquired and make use of it. Nuance is also critical to cope with the complexity inherent in human performance. In this post we will make the case for practicing nuance as an active skill in order to combat the epidemics of superficial knowledge and binary thinking.


Just as with critical thinking, nuance has become more crucial and yet increasingly rare in the Information Age. Social media has become a prominent source of information for many coaches and practitioners. By its nature, the information delivered on these platforms is the condensed and bite-sized version; this is integral to what makes it useful. The inevitable downside is that this format does not lend itself to nuance.

Social media is a great tool for learning when used with intention and acknowledgement that it skims the surface. It is our use of this tool that is the issue. We need balanced consumption. If social media is our predominant source of information this is 'fast food' learning. At best information consumed in this way yields superficial knowledge.

Nuance is also notably absent in the polarised debates on different topics on these platforms.

An associated trend is the extremism in the way that viewpoints are presented on social media platforms. Adopting an extreme or rigid position on a contentious topic has become a tactic to attract a following. Social media has also become a forum used to propagate a particular narrow world view or school of thought, and to attack others who express other views.

Sadly, this extremism is not only the domain of the ever-growing legion of 'virtual experts'. Those in the fields of sports science and sports medicine are increasingly guilty of dogmatic behaviour and unworthy conduct on social media. These platforms are increasingly vehicles for various agendas, be it commercial or self-interest (or some combination thereof).


Amidst the ill-informed clamour on social media, there have been recent calls for reason from prominent voices in the applied sports sciences. Mike McGuigan wrote an excellent editorial last year on the fallacy of extreme positions and polarised debates. The theme of the editorial was that context is critical, and inevitably ‘it depends’.

It was likewise welcome and very reassuring that complexity and nuance were recurring themes in both the presentations and surrounding discussions during the recent high performance strength and conditioning symposium hosted at the United States Olympic Center. This was perhaps a reflection of the level of professional experience and accumulated wisdom of those assembled for the event, which is great credit to the organisers.


I struggle with absolutes...
— Dan Pfaff

@@Absolutes are rare in the realms of human performance@@. Physics aside, there are very few universal rules. @@In general, it is generally unsafe to generalise@@.

Regular readers will be aware that I cite Dan Pfaff often. Nuanced understanding is a hallmark of coaching wisdom and once again Dan offers a perspective that resonates on this topic. Dan describes athletic preparation in terms of 'spectral phenomena' - i.e. existing on a spectrum.

Elite athletes are a special population. They are 'outliers'. Moreover athletes are also a diverse and heterogenous population. Each athlete sits in a different point on a continuum.

Diversity is acknowledged in many sports (notably team sports). But the continuum concept also applies to specialised events. A closer looks shows that athletes with differing individual make up bring a range of solutions to the same problem. This persists even when we eliminate aspects of physiology and tactics.

An example from track and field athletics is that two high jumpers can clear the same height with radically different approach velocity and take off mechanics (exemplified by Donald Thomas versus Stefan Holm). Hence, in jump events athletes are often broadly classified as either a 'power-jumper' or a 'speed-jumper'. Once again, in reality each athlete sits on a different point on a continuum between these two poles.

Given the nature of what we are dealing with, it should not be surprising that exceptions are the rule.


Make things as simple as possible. But not simpler.
— Albert Einstein

@@The allure of absolutes and fixed mindsets is the sense of (artificial) certainty it creates@@. Such need for reassurance stems from the fact that the alternative to the binary view of the world seems to involve too many questions and complications. Opening ourselves up to the possibility that there might be more to it (and it depends) is frightening to entertain. Allowing for such complexity could leave us lost at sea. Many choose not to be troubled by troubling possibilities.

@@Just as we crave certainty, we struggle with imperfection@@. In the face of critique we are too quick to discredit entirely. Observing that there are apparent flaws or questions raised too often leads us to disregard what has been presented entirely - and indeed many do not trouble themselves to entertain it in the first instance.

On the contrary there is almost always some merit whatever the limitations. @@We can find value if we remain open to looking@@. Equally we don't have to swallow anything whole. Again the situation is not binary. Which brings us back to nuance.

On a fundamental level we need to accept that everything (and everybody) is in its essence imperfect. Each piece of evidence that comes to light will inevitably be incomplete. There is always a need to interpret and to infer, in order for it to become 'actionable intelligence'.It is absolutely important to acknowledge flaws and shortcomings in whatever is presented. Equally most often there is value to be found and lessons to be taken.

@@Complex does not have to be complicated@@. A nuanced understanding allows the complexity integral to the process of preparing athletes to be navigated.


The folly of dealing in absolutes becomes readily apparent when we expose ideas and practices to 'live' conditions and real-life athletes. Any concept too slavishly applied will inevitably be a wrong fit for a number of the athletes we encounter.

We are dealing with complex adaptive systems. By definition, we must account for this complexity and be ready to adapt our approach to each athlete, and to the situation at hand.

By extension every statement should essentially be marked with a virtual asterix. We should accept as a given there will be a number of exceptions or caveats to be listed in the virtual footnotes.

The notion that 'it depends' is of course not generally well received by those craving certainty and facile answers to complex questions.

Instead of searching for straightforward, we should perhaps change our thinking to defining the parameters and establishing factors to be considered. To do so requires that we allow for nuance in our thinking and accept that it will be a process of reasoning on case by case basis.


Presumption that a universal rule exists is clearly nonsensical. So too is the assumption of uniformity. Diversity aside, even for the same individual the situation is highly dynamic. Things are in a state of constant flux. How an individual athlete responds will inevitably evolve over time.

Peeling this back another layer, we must consider phenotype (expression of inherited traits) as an evolving picture. Prior exposure to training has 'legacy effects', which alters how the athlete responds to the same training, year on year. There will also be a 'legacy effect' of the athlete's cumulative injury history, affecting both capacity and capability over time. There are also the host of bio-psycho-social factors affect athlete's state at any given time affecting how they perceive, experience, and respond to a training stressor.

In addition to accounting for complexity at the level of the individual, nuance in relation to application extends to considering context and the situation at hand.


As outlined there are a host of factors to consider in the reasoning process, and a need to allow for the fact that the situation is highly fluid and in constant flux. Moreover many of the aforementioned bio-pyscho-social factors and other elements at play are not completely knowable.

Fundamentally, @@even the best and most experienced coach cannot entirely predict the outcome@@. Heuristics can help navigate if we accept our general rule of thumb has exceptions, and we tailor to the individual case and circumstances at hand. Equally, we are inevitably dealing in best guesses.

Armed with this understanding, this becomes an ongoing process of educated best guess, observe, monitor outcome, alter approach or adjust course accordingly (repeat).


We opened up this post with the statement that nuance is a keystone of practice in elite sport. As outlined, nuance must be applied in how we consume information in order to cope with imperfection, find value, and derive meaning. This is particularly vital when delving into the mire on social media.

Nuance as it relates to both understanding and application is required to implement knowledge acquired into practice under 'live' conditions and real athletes, with all the complexity, variety and variability this entails.

In closing, nuance is not only the path to enlightenment but also offers a means to enlightened practice.

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