Practitioners across different domains will be familiar with their field of practice being referred to as an 'industry'. We frequently hear mention of the strength and conditioning industry, the sports physiotherapy industry, even the sports coaching industry. In this post we consider these trends for terming our professions in this way, and explore why an 'industry approach' might be problematic. From these discussions we can attempt to plot a path back to cultivating our craft, and restoring pride in our chosen profession by rejecting this ‘industry’ mindset.
SCALABLE PRACTICE FOR INDUSTRIAL OUTPUT...
On the one hand the desire for practice to be scalable is understandable. Coming up with a reproducible system of working and creating a consistent 'client experience' on the surface would appear to have some merit.
Despite such apparently benign aspirations, I would contend that in referring to our field of practice as an 'industry' we have unwittingly created major problems. As we will explore, these problems are manifested in numerous ways.
By definition, the term 'industry' immediately conjures the notion of mass appeal and production on an industrial scale. We immediately think of ‘service delivery’ in terms of automation, and a generic one-size fits all approach designed for the masses.
An illustrative example is the 'strength and conditioning industry', particularly as it exists in the United States (funnily enough, the genesis of this post came following a visit to the US in 2017). This 'industry' mindset can be seen in the drive for replication, standardisation, and reducing practice to a 'system' designed for mass consumption and franchising.
FLAWS IN THE INDUSTRY APPROACH...
A we have spoken about in a previous post, a 'model of practice' or a 'training system' to some degree implies a machine-type approach, whereby there is a direct, predictable and repeatable relationship whereby input A leads to output B. By definition, this assumes a level of consistency and predictability, both between individuals and within the same individual.
Unfortunately, neither consistency nor predictability are generally features associated with biological systems. By their nature, biological systems are subject to a host of different influences. As such, outcomes when dealing with biological systems are both nonlinear and unpredictable.
The basis for an industry approach is therefore inherently flawed. Even in a relatively homogeneous population such as elite athletes you still find a great deal of diversity. Moreover variability is an inherent feature even when dealing with the same individual at different points in time.
THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE...
Dealing with sentient beings such as humans adds additional degrees of variability. How a stimulus is anticipated and appraised affects how it is perceived and experienced by the individual, and in turn the stress response and adaptation that is elicited. Numerous psycho-social factors both within environment and beyond it can all influence the time course, magnitude and direction of outcomes.
In other words, the same intervention performed in exactly the same manner, can be anticipated, perceived or experienced in a different way, and as a result we can see a different outcome. Indeed, the same intervention performed with the same individual at different time points, or against a different backdrop in terms of lifestyle factors or other psychological stressors or emotional state entirely unrelated to the intervention, might also lead to a divergence in outcomes.
As we consider these points we can immediately see that this scenario does not lend itself to a standard system of operating.
SOLUTIONS WITHOUT QUESTIONS...
Moving into the sport science and technology realms, commercial interests are a major driver for what becomes standard 'industry practice' as employed by practitioners. In different realms we see off-the-shelf 'performance solutions' promoted by the manufacturer for a variety of applications. There are numerous examples of this in sports coaching, training, and sports injury.
The motivation for the use of these tools in practice is typically driven by marketing. In accordance with manufacturing industry practices these products are positioned and promoted in a way that exploits the different practitioners’ biases and insecurities. Often, these tools are purchased and employed simply out of desire to keep up with our competitors, rather than with any specific purpose or to fulfil any particular need. After all, it is hard to position ourselves as ‘industry leading’ without 'state-of-the-art' equipment.
A consequence of the uptake and application of such tools and technology being driven in this way is that @@'performance solutions' are increasingly employed without any consideration of what the question might be@@.
To be clear, the problem here is not the technology, or those who manufacture them (after all, they genuinely do work in an industry). The tools are not to blame. Rather the issue is what motivates our choice to employ these tools and the purpose (or lack thereof) behind their use in practice.
A corollary of this trend is the push for standardised interventions, which by definition are not tailored to meet the specific needs of the situation at hand. This generic approach inherently fails to give appropriate consideration to the unique requirements of the individual, or the specifics of the problem we are here to help to solve. Yet once again, such systems of operating are promoted as 'industry leading'.
A DOT-TO-DOT APPROACH TO A NONLINEAR PROCESS…
As we have noted previously, the strength and conditioning ‘industry’ has given us heavily promoted ‘training systems’ and must-have equipment with the latest technology as ‘training solutions’, sometimes in combination. In the sports injury realm we see trademarked protocols for injury screening (complete with certifications and an accompanying set of equipment) and endorsed prehab schemes. Against this background it seems natural that we now see ‘plug-and-play’ approaches in the sports coaching 'industry'.
When we venture into the realms of human movement, whether exercise therapy or in a training or coaching context, we need to recognise and understand the intricacies of motor control and the complexities of the processes involved in both executing motor skills and acquiring them.
As famously noted by Nikolai Bernstein, in reality no two repetitions of a given movement are identical. Variability is an inherent feature, even for the same task performed under similar conditions by the same individual.
Motor learning and skill acquisition are also by their nature entirely nonlinear. The trajectory for changes and improvements does not trace a neat line. Rather, things vacillate in an erratic manner; there are periods where progress plateaus, and performance might decline at one time and then lurch forwards thereafter. Moreover, the trajectory and time-course for this progression is highly individual, and as such can vary markedly between athletes in a group.
Once again, plug-and-play coaching options, involving the reliance on a singular method of instruction or packaged coaching programme, are clearly not fit for purpose.
OUR 'PERSONAL BRAND' IN THE INDUSTRY…
The notion that we are operating within an 'industry' inevitably leads us to consider our own brand identity. The idea of our personal brand has become ubiquitous, particularly in the social media era. Almost inevitably this leads to marketing our personal brand – i.e. self-promotion. After all we must build our personal brand awareness. In this way we can add to our status in 'the industry', and the perceived value attached to it.
Since we have come to accept our field as an industry, it should not be a surprise that we see 'start ups' aggressively market themselves as they attempt to disrupt the marketplace. @@Take a tour of social media and you will find a legion of 'virtual experts' vying to establish their brand@@.
Social media provides a virtual platform to parade our wares and extol our own expertise. Indeed, in the Information Age virtual expertise and ‘online presence’ are becoming as prized as actual applied knowledge and experience. There are a number of notable examples of individuals being recruited into senior roles based on the name they have created on these platforms and the perceived credibility this lends them, with apparently little regard for any demonstrated competence with live humans in a real world athletic setting.
'THE INDUSTRY' SPAWNS GURUS...
The areas of coach education and continuing professional development, which we might assume are borne of some degree of altruism and desire to impart knowledge, nevertheless also provide fertile soil for those with an 'industry' frame of mind.
We find that the premise and value proposition associated with workshops and resources are increasingly manufactured. Often, it is quite thinly veiled that the primary aim is selling rather than providing education per se.
Examples of this include practical workshops instructing techniques or using technology in order to create demand for a product. These events also provide a vehicle for indoctrinating those who attend in the value proposition and marketing for said product (and of course directly selling it).
An illustrative example that comes to mind is kinesio tape, which spawned a spin-off industry for workshops delivering training on how to best use this magical tape, whilst ‘educating’ practitioners attending on the full gamut of the miraculous advertised benefits. This case is all the more pertinent given recent events whereby a number of the marketing claims made by the manufacturer have since been disproven, prompting a lawsuit for false advertising.
One way @@the industry mindset can be observed is in the scrabble to attain (or self-proclaim) the status of ‘authority in the field’ or ‘industry leader’@@. The whole premise for this dubious practice is unsound, as it implies some sort of monopoly on knowledge. In the words of Richard Feynman, there is no ‘authority’ who possesses the right to proclaim what is a good idea. Or as the lyric goes (for fans of Sting and The Police), ‘there is no monopoly on common sense’.
PROFESSION VERSUS INDUSTRY...
Describing our respective field as an industry alludes to the commercial interests that come with working in a professional capacity. It is true that these are occupations for which we get paid; it follows that making money becomes part of what motivates us to practice. However, the danger here is that in defining what we do in this way, we lose sight of the more honourable definitions of a profession.
Let us assume what originally motivated us to take the path into our chosen profession was something more meaningful, as opposed to primarily driven by the desire for commercial success (making money) or ego (making our name in the industry).
There is nothing wrong with getting paid. Indeed we should operate with the expectation that we will be compensated for our time in a way that is commensurate with the expertise and value we provide. However, financial compensation should be a by-product, not the primary motivator that determines our approach and drives our behaviour.
As coaches and practitioners, in choosing to view our field as an industry we can inadvertently rob ourselves of the sense of our profession as a calling or a vocation. In particular, @@any onus on cultivating our craft is quickly lost when we succumb to an industry mindset@@.
ELUCIDATING THE QUESTION…
Framing our profession as an industry encourages a standard mode of practice and pre-packaged solutions. In this scenario, given the process is predetermined and the solution is preconceived, there is really no impetus or inclination to invest much time or attention in assessing the athlete or hearing what they have to say.
This alone would seem a major failing in our duty to the athlete.
I am very fortunate that I presently have Gerry Ramogida as a colleague. Gerry purposely allocates extra time for his initial appointment with a new client, to allow a thorough history and assessment. He recently remarked that the simple act of listening to the individual, permitting them to tell the story of what has been bothering them whilst he actively pays attention to what they have to say, is one of the biggest ways he can serve them as a therapist.
Each athlete presents a different puzzle. Moreover, even for the same individual this is a puzzle that will change over time. To not take the time to find out what the puzzle is before we try to solve it does not make a lot of sense.
CUSTOMISED PROCESS AND SOLUTIONS…
Whether we are involved in coaching, athletic preparation, or we work in the realm of sports injury, the task we face is not one of manufacturing or mass production.
Rather than replication our focus should be customisation. @@We should view our practice in terms of bespoke tailoring not mass production@@.
Irrespective of whether we are a coach or a practitioner, working with an athlete comprises a problem solving process and an ongoing journey of exploration. This is particularly the case when dealing with an injury or underlying pathology (and this will apply to the majority of athletes at different points in time). We should therefore be seeking to develop excellence in problem-solving and our propensity to interact with humans, rather than becoming an automaton in how we practice and approach each individual.
REINSTATING THE PROFESSION...
@@We have created a monster that rears its ugly head in numerous ways with the relatively recent convention of framing our field of practice as an 'industry'@@.
On a fundamental level, the transactional mindset that comes with framing our practice in this way is also not appropriate to the space we operate in. When we work with an athlete ultimately our aim is autonomy. In essence we should be seeking to make ourselves redundant, not fostering dependence in an effort to secure repeat business.
The solution here is to return to viewing our field of practice as a profession, not an industry. Altering our mindset in this way might help us to resist our practice becoming driven by commercial interests. Reinstating the profession will also allow us to reject the gurus and virtual experts with their empty claims divorced of any value offered. Ultimately this conduct devalues the service provided by other practitioners in the field, and undermines the integrity of our profession.
Rather than self-promotion we can be circumspect and share only what might provide value to others. Likewise we can inform others of what we offer and provide opportunities to demonstrate the value; in this way we allow the proposition to sell itself.
IN CLOSING – THERE IS NO SECRET SAUCE…
A revelation from my travels working with elite athletes, coaches, and practitioners across the world: there is no secret sauce. @@It is not about finding a magical formula that we can trademark and franchise to build our empire@@.
In fact, what separates elite coaches and practitioners are their higher order skills that allow them to better explore and solve problems, not their use of some unique method or tool. What we require is critical thinking and clinical reasoning, not some magic bullet or trademark approach.
It is not about attracting customers by proclaiming we have the solution. We must take the time to figure out what the problem is before we can even consider formulating what approach we might take to tackle it.
Whatever the advertised benefits, a preconceived notion of the solution can blind us to the problem. Buying into a particular method or fixed way of operating similarly constrains our ability to be agile and adaptable. Once again, the differentiating factors are the higher order skills that allow us to evaluate and discern the puzzle to be solved, adapt our approach to the individual and the scenario in front of us, and innovate to create a custom solution tailored to the unique problem.
Reinstating our field of practice as a profession, rather than succumbing to 'industry' thinking, offers a path back to sanity. Hereby we can return to a mindset of cultivating our craft and the higher order skills we require for the space we operate in. Once we turn minds away from chasing fame and fortune we can place the focus back on the athlete and how we might serve them.
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