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The Varied Methods Hypothesis

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Outliers' was published. It popularised Anders Ericsson's 10000 hours rule, and made science mainstream. Ericsson himself took issue with Gladwell's interpretation of the findings, but nonetheless, the world had been introduced to the concept of an outlier, and why maybe they were a little more predictable in their emergence than one might have thought. What Ericsson terms deliberate practice could be strictly adhered to over a number of years, with the focus on a specific goal, and out the other end would pop a world class performer. This could be in sports, music, the arts, or any number of professional fields. Whilst Ericsson does acknowledge that biologically determined traits such as height and size of frame can be contributors to success, outcomes are largely determined by the frequency, dedication to and nature of practice undertaken.

I can agree with this in that I can both grasp the theoretical concept, and can anecdotally recall the journey to success of people I have known, in a variety of disciplines. This all assumes though, that there is a best way to practice, and established technique to master, or a pre-trodden path to walk. Ericcson does acknowledge that something like chess, with a finite number of possibilities in each move, is different than mastering, say, football, where there are infinite scenarios that a player may encounter. Outside of this line of thinking though, I think there is a conversation to be had about the outliers amongst the outliers. Why so many world record holders, world and Olympic champions, and winners of tournaments of international renown, are often considered outliers by those in their own field, by expert coaches, teachers, and fellow sportspeople.

When I was growing up, I had two idols in athletics; Michael Johnson, and John Regis. Whilst Regis wasn't quite as much of a standout athlete as Johnson, both impressed on the world stage, where Johnson in particular, was one of the most dominant sprinters in history. Both of these men were outliers amongst their peers. Regis for his stature; he was much thicker set than his rivals, looking incapable of reaching the speeds he did, whereas Johnson was repeatedly talked about for his backwards leaning running posture, which flew in the face of conventional wisdom.

In Olympic weightlifting, multiple world records in the clean and jerk are currently held, and have been previously held, by athletes who squat jerk, as opposed to the widely taught and technically heralded split jerk. One of its most famous proponents is the now famous Lu Xioujun, who has multiple world records, world championships and Olympic titles to his name.

In distance running, Paula Radcliffe, the women's marathon world record holder until 2019, famously ran with a tick, her head seeming to wobble almost uncontrollably, especially as she grew more tired.

In 2018, Ross Edgley swam around the entire coast of Great Britain without touching land. Although he was no stranger to water, having swam and played waterpolo to a good standard as a schoolboy, with previously impressive powerlifting numbers, and records in pulling cars for marathon distances, Ross was not only built completely differently to any other distance swimmer of note, but his training was poles apart too; he famously continued strength training between his monster six hour swim legs.

Whether working at odds with conventional wisdom in terms of technical approach, or whether fighting what nature gave them in terms of anthropometrics, the examples above, along with countless others, have been outliers amongst entire fields of outliers. They have excelled, when the existing methods and best practice suggested they wouldn't. Each of these athletes has, in their own small way, changed not only what is though possible, but how we approach training and technique in those fields.

With this is mind, I suggest we not only need 10000 hours of deliberate practice to be an outlier, but an open-minded approach to what might work in order to be an outlier amongst outliers. Every time something like this is suggested, I'm not arrogant or ignorant enough to claim to be the first, or even unique, there is an almost reflexive reaction from factions of the sports science community, and most notably, those entrenched in the respective governing bodies and coaching communities who point to the established way of doing things, and the existing body of research. Whilst in some cases they no doubt have good reason, that scepticism, in my humble opinion, is sometimes the biggest barrier an athlete can face.

The two key points I would make when arguing for a more varied approach to training for excellence are as follows; logic suggests there is only so strong, perfect, fast, that humans can be by following what we have always done, and, everything was once an untested, unproven approach, that someone dared to try. Let us take Olympic weightlifting for example. British Weightlifting, the governing body in Great Britain, quite rightly encourages children to compete. At younger ages, rather than competing to see who can lift the most weight, they compete for points awarded based on technique. So far, so good. If we go back to the earlier example given about the number of squat jerk world records for a moment, consider now that points are ONLY awarded for a split jerk being correctly executed, and that no other style of jerk scores points. At this entry level in sport, we have already written off one of the most successful versions of the lift seen on the world stage. We have channelled our young lifters into the split jerks, at the complete exclusion of the push, power or squat variations. Would it not make more sense to practice all variations, and allow the lifter to naturally follow the one for which they show a preference in their later years? This aligns with the Soviet methods which popularised General Physical Preparedness (GPP) in which all athletes built as broad an athletic base as possible, before being streamed into sports to which they were best suited. Doping scandals aside, Soviet graduates of this system proved its efficacy across numerous disciplines.

For an example exploring methods that is more training style based than technique based, let us look more closely at Ross Edgley's Great British Swim. There is no question he clocked up some serious miles and hours in the pool leading up to the event, but he kept a heavy emphasis on strength training, and his own GPP. Acknowledging in his book, "The Art of Resilience" the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID) principle, he didn't twist it as so many sports scientists seem to, and understood that it can only be applied on top of a GPP base, and that furthermore, this base is not built, and then Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP) simply built on top, but that GPP continues throughout, albeit taking a back seat during times of preparation closer to a competition or event. Ross uses in his previous book, "The World's Fittest Book" the example of the broad base built by strongman and field athlete Geoff Capes, which even included fell running. The theory goes that whilst GPP might not directly contribute to your given sport or discipline, although it may, and the degree to which will differ by sport, it does two things; increases the volume and intensity of training that one can tolerate, and decreases susceptibility to injury, both chronic and acute.

Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell trains powerlifters, sprinters, fighters and athletes for the NFL, amongst many other sports and sporting pursuits. He is a huge advocate of GPP, and is credited with popularising the conjugate method of training in the US, and with bringing the Cold War era Russian texts into his practice with great success. He frequently evolves and adapts his approach, and applies it to a multitude of specialities outside of his native powerlifting. This has seen him ruffle feathers in sports such as Olympic weightlifting, sprinting, and preparing athletes for the NFL combine. Although he has famously made sprinters much faster, where sprint coaches have failed to, without having them sprint a single yard, he is still regarded as an anomaly by those in the fields he is helping to revolutionise. Two decades ago, strength training was certainly not a priority for sprinters, and for those who did engage in it, it was often programmed and overseen by their track coach as opposed to a strength coach. Whilst Simmons' methods still aren't mainstream, his successes suggest there is further ground to be made by broadening the GPP base of a sprinter, and that this base might yield returns in longevity too.

So based on these varied observations, across a number of discrete disciplines and applications, what exactly is my hypothesis? In short, don't try to be, or encourage your athlete to be an outlier. Use the proven methods and techniques, but, deliberately expose them to doses of variations on the fringes of what you do. Even if this doesn't become their main technique, or approach, it will add to the size of the athlete's base. If they are in fact an outlier, these controlled exposures will reveal that to the trained eye, and allow the otherwise limiting shackles of convention to be removed sooner rather than later. The second aspect of the hypothesis is that you should not waste too much time, or expend too much energy trying to eliminate what are perceived as less desirable traits or methods, if they aren't preventing results. Too much time trying to remove Paula Radcliffe's head bob, or make Michael Johnson run more upright, or even approach the magical 22 degree forward lean, may have destroyed the magic that let them dominate. The final strand is that what works best now, may not be best in the future. If something doesn't work now, it might be the only option one day. As our bodies add muscle, accumulate injuries, or simply just age, we may have to adjust technique to suit. The broader the GPP base that has been built, the easier the shift will be, and the less likely injury is to occur as a result.

Don't force difference or uniqueness for vanity or for the sake of it, but expose yourself or your athlete to the fringes of what you or they do, play with variety, and allow the odd idiosyncrasy to remain if it doesn't negatively affect the outcome. Remember, the prettiest technique doesn't win races, lifting competitions, or much else. Form should follow function, so seek to maximise function not form. As an athlete, or a coach of one, you have no choice but to be a utilitarian, since intentions count for nothing.


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