Coaching a Dynamic Systems Approach: This is a Guide not a Solution


Written by: Kevin Cann


I am fortunate enough to coach quite a few other coaches.  We always have some good conversations and I enjoy watching their improvements as a coach just as much as watching their totals grow.


This last week I felt as if I had the same conversation a handful of times.  This made me realize that people want to understand some of these things and actually implement them with their lifters.  I perhaps have not given all of the tools to do that in my podcasts and articles.


A Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) approach is not a solution to a problem.  It is also not as simple as things may seem.  It is easy to take the concepts and morph it into a system that promises to solve a problem.


This is how most things work.  Look at something like the FMS.  The FMS claims that in a series of 7 tests it can detect movement dysfunction that could decrease performance and increase injury risk.  Here is your problem.


By identifying the movement dysfunction and applying corrective exercises you can increase performance and decrease injury risk.  Here is your solution.  The real problem is that this does not work.  Meta-analysis has shown the FMS is not valid or reliable in detecting injury risk or performance outcomes.


This is an easy trap to get stuck in because it is human nature.  We want answers.  However, if you have read and listened to my stuff you know how I feel about this. There are no answers.  This is a tough frame of mind to encapsulate.  It took years of frustration for me.


Using a constraints-led approach we use a lot of variations to help improve efficiency in the lifts. I have go to variations for breakdowns in each lift.  This does not mean that those variations are a solution to that breakdown.


Once we put that variation in, we need to watch and adjust.  Everyone learns and responds very differently.  It is not just the exercise to consider for training either. We need to take a look at the person as a whole.


How is their confidence when lifting?  Their beliefs and past experiences matter as well.  These are very important.  Oftentimes these do not change my exercise selection.  Sometimes if they lack confidence, I will use variations they can load up, but other than that it does not change things much.


Instead it alters how I talk with each lifter.  How we give feedback is extremely important.  Your words matter.  If you tell a lifter that they have a problem within their lifts, they will interpret that in their own individual way.


Some might think they are at risk of injury because of it.  Most of my lifters know that is not the case.  However, if I said they had a problem that needed to be fixed most would become hyperaware of that issue.


This increased conscious awareness can actually decrease performance.  This becomes a paralysis by analysis situation.  It is our job as a coach to guide this process by altering a constraint to get what we want.  It is the lifter’s job to lift.  They need to be an athlete and get after it and make adjustments from rep to rep and set to set.  They can’t be too consciously aware of what they are doing.


Think of Lebron James shooting a basketball.  Think he thinks about every action of that jump shot as he is doing it?  No.  High level skill occurs when movement becomes more subconscious.  When we train, we alter positions to improve this subconscious skill level.


This is very complex and again, is much more than just throwing some exercises, sets, and reps on a piece of paper.  Everything matters.  We need to be able to guide them in a direction with an understanding that there are no answers.  This is very hard to understand.


If you are going to utilize a theoretical approach, you must understand this.  If you aren’t utilizing a theoretical approach you will not get as much success as you should.  The FMS is a good example.  It assumes that 1+1=2.  This is the same for most general principles.


The human is a non-linear complex system.  1+1=a shape. Many of you reading this will laugh and not truly understand what I mean.  Over time you will.  I highly recommend James Gleick’s book “Chaos.”


I choose to latch onto Karl Friston’s predictive processing framework.  This theory theorizes that the mind will choose hypothesis based off of error minimization.  The world is a hallucination created by our mind and we choose the hallucination with the lowest amount of predicted error.  Read about Bayesian statistics.


Our mind sits inside of our skull.  It can’t view or experience the world on its own.  It uses our senses to get feedback and make predictions.  It will choose a hypothesis based off of how right it thinks it is. At times we will alter our perceptions to actually decrease error minimization.  This decreases the surprise that we encounter in the world.


This would assume we go along just changing the world based off of our mind’s predictions.  This is not always true.  There is balance between the sensory feedback that we get. We receive information from the world and can update our hypothesis based off of this.  There has to be a balance between this top-down (perception) and bottom-up (sensory feedback) approach.


Let us look at a real-life situation here.  We are sitting inside our house at night time and we hear something outside.  If we read in the news there have been a string of robberies in the area, we may choose this hypothesis.  However, if we live in a more rural location, we may choose a hypothesis such as racoons getting into the trash.


We get up and go outside to check things out.  In both cases we see it is our neighbor coming to give us mail that was placed in their mailbox accidentally.  Now, the next time that we hear the same noise we may choose the hypothesis that our neighbor has our mail again.  We may still choose the other hypothesis as well.  It may take multiple times of this being our neighbor to update the prediction.


So you see, there are no answers and it is impossible for us to know which hypothesis someone will choose. The theory gives us a framework to follow.  If we understand the concepts of the theory, it can help guide our decision making.


We need to understand the layers within this as well.  There are probably an infinite number of hierarchies within the body and how they interact with one another.  Even if we wanted to know the answer, we do not possess the ability to arrive at it.


Here is a funny analogy of what I think of.  I have played this game with my daughter where it is a ship balancing on a skinny pole. You need to put pirate penguins on the ship and whoever puts a pirate penguin down causing it to tip over loses.


This is literally how I view coaching but pretend this ship can move forwards.  Every time we add or subtract something the ship can tip over. We need to do this in a way that allows the ship to stay balanced and move forward.  A little swaying is ok, but we do not want a capsize.


The ship is our lifter and the movement we can see through objective measures such as estimated 1RM. Each pirate penguin is our response. This could be exercise, sets, reps, etc. We make a prediction about placement for the penguin and how it will balance that ship.  We then place it down and see what happens.


We aren’t coming up with solutions to a problem.  We are making our best guess on what to do while taking into consideration the entire human.  We watch objective measures to get unbiased feedback and we updated our coaching predictions as the process goes along.


This theory also applies to motor control.  You predict feedback before you lift.  If we use Friston’s theory, we will choose the motor pattern that has the lowest predicted error.  If we believe the lift is heavy than this may be a technical breakdown.


We perform the set. If we get the breakdown, our feedback is also supporting that hypothesis.  We now have binding that has occurred, and this can be a tough change.  This is why lifting heavy in positions that punish this inefficiency are important. Error in task completion will yield the biggest changes.


While doing this though we need to understand the human in front of us.  Their emotions and beliefs matter as well.  How deeply rooted these predictions, emotions, and beliefs also matter. In some cases they can be right on the surface and easily changed.  In other cases they are so deep it is actually a part of who they are.  These cases can be extremely difficult and maybe even impossible to change.


The biggest take away from this is understanding there are no answers.  The complexity of this needs to be respected as well.  It is easy to take this framework and do exactly what the FMS did and sell it as a solution to a problem.  There are no problems and there are no solutions.

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