By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)

My recent article on the four the four pillars of athletic development talks about how building successful athletes and a team are rooted in the different skills and competencies of mental, physical, tactical, and technical conditioning within sport. During my time with the soccer team, as the team’s strength and conditioning coach + sport psychology expert, I was in charge of the physical and mental conditioning part of their athletic development while the head coach took charge of the technical and tactical elements. However, our separate roles weren’t so neatly compartmentalized as we had to not only develop these four elements, but help our athletes learn how they work together.

In sport, it’s often difficult for people to how these different elements are connected and work together. Rather, issues with individual and team performance are often diagnosed as if we were fixing a car. But athleticism and performance aren’t mechanistic in nature, they are a complex system and must be recognized as such before we can resolve any issues.

My philosophy builds upon athletic development as a complex adaptive system in that you cannot simply separate the different components to train individually, rather the coaching team along with the athletes must incorporate aspects from these different components together within the training session. A complex system isn’t just the sum of its parts, but rather is defined by how those parts interact with each other to create new patterns of behavior that would not exist otherwise. An example of this is developing tactical skills in soccer together with physical conditioning and group cohesion so that the team learns to predict and respond better to their teammate’s actions and maintain performance output during high intensity gameplay.

The stability of a complex system is rooted in its ability to adapt to the adverse conditions in the environment while maintaining its steady state. By nature, complex systems are sensitive to the initial conditions of the environment, meaning that even a small change can inflict change within a system. In sports, this is observed in everything from weather conditions during training/competition, health of the players, different venues, even changes to the team roster. The athletes and teams who are able to better adapt to these kinds of changes while maintaining or even improving upon their performance are more resilient to the challenges they face within the demands of the sport.

Looking at athletic development through the lens of a complex system allows us to develop a basic set of rules of which to govern said development within each of our players as individual athletes as well as the team as a whole. Similar to how a flock of birds flies in formation, known as a murmuration, in which each bird relies on its placement when compared to the birds immediately surrounding it and adapts its behavior appropriately.

For our athletes, this is rooted in the Action Execution and Evaluation Cycle or simple Action Cycle. The action cycle requires three immediate impressions,

  1. What is the current goal?
  2. What is the current state of my environment?
  3. What is the best action available to take that is available?
  4. Reflect, Reevaluate, Repeat.

Note that step four is three things together, in which after taking the action in step three, you reflect on the outcome of said action, reevaluate your current state based on the outcome and then repeat the action cycle. This entire process happens within seconds and should be repeated continuously throughout a session. More so, it also is useful on the different levels of training, be it on the micro-level, macro-level, or meso-level. That is, what are the focuses for the session, for the day, week, month, year, etc.

Incorporated into sport trainings and practices persistently, this encourages and builds autonomy within athletes to develop strategies, encourage creativity and train judgement and decision-making behaviors. They are more empowered to take risks and critically evaluate the conditions of their environment more instinctively during gameplay. This is especially useful in high intensity and high stress situations in which athletes can remain calm and maintain stable performance output in adverse conditions. When this is built upon the principles of teamwork, group cohesion and trained as a group within the four components of athletic development, the team is better able execute tactical decisions and work together more effectively while maintaining physical and mental intensity during gameplay. This puts pressure on the opposing team who then, if they’re not as conditioned and resilient, are going to become gradually more unstable, leading to mistakes and drops in performance output that your team, again, is able to adapt to and take advantage of.

An example of this was the strategy employed by the USSR Hockey Team at all the Olympics between 1964 and 1980, who were considered unbeatable due to their resiliency and ability to adapt to adverse conditions. When they went up against Team USA in the 1980 Olympics, coach Herb Brookes had developed his team as a complex adaptive system in which the four components of athletic development were trained in conjunction with each other and the team was conditioned and trained to play adaptively via the action cycle. Brooks trained his athletes to adapt to adverse conditions and continuously exposed his athletes to adverse conditions, including a game against the Soviets prior to the Olympics to help ensure his athletes were resilient going into the Olympics. By the time Team USA played the Soviets at the Olympics, they were well conditioned to keep pace with the Soviet team to the point in which the Soviet team itself, which had underestimated it’s opponent, started to become unstable when Team USA was able to tie and eventual maintain a lead during the game. By the last 10 minutes of the game, the Soviet team became increasingly unstable as their strategy relied on their opponent falling apart, but with Team USA’s resilience and endurance allowing them to keep up, maintain focus and stability, the Soviet team became increasingly unable to adapt, they started making mistakes and their game fell apart. This led to Team USA winning the game (and eventually the gold medal).

In the end, training athletic development as a complex adaptive system encourages your individual athletes and team to be more aware and sensitive to the initial conditions of their environment, be creative, take more risks, develop judgement and decision-making behaviors instinctively, flexibility to develop skills and enhances motivation.

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