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Physical preparation training is extremely diverse in the approaches that can be taken. There are countless models, methods, and means of training an individual or group. The creativity that can be exercised (pun intended) is endless. There are so many options that it can become paralyzing. It’s important to make sense of our environment and then act appropriately in it. The aim is to simplify things down to a level that allows us to navigate the world efficiently, but not so simply that the map looks nothing like the territory.
Debates on volume, intensity, and frequency have been had ad nauseam over the years, so I won’t rehash those things. Instead, I’ll focus on two different trains of thought that influence all models of performance. In broad, overarching terms, periodization methods tend to have elements of both planned (top-down) and emergent (bottom-up) prescription. This can be framed into objective search and non-objective search. These terms were popularized by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman when describing different algorithms in their artificial intelligence research and in their book: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned.
Objective searches are your classic periodization schemes; linear, undulating, block, etc. Objective search is characterized by a known objective and known steps do get to the objective. You have a goal in mind, and you implement the exercises, loads, and progressions to get there. Weeks are planned in advance. You know the weights you’ll lift, days you’ll train, and distances you’ll run along with all the other parameters of training. Newbie trainees, those that come off of training breaks, and those going through new training blocks respond well from simple progressions.
Non-objective search is a bit different. In terms of periodization strategies, it has more in common with Bondarchuk’s system, Mike Tuchscherer’s Emergent Strategies, or Mladen Jovanovic’s Agile Periodization. These systems rely heavily on the influence that emergent information has on training. Non-objective search revolves around looking for novel opportunities and results. It’s like a treasure hunt. Keep turning over stones until you find something interesting or valuable. This becomes important when dealing with someone that can’t break through a plateau, is of elite training status, or someone who has chronic pain/injury. If best practice isn’t working, you have to look for something different.
These two types of searches require different modes of thought; objective search being mostly deductive and non-objective search being more inductive. Neither is good or bad. Like most things, it’s figuring out which is appropriate and when. How do we know when to switch modes of thought? Should we base it on population or training age or training constraints? This may be a good start, but many times it ends up being as restrictive and dogmatic as arbitrarily choosing a scheme. We need a map. Something that tells us when it’s time to switch strategies. That’s where sense-making comes in.
The Cynefin framework was developed by Dave Snowden to help people make better decisions. Cynefin is a Welsh word that means “habitat”. When you view these four areas as domains that we “inhabit” at any given moment, the namesake makes sense (pun totally intended…I’m sorry, I’ll stop). This graph may seem esoteric and vague, but that’s because it is. Once we add in some examples, hopefully things will become a bit clearer. We’ll go through each domain and provide clarity.
Although it becomes a little messy, I tend to lump the simple and complicated domains together and join the complex and chaotic domains together. This forms our two broad approaches of objective and non-objective search.
The simple and complicated domains are characterized mainly by cause and effect having a solid relationship. Since this relationship is strong, objective search is applicable. When there is a good relationship between cause and effect, a coach can use positive knowledge (the knowledge of what to do) as a guide. This puts the coach in a role where they are in control of parameters and prescription of training. They can focus most of their effort on progressions and training trends.
On the other hand, the complex and chaotic domains have a very loosely coupled or decoupled relationship. Because of the lack of connection between cause and effect, non-objective search is more applicable. Positive knowledge isn’t as useful since it isn’t clear as to how the training is producing certain outputs. This is where the role of the coach transitions into using negative knowledge (the knowledge of what not to do). Here it’s more important to know the potential downsides and pitfalls of the training, and to act as a guide through novel experiences.
Knowing which strategy to use – objective or non-objective search, top-down or bottom-up – can seem like a daunting task, but in reality, finding an athlete’s current domain is fairly simple. There are three main categories that I attempt to understand when assessing an athlete.
Above are some concrete examples of the different types of search.
In objective search, the coach tightly controls prescription, implements known best/good practice with progressions and incremental increases in workload. This tight control of prescription produces a significant and reliable training response. Patience is the name of the game. Most coaches are masters at this craft. Very little analysis and novelty needed. Just follow the playbook. The coach can rinse and repeat old reliable training blocks for years and get great results.
In non-objective search, the coach is a treasure hunter. They are looking for something interesting. They act as a guide for the athlete to take themselves through the training experience rather than imposing the training plan from the top down. Once they have explored and found something promising, they exploit that thing to see how much juice they can squeeze out of it. The landscape can be chaotic, and this is why the coach must have good intuition to be able to read training responses (sensing is the second step in this domain, acting/probing the first) so they can appropriately adjust. Implement novelty, sense, adjust, repeat.
With each passing year, it seems like I have more questions and fewer answers. However, this simple model has helped me answer a few of the thousands of questions that I have. I hope it helps you, too.
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