In short, phenomenology as I'm using it here (there are many slightly different variations, depending in which discipline's context you're using it), means using historical observation to derive principles. In our specific case: observing how things have been done by successful athletes, and using those observations to create principles of ideal training programs for future athletes.
The problem with the approach should be glaringly obvious, but many intelligent people miss it. Success at the highest levels of competitive athletics is, to a larger extent than many are willing to admit, dependent on a person's genetic makeup. Sure, we've heard of the underdog who beats all the odds and somehow manages to become an NBA or NFL player. Disregarding the fact that those stories are usually exaggerated (see Joe Montana's comments on the movie "Rudy," for instance), they also leave out a key element: even this underdog player is a genetic freak compared to the average person. In business parlance, he still has table stakes.
|Sorry, not the kind of table stakes we're talking about today|
The wikipedia entry for table stakes explains it as follows: the minimum entry requirement for a market or business arrangement. It can refer to pricing, cost models, technology, or other capability that represents a minimum requirement to have a credible competitive starting position in a market or other business arrangement. For example, if you want to be a Wireless service provider the table stakes are the basic features you need to have in order to be in that business to achieve foundation capability - Network, Handsets, a data service, a mail server, etc. Beyond that, real competitive advantage comes from additional nimbleness and cost or product differentiation.
No matter how much heart, passion, fight, whatever other overused catchphrase you want to use here, the player has, if he does not have table stakes in athleticism, he won't make it. Period. And the athletes at the top levels of the professional ranks have more than table stakes level athleticism, every single time.
Michael Jordan probably provides the best example. Jordan's intensity and ferocity during practice is legendary. In his time, he was known as the hardest practice player in the NBA, and would often humiliate his teammates during practice and show them up. The story about Jordan not making his HS Varsity team is also well known. In short, people make a big deal about his tenacity and drive being a major part of his success. And they're absolutely right. However, all of that tenacity and fury would have been meaningless without his genetic freakiness. At his peak, he had a 40+ inch vertical jump. 40+ inches!!!! That is such a genetic outlier that it's not even on the scale. He was a true genetic freak, in the purest sense.
What set Jordan apart from his genetic freak peers was his tenacity and drive to be the best. But without the first component, the genetic freakiness, he would have been just another kid playing high school basketball, and then becoming an accountant or whatever. He was able to succeed over his fellow 99.99999999%-ers because of his drive. A few others may have had an athletic and skill-set to match - the ones labeled "The Next Jordan" come to mind. Anyone remember Harold Miner? Isaiah "J.R." Rider? Jordan beat them in his drive to be the best, and that's why he is who he is. Anyone remember a guy named Allen Iverson, one of the top scorers in NBA history? Remember how much HE liked to practice??? But the key here is that Jordan didn't beat you or me because of his amazing drive to be the best at all costs. He had already left us WAY behind just by being born.
|and Harold Miner were both among those crowned the "Next Jordan."|
A snapshot reveals they may have had the talent to be, but not the work ethic.
So when we look at the training programs of these athletes, the basic point that is missed is that they're genetic freaks (in a positive sense). They would be successful in this sport because of their natural talents, regardless of training. And a training stimulus, even a relatively ineffective one, can make them even better as long as it's a stimulus in a positive direction.
As an example, let's say for the sake of argument that there's an "ideal training program" out there that would add "100 points" to an athlete's game. Recognizing that this is an athletically superior human being who is already worlds ahead of an average person, a training program that will add "20 points" to his game might be considered a great program if we used only phenomenology. All we see is the positive benefit. Without analysis of physiology and biomechanics and other relevant systems, the "100 point" program would never be discovered, or if it were, only by lucky accident.
So the "20 point" programs proliferate and continue to be hailed by all experts and coaches as THE WAY to train players in this sport. After all, that's what we've always done and it's worked - the players have gotten better, faster, stronger - why change anything?
It's a classic case of not being able to solve your problem because you don't know you have one. You see improvement in performance, and assume it's the great program doing it, not the superior genetic gift of the athlete coupled with a mediocre program. Oftentimes, the programs can even be horrendous, but the pure genetic gifts of the athletes are so high that they can overcome the awful programming. An example of this would be the use of the machine-only, HIT, 1-set-to-failure protocols used by the Penn State football team forever. Everyone knows Penn State was a top destination for every great HS football player in the country. Their popularity allowed them to automatically have access to the top genetic talent in the pool, so even their crappy strength program didn't hold them back.
Although due to unfortunate circumstances, Penn State's program has now been completely revamped. New coach, strength coach, and all. And the word is, they're ditching their old Nautilus-HIT approach, and replacing it with a free weights and strength based approach. It will be interesting to see what happens - if the school is not as desirable a destination for the top HS Football players anymore, it will be easy for the HIT Jedis (are there still any of those?) to say that it's the fault of the strength program that the football team isn't as successful. Others will point to the loss of Joe Pa. But the truth will simply be an absence of the top recruits - aka the top GENETIC TALENT - that the school was able to previously draw.
On the other hand, if the team continues to do well despite the lack of top level genetic talent, it's hard to imagine a better strength program isn't partly responsible. My exposure to Collegiate S&C coaches hasn't been particularly impressive. I've found they're often good old boys who were either athletes at the school or knew someone who knew someone who got them the job. Their ability to analyze exercise technique and design effective programs is usually not very good. Now, I have no idea if this is the case at Penn State or not. They might be the greatest strength coaches in the entire NCAA, or the worst - I personally don't know. But assuming they're just about average, simply the switch from machine-only HIT to free weights, even not ideally performed and programmed, would be a net gain to the program's success.
Since this is already getting rather long, and dry, I will continue the discussion on phenomenology vs analysis, it's pervasiveness, why people don't see it, and how it affects training decisions in a future installment.