In 1962, the first edition of Thomas Kuhn’s seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was published. Since its initial publication, the book has been reissued numerous times, and it is now on its fourth edition. Kuhn’s book has been highly influential for his model of how science works.
The typical model of science suggests that scientific progress occurs as development through accumulation—that is, we gain small bits of knowledge that add to our current knowledge in an incremental, step-like manner. Kuhn, however, argues against this model. He suggests that scientific progress is episodic and stage-like: We have periods of stability where there are small increases in knowledge—Kuhn terms this stage normal science—which are then interrupted by periods of rapid accumulation of knowledge, termed revolutionary science.
One of the main drivers of this revolutionary science, during which we tend to have major breakthroughs, is the discovery of anomalies—parts of the current prevailing wisdom that don’t quite make sense or were not quite matched by real-world data. These anomalies lead to major breakthroughs, which then lead us to the next stable period of normal science. Kuhn defines each stable period of knowledge as a paradigm, and the major breakthroughs lead to what he termed a paradigm shift, taking us to a new way of viewing the world with data.
Taking a step back, we essentially view the world through one mental model and explain our new, incremental findings through the lens of that mental model—making small improvements—until a paradigm shift occurs, moving us to a markedly different mental model, after which the process repeats itself.
Paradigm shifts are uncomfortable, as they challenge our view of the world. This leads to gatekeepers: people who are motivated to preserve the status quo. When the prevailing mental model—the normal science—was that the sun orbited the Earth, Galileo was put under house arrest for suggesting that the Earth, instead, orbited the sun.Any time a paradigm shift occurs, there are people who fight against it, and overcoming this gatekeeping is crucial for scientific progress, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Galileo had sufficient new observations to challenge the current paradigm; as this new paradigm directly contradicted the Church’s interpretation of the Bible, Galileo represented a challenge and was labeled a heretic. Other books espousing the sun as the center of the solar system model were banned, as the Church attempted to maintain their current paradigm, which best fit the story they wanted to tell. Any time a paradigm shift occurs, there are people who fight against it, and overcoming this gatekeeping is crucial for scientific progress.
Kuhn’s concept of “normal science” (i.e., the status quo) and paradigm shifts also applies to sport. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Oakland A’s Moneyball approach, popularized in the book and film of the same name. Here, the Oakland As, an MLB baseball team, found themselves consistently unable to compete effectively against teams with bigger budgets—and consistently lost their best players to these teams. Growing frustrated with his team’s underperformance, General Manager Billy Beane turned to the use of data to identify relatively undervalued players. These players were undervalued because they didn’t fit the generally accepted paradigm of what successful MLB players looked like in terms of physical appearance, playing style, injury history, or performance in some perceived-to-be-important metric or measure.
By questioning the validity of these assumptions, and better understanding which statistics were indicative of successful performance, Beane and his new “data guy,” Paul DePodesta, recruited players who fit their model. As a result, the As had a hugely successful season, finishing first in the American League West and winning 20 consecutive games—at the time, a league record.
I recently read Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution by Jared Diamond (not that Jared Diamond), which further demonstrates the concepts of normal science, paradigm shifts, and gatekeepers in elite sport, again in baseball. Swing Kings is the story of how, in recent seasons, the records for home runs have continually been broken. The narrative portrayed in the book is interesting; Diamond writes how there is (or, at least, was) a common method of coaching the hitting swing taught at all levels of baseball, from Little League through the minor leagues to MLB.
With the development of handheld video cameras and video analysis technologies, some coaches—most frequently those not involved in the professional realm of the sport—noticed that the best hitters in baseball typically did not demonstrate the technique that they were being coached to carry out. More interestingly, they also found that when they asked the players being filmed what they were doing, what the hitters thought they were doing—what they had been taught within the existing paradigm—did not match up to what was being seen on the video.
This is the classic first driver in Kuhn’s structure of revolutions: data that challenges the current paradigm. The best batters were not doing what they were actually being coached to do and were unaware of what they were actually doing.
Having had this brought to their attention, the major league clubs completely revamped their coaching practices and all the players bought into these new methods…right? Of course not—as anyone who has been involved in sport, and many other industries, can likely attest to, there is strong resistance to change in large organizations (“this is the way things have always been done”) and among gatekeepers. People who are not incentivized to make the change want to protect the current paradigm.As anyone who has been involved in sport, and many other industries, can likely attest to, there is strong resistance to change in large organizations, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
If you’re a batting coach who has spent a career coaching off one model, it is understandable, and inherently human, to not believe conflicting data and fight against what you perceive to be an incorrect change. In addition, similar to most other sports, many coaches in elite baseball are former players—the current paradigm was all they had ever known, which causes gatekeeping to the highest extent.
Some entrepreneurial individuals, who noticed that the real-world data wasn’t matching with the current paradigm, began to drive this revolution. Typically, they existed outside “the system”—they weren’t professionally employed batting coaches or former elite players—and they had to work hard to gain credibility. Initially, they acted as private hitting coaches, relying on recruiting major league players who were in a slump at the plate. After changing the player’s technique—and then their fortunes—those coaches relied on word of mouth to build their business. However, the players they worked with then had a problem when they went back to their team and used the new swing they had honed during the off-season. Since it didn’t match with the technical model (or paradigm) of the employed hitting coach, they put pressure on the player to revert back to “normal.”
This created issues for the players—they didn’t want to be seen as uncoachable at a time when their professional livelihoods were at risk. However, they knew from their off-season practice that their new technique was far superior. As a result, the revolution was slow to gain momentum. Eventually, though, more and more players—and, eventually, more and more ball clubs and managers—recognized how successful this new technique was, leading to a complete shift toward this new model and paradigm. While there are, no doubt, still some old-school coaches acting as gatekeepers, many of the newer generation of coaches have embraced these methods.
Factors That Precipitate Change
The example portrayed in Swing Kings is of a revolution driven—or at least underpinned—by changes in technology that allowed for better identification of data that didn’t fit the current theory. Outside of technological innovation, paradigm shifts can also be driven by a number of other aspects, including rule changes. In The Mixer, Michael Cox outlines how a single rule change drove technical and tactical changes in the English Premier League.Outside of technological innovation, paradigm shifts can also be driven by a number of other aspects, including rule changes, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Prior to 1992, goalkeepers in soccer were able to pick up the ball in their penalty box, regardless of how it arrived there. This meant that teams could pass the ball back to their own goalkeeper, who could then pick it up and pass it—via throw or kick—or they could hold on to it for an extended time, often for the purpose of wasting time if they were winning. Teams became very cynical:
- Defenders could pass the ball to their goalkeeper, who could stop it with his feet and stand stationary until an opposition attacker ran toward him, at which point he would pick it up.
- If he wished, he could then pass to a close-by defender, who could then pass it directly back to him, repeating the process.
In 1992, however, FIFA introduced the “back-pass rule.” Now, goalkeepers could not use their hands to pick up a deliberate pass back to them from a teammate, unless it was from a header. This rule change turned goalkeepers from a somewhat non-technically skilled position—at least in terms of skill with their feet—to essentially an additional outfield player. As goalkeepers could no longer just pick up balls played to them, they had to become adept at passing with their feet.
The rule change then revolutionized team tactics: Teams became more likely to play out from the back and keep possession, as opposed to kicking long into the opposition half and hoping for a bit of luck. Perhaps most famously, this is demonstrated by the Barcelona tiki-taka style of continuous short passes and long periods of possession, which the Spanish National team then adopted. They won the 2010 World Cup and the European Championships in 2008 and 2012. As always, there were—and still are—coaches and players who wanted to maintain the status quo and failed to sufficiently adapt, but they are becoming less common in the modern game of soccer.
Paradigm Shifts and Periodization
A more contemporary—and athletics specific—example of a sports science revolution that we might currently be living through is that of periodization theory. As a (somewhat oversimplified) summary, periodization theory covers a method of planning the training and competition process of an athlete over a given time period. Generally, these periods are split into blocks; in strength training, for example, these blocks might be hypertrophy, maximum strength, power, and a taper. Each block is then further subdivided into smaller blocks, mesocycles (often 3-4 weeks in length), and microcycles (typically one week in length).
Using this paradigm of periodization, it’s tempting to think that:
- There is an inherent order in which things must be done.
- There is an inherent time period over which adaptations can occur.
- These adaptations can be somewhat predicted in advance; hence, the utility of the planning process.
Recent evidence from studies exploring concepts such as genetic variation and psychosocial stress demonstrates that the time course and order of adaptions to exercise are highly individual. As such, artificially fitting athletes into given “boxes” of training and planning changes in training far in advance are likely flawed, as identified by John Kiely in his influential articles on the topic. “Proving” that traditional models of periodization are effective is very difficult: If we were to take a randomized control trial in which one group undertook periodized training and one group didn’t, then we wouldn’t know whether the differences in adaptation or performance from the periodized group were due to periodization itself or merely variations in training stimulus—and the two aren’t the same.The majority of studies purporting to demonstrate the effectiveness of periodization may just be demonstrating the effectiveness of a novel training stimulus, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
The majority of studies purporting to demonstrate the effectiveness of periodization may just be demonstrating the effectiveness of a novel training stimulus. Instead, we often see a position argued as, “Here’s loads of Russian literature [usually books, not peer-reviewed papers] demonstrating how they used periodization during a time of great success for them, therefore periodization works”…as if we can’t think of any confounding variables that may have been in play at that time.
In Swing Kings, the gatekeepers were batting coaches employed by professional teams, keen to keep the current paradigm of batting technique—in which they were experts—in vogue, despite the innovations in understanding and technique being driven by outside coaches. It was easy to dismiss those outside coaches; they typically weren’t previously players, which was viewed as a weakness—although, of course, it prevented them from being indoctrinated with the incorrect technical model. When it comes to periodization, there are also potential gatekeepers—those who are incentivized to maintain the status quo (a recent paper defending periodization theory illustrates this quite nicely).
For those of us involved in sport, there are plenty of steps to ensure we are ready for a paradigm shift:
- It’s useful to consider what our present mental model is: How do we think things work?
- We need to examine whether how we think things work actually matches up to the data: If, in our mental model, a certain type of training should bring about a certain type of improvement, does that always happen?
- We need to look for conflicting data: Do the performance statistics match what we think happens? Does training mimic competition? Do the results from biomechanical analysis match up with what we think is happening?
This matches the story of Swing Kings quite closely: What the hitters—and their coaches—thought was happening did not correspond with what the slow-motion video demonstrated was actually occurring, leading to a faulty mental model.
The next step is where the paradigm shift occurs: Can you change your mental model based on the real-world observations you have, and does it improve your outcomes? Finally, who are the key gatekeepers preventing scientific progress in your field? Who are those invested in not challenging the status quo? And are you sure it isn’t you?Who are the key gatekeepers preventing scientific progress in your field? Who are those invested in not challenging the status quo? And are you sure it isn’t you? asks @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Critical Thinking and an Open Mind
It’s common to develop communities with people who share the same beliefs as us—it’s good for our ego to gravitate toward those who think like we do. We all do this. I would label myself as politically left wing, and so I view news stories through this lens. I prefer to interact with others who are left wing, and I find myself with little time for those with right-wing views. This is, of course, dangerous, and it leads to the development of echo chambers—often resulting in the strengthening of the views of a small group, as opposed to critical and rational thinking.
In Swing Kings, the obvious example of this is two different communities: those who thought the bat moved backward during the initial part of the swing—and so coached this movement—and those who didn’t. Players were caught in the middle. As the prevailing technical paradigm was that the bat didn’t move backward, this was the mental model of those batting coaches employed by the MLB. If a player spent his off-season with a coach who worked with what the data suggested was happening—that is, the bat does move backward—he would then either have this coached out of him upon his return to the team by the gatekeepers, or risk being ostracized.
Perhaps the key lesson—particularly in the social media age—is to develop your critical thinking skills and have a broad base of knowledge, so that you can expose yourself to various different opinions without getting swept along by the tide of public opinion. By being able to absorb and understand information, we prepare ourselves to challenge the status quo where appropriate, make our own paradigm shifts, and gain a competitive advantage.
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