In short, how do we know what we think we know about what we think we know.Epistemology (i// from Greek ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning "knowledge, understanding", and λόγος, logos, meaning "study of") is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge and is also referred to as "theory of knowledge". It questions what knowledge is and how it can be acquired, and the extent to which knowledge pertinent to any given subject or entity can be acquired.
I started thinking about this because a very respected local coach/black belt/instructor posted to facebook a quote that I'll paraphrase as:
When your instructor goes out of his/her way to point out something you could be doing better, don't quickly reply with a justification or excuse...Now this person is a black belt, I am not. He has been teaching for far longer than I have. He has competed at a much higher level than I. He is not only better than me, he is better than me.. probably in every measurable facet of jiu jitsu. This is not a binary proposition. He isn't wrong, nor am I. Now that we have that disclaimer out of the way.
I would never say that to my students.
I will freely admit I am a questioner. I have learned to phrase things in such a way that I'm not questioning why do it this way, but asking can you explain how that functions better than this. What is the mechanism?
As an instructor,I have a similar emphasis. I actively seek questions (which are to be clear different from arguments, but I'm going to give the student the benefit of the doubt). I want students to try and shoot holes in what I'm teaching. To hold it up to harsh light and inspect it for flaws. The more minds that we have deconstructing a proposition the better. The more often I can be wrong, the greater more refined the constructs of my jiu jitsu. I teach so that I can put out my theories and hypotheses out for test, and the more people I can teach the greater the number of data points I get back. If there is a better more efficient way to do things I want to know so that I can modify the model I'm working from. It makes me a better instructor, it makes the students better when I crowd-source the testing of my understanding. This makes my jiu jitsu better as I teach.
I enjoy jiu jitsu because it is a complex system, with testable outcomes. You tap, or they tap. Mastery of a complicated system is fulfilling. Most of us will never get paid for our jiu jitsu so being able to do is less important than fulfillment in the doing. Similarly, being able to do some jiu jitsu techniques without understanding, even if you can use those techniques to submit someone with a deep understanding you still don't have mastery.
The students should be asking questions of these assertions because they should not only want to DO jiu jitsu, but they should want to UNDERSTAND jiu jitsu. If you substitute techniques for understanding then if you get injured, old, the situation changes (mma/street fight/competition/no gi) your whole game becomes useless. That's not mastery, that's barely even competence.
Work-shopping problems, and crowd-sourcing the testing of assertions (along with a mentor and consistent training) is fundamentally the scientific method. It is the best epistemological system for understanding. However the formal peer-review process is not functional when it comes to strength, conditioning and the physical culture. The problems are legion:
1) Time: in order to test how a S&C system works one cannot simply do a test for 6-8 weeks. Most any system of exercise will work for 6 weeks. the SAID principle of training says that a new imposed demand will cause adaptation. If you're doing something new, there will be an adaptive response for 6-8 weeks. These systems need to be tested for longer periods, and no athlete is going to want to be in the "control group" for a year while his competitors are gaining a (real or perceived) competitive advantage.
2) Untrained folks are lousy test subjects, trained folks don't want to be tested upon (or used as control depending on what is perceived to be advantageous). Untrained folks get fitter/stronger with any stimulus. There was a study where sedentary folks were put on a cycling program for 6 weeks, and their bench press went up! Trained folks have goals to meet, and as a coach if you're not meeting their goals they're not going to continue to be your client/test subject.
3) Compliance. People want to do what they want to do, and you can't make them do anything for more than a few weeks. Even if you could force someone to be and remain your test subject, it is very hard to control intensity. Some people will run through brick walls for you over and over again. Some people won't go past AT if you put a gun to their head. Controling for these factors is impossible. This is double super difficult when it comes to nutrition as people delude themselves when it comes to food.
4) Review and repeatability. If a great coach, Louie Simmons, Martin Rooney, Mike Winkeljohn took their processes. Wrote them out in detail.. minute, granular, excruciating detail, then handed them over to some schmoe with far less ability. The schmoe in question would not produce a Chuck Vogelpohl, a Frankie Edgar, or a Jon Jones. There is more to these complex systems than just the system. While the results are repeatable, they are hardly reviewable, and cannot be replicated elsewhere. There are too many factors in situ.
5) Ethics. If I believe that a certain movement combination is going to cause injury to a population it is not ethical to test that hypothesis. I would hope this would be obvious, but intentionally subjecting people to danger is unethical. There are further ethical considerations. Is it ethical to withhold what I consider optimal training from some clients and/or athletes because I want to run an experiment? Sorry johnny, you're not going to get my best mojo for this competition you've been training for, because I want to make sure my methods really are better than the status quo. Johnny would not only tell me where to go, but I wouldn't blame him if he gave me the double finger Diaz brothers style on the way out the door.
6) Bias, bias, bias. So confirmation bias is a problem (Crossfit is awesome, look at all these fit people who are still here.. forgetting those people who washed out for whatever reason). Similarly where a method is believed to be flawed and thus never actually give it an honest test (the 'We do it this way." problem)
7) $$$ there really isn't a lot of funding to do detailed tests of S&C systems in a clinical environment. There just isn't a compelling reason to do long term studies on already healthy people. So we end up with these sorta kinda related studies done on sick people (diabetics, heart patients, the obese, the elderly) and then try to extrapolate out to healthy and/or competitive populations. Which is faulty to say the least.
8) Who writes the journals, Outside of the NSCA journal (which is good) most of the science and review done is done by the medical industry. They really don't care about performance markers at all. They want to help sick people be well, and maybe write them a prescription or two. Performance is not health. In fact often high performers are very unhealthy (elite powerlifters, and elite endurance athletes come to mind)
9) Moving target. Methods and philosophies in strength and conditioning pop up and fall out of favor too fast to be studied. Even when there isn't wholesale change there is enough shift in usage or demographic to render most studies borderline at best.
So what are we left with. We need the scientific method to vet how we strength train and condition our athletes, but formalized peer-reviewed scientific journals have all manner of issues. So what do we do? We keep the method, and lose the publication requirements. This gets tricky. Suddenly there are all manner of competing voices. There is lots of anecdotal data, some of which contradicts the rest. So we lay our foundation on the basics. We keep our focus on our specific performance goals, and look to populations and coaches with similar foundations and outlooks. Most important of all, we don't dismiss anything out of hand but are skeptical of all claims. We avoid never and always. We cannot afford to fall in love with an idea or method, we follow the data.
The scientific method consists of the use of procedures designed to show not that our predictions and hypothesis are right, but that they might be wrong. Scientific reasoning is useful to anyone in any job because it makes us face the possibility, even the dire reality, that we were mistaken. It forces us to confront our self-justifications and put them on public display for others to puncture. At its core, therefore, science is a form of arrogance control. -Carol Tavris
And that's the truth of it, and that brings us back to the salient point of this whole post: we must be completely and totally unafraid of admitting that our assertions are wrong. We must actively seek to be wrong. This is the only path to complete understanding of a subject. If my strength and conditioning methods don't work for an individual, I change the method. If I'm teaching a jiu jitsu class and what I'm teaching is not as true for a day 1 white belt as it is for a world champion then I need to be wrong and change. It's simple, but it's not easy. This is a part of "leave your ego at the door" that is most difficult and gets more difficult as you progress through the ranks.
be brave, be wrong, learn and get better.