Strength & conditioning and even sports coaching is a low time preference endeavour, but so much of what we are seeing is selling each other and athletes on the new, the different & proprietary knowledge. Happy refinement seriously underrated.
What do we mean by low time preference and conversely high time preference? Someone with a high time preference is focused substantially on their well-being in the present and the immediate future relative to the average person, while someone with low time preference places more emphasis than average on their well-being in the further future. I’m pretty sure most will have heard of the marshmallow test. In this famous experiment, children were left in a room with a marshmallow. They were told they were free to eat it, but if they waited 15 minutes and didn’t eat it, they would receive a second marshmallow as a reward. Basically, the children had the choice between immediate gratification (one marshmallow) or delayed gratification that yields a great reward (two marshmallows). This test is often repeated in pop psychology circles to demonstrate qualities like patience and delayed gratification. It’s a story Ive heard repeated by Jordan Peterson the notion that self-control is the best predictor of life success besides intelligence. Impulsivity is the best predictor of poverty, again aside from intelligence.
Imagine a society filled with low time preference people who hopefully in seeking solutions to problems will take the long view. They will save for tomorrow, mitigate risks, engage in large scale projects, and plan far in advance. The most important decisions for your well-being are the trade-offs you make with yourself. It’s true for individuals and it’s true for societies too. The time preference path we choose determines our societal health. Low time preference behaviour spurred the process of civilization and improves economic conditions over time. So, if low time preference is such a preferential trait, then why is there so little of it?
Fitness marketing often treats fitness like a high time preference activity. The immediacy of results being a huge selling point and while yes, some people do so sudden dramatic improvements, often tied to the benefit of novel stimulus. Any coach worth their salt knows that true long-term fitness, performance or desirable training outcomes, are a gradual compounding of discipline, consistency habits, objectivity and a culture that revolves around low time preference practice, practices like happy refinement.
Happy refinement is to be content with making what is good better. The drive to be better however is often driven by external factors, rather than intrinsic ones. We fool both our clients and athletes and even ourselves that the appearance of trying to accumulate knowledge is the key to cracking the issue of performance, I honestly believe the answer to being a happier coach lies in refinement of what we do rather than an endless accumulation of what we can do.
Refinement & Via Negativa
The sense of refinement is more than just via negativa, via negativa is simple subtraction. The idea that we achieve more by taking away elements that are superfluous. A beautifully simplistic idea, which many often need to help cut through the realisation that casting the net wide often means having too big a catch to handle (information overload, stepping into the unknown). Refinement however is a process guided by principle (Mastery of the known). Refinement is a skillset that blunts when we become lazy or reach for the largely novel or seek out more methods to utilize, which fundamentally give us more choices.
“With a dull tool, the surface of the wood becomes ‘fluffy’ and irregular, doesn’t repel water well, permits the water to penetrate the wood, and shortens the wood’s lifespan, eventually destroying it.” — 西岡常一Tsunekazu Nishioka
In those that seek a constant scope expanse the power of choice often becomes painful, but refinement is also painful. But because we are taught to accumulate, this can become a never-ending process of acquisition. More is not always better. While I’m not asking for an ascetic minimalism in your day to day approaches to problems, what I do suggest is trying to figure out you can do to make things better, sharpen your approach.
“In fact, I believe that a good carpenter spends 60 percent of his workday on actual work and 40 percent on sharpening” -— 西岡常一 Tsunekazu Nishioka
What parallels we can draw from abstract and practical examples are some something I enjoy exploring. I’ll lay at two examples that are personal to me one more abstract (philosophy) the other more practical (combat) (Greeks vs Romans).
Stoicism for instance is a refinement of Cynicism, which abandoned cynicisms ascetic ideas and extreme rhetorical methods. For instance, the rejection of conventional manners and their decision to live on the streets probably made cynicism totally unpalatable to most people. However, both stoic and cynical thought have the same emphasis on happiness depending on being self-sufficient, and a being master of mental attitude. You could make the argument that Zeno accumulated from other philosophers before refining it into something that would be further refined into something resembling stoicism with each iterant stoic. Zeno taught that we should use experience and then further refine it with reason to harmonize with the world and that’s what should guide us.
Refinement is iterative, we can learn much from jiujitsu and martial arts. Combative arts representing living breathing iterative processes. Jiujitsu for instance start at the root of judo, and via Japanese migration moved to brazil taking on its own unique characteristics on the way. Jujitsu also came from japan to the west a more direct route, what we would now call traditional jujitsu. Both arts having the same root, but one embracing iterative processes of refinement, the other trying to preserve its essence through rote replication. Brazilian jiujitsu has obviously built a reputation for being tested in the most ferocious of circumstances. With traditional Japanese jiujitsu (depending on affiliation) not being tested and retested not allowing iterative refinement for its practitioners. Even within Brazilian jiujitsu, there is refinement within refinement, talk to any number of black belts and they’ll tell you how their technical preference for playing the game is probably pretty narrow.
The relationship of refinement to performance is one that while obvious to everyone, especially athletes, as for many elite performers, refinement is part of the deeply personal process required to get better. Taking what objective information we have from the athlete and from their performance what do we feel we can do better? What can be improved? What didn’t work? What can be eliminated? What can be tweak? It’s an uncomfortable self-reflective practice, I like the notion that if what you where doing a year or more a go doesn’t make you cringe now you aren’t learning or worse, yet you might be deluding yourself.
Knowledge Acquisition vs Knowledge Refinement
Coaches often however behave in the opposite fashion, acquisition and dilettantism, with a lot of coaches using proprietary knowledge for instance to impress upon and selling things to other coaches. Proprietary knowledge is what drove me to follow certain coaches as a young coach, believing that these established ‘big name’ coaches had figured something out that I hadn’t, had insight that I lacked, had translated a soviet text I couldn’t or had planned and prescribed some training approach that had the great and the good knocking at their door. These coaches had a high time preference approach that If I got access to or could acquire for my own, I could also be an ‘overnight success’. A pattern that is now repeated on social media among a younger generation of coaches trying to find their feet. The pattern repeats, the medium has however changed.
This yearning for the inside track and an accumulation of techniques, strategies, programs and approaches also bring a discontent that can lead to a bitterness and drop out from the industry. I occasionally get messages from exasperated young coaches, many often much smarter than myself who are at a crossroad of ideas, inundated with choice and burdened by how much they know but unable to apply. Realisation that all these courses, certs and information they’ve been sold by talking heads, don’t represent reality accurately.
As you grow older you come to the realisation that the reality is often disappointing, all that glitters most definitely is not gold. A reality that sometimes comes knocking. The relationship to the 2020 COVID crisis has laid the expensive approach to movement and exercise solutions bare. Pieces superfluous equipment, devices and novel exercise variants rendered redundant by a less than ideal situation where the agile and refined continue to excel, with minimal equipment and their wits.
A happy craftsman
Learning to be happy about refining your own processes is a skill in and of itself. This what we can call the craft approach to coaching or strength and conditioning. David Pye asked us to “Consider craftsmanship to mean “workmanship of the better sort”” This speaks to the broad idea of techne laid out by Aristotle “The set of principles, or rational method, involved in the production of an object or the accomplishment of an end; the knowledge of such principles or method; art. Techne resembles episteme in implying knowledge of principles, but differs in that its aim is making or doing, not disinterested understanding”. Its easy to work hard but not work smart and sit in yet another talk, lecture or seminar with disinterested understanding, check off another certificate, another novelty exercise to apply and then discard.
The aim should be brilliance in subtlety, objective measures informing coach decision making.
The aim should be brilliance in subtlety, objective measures informing coach decision making. Basic exercises with tweaks in joint angles, force velocity relationship, TUT that provide just enough specificity for the needs of the individual. Programs should be aesthetic and minimal but with enough context and easy to understand. You don’t need more exercises, just exercises done better. Refinement of your own approach. Making or doing, not disinterested understanding.
Hopefully you get my point but this post probably needs more refinement.