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"Platonification" at the Core of Periodisation Literature;

The Simplification of Complex Theory Creates a Chasmic Divide Between Theory and Practice.


The idea of simplifying theory and stripping it down to its essential parts is considered elegance in science (Glynn, 2013). However, to "seek simplicity and distrust" it is perhaps more akin to a guiding principle in modern science, advocating for scepticism and to be cognisant of the evident complexity in a non-deterministic and chaotic world (Whitehead, 2013). Nassim Taleb in his book "The Black Swan" mirrors this philosophical stance and goes one further, highlighting the potential consequences and error when attempting to simplify (Taleb, 2007). Taleb (2007) coined the phrase 'platonification' to describe the tendency for individuals in authoritative or academic positions to oversimplify ideas with mechanistic models and artificial predictive maps of reality. Taleb (2007) suggests humans are hardwired to believe in causality, gravitating towards pristine shapes, pure mathematics and neatly presented academic models to explain the world. This is woven into the fabric of human DNA, driven by the necessity to know. However in doing so, there is the potential to portray a complete misrepresentation of reality, creating blind spots in our knowledge, manifesting in a chasmic divide between theory and practice.


In the realms of S&C, platonification is particularly rampant in periodisation literature. Periodisation can be defined as the planning and organisation of a training programme to enhance performance (Cleather, 2018). At its most fundamental level, periodisation is the management of stress over a specific time frame for the purpose of optimising performance (Verkhoshansky & Siff, 2009). Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Seyle's ground-breaking general adaptation syndrome (GAS) became the foundational pillar of periodisation theory (Selye, 1936; Stone, OʼBryant, Garhammer, McMillan, & Rozenek,1982). Selye (1936) proposed GAS was a purely non-specific biological response to stress, highlighted by three distinct sequential phases; alarm, resistance and exhaustion (figure 1).

Figure 1. Demonstrating the response to a training stimulus using the General Adaptation Syndrome model.


However, GAS is a product of its time reflective of the philosophical and scientific landscape. That is, Hans Selye championed a Descartes ‘man a machine’ philosophical understanding of the human body stating, “from a biological point of view, we are a machine and to understand a complex thing you must take it apart systematically” (Burrows, 2015). This retrospectively led to criticism of Selye’s work, namely for his reductionist approach and the tendency to simplify complex interactions (Burrows, 2015; Cantor, 2015; Wenham, 2014). Further criticism was levied regarding Selye’s populism and medicalisation of stress. His ideas gained traction as a unified model of stress without sufficient scientific credibility through deliberate marketing in newspapers and magazines such as Time (Burrows, 2015; Cantor, 2015). It is prudent to consider the intellectual simplicity of GAS and therefore its ability to be communicated successfully ‘en masse’ amongst non-academics. Selye’s platonified model became the established artificial map of reality for stress, not because of scientific endorsement nor through providing new treatments for disease, but because GAS offered a simplistic conceptual understanding of the human body’s interaction with the external environment. Selye’s bias to neurohormonal explanations meant he was constrained to a tunnelled perspective. His earlier work failed to fully appreciate potential behavioural, psychological and sociological factors which interacted with the human organism (Viner, 1999). Ultimately, the scientific understanding of stress has evolved greatly since the formation of GAS, the complex relationships between biological, psychological and sociological factors are now widely appreciated in stress adaptation theory (Lazarus, 1974; Mason, 1972; Sterling & Eyer, 1988).


Despite this scientific stress revolution, there has been a failure in periodisation literature to revise its underpinnings. Periodisation continues to propagate GAS as the foundational pillar in training theory (ACSM, 2017). That is, GAS is still considered a purely biological phenomenon solely dictated by intensity, volume and load over set time frames, with little discussion of behavioural, psychological and sociological factors. The problem for coaches lies in the assumption of a deterministic and simplistic system creating potential blind spots in reality. The premise that acute physiological responses and long-term training adaptations follow a predictable biological trajectory is void of practicality and represents a mechanistic view of the training process (Kiely, 2017), or as Taleb (2007) would consider, a misrepresentation of reality. Moreover, this assumption of causality implicitly advocates that a single training programme can be considered the ‘best’ programme, which can manifest in a plug and play culture and a naïve appreciation of the coaching process (Kiely, 2017).


In actuality, as demonstrated in a wide range of training literature and contextualised amongst the most recent stress adaptation literature, the response to a training stimulus and physiological adaptations derived are mediated by genetics (Puthucheary et al., 2011), environmental and behavioural factors (Ivarsson et al., 2016; Mann, Bryant, Johnstone, Ivey, & Sayers, 2016; Ruuska, Hautala, Kiviniemi, Mäkikallio, & Tulppo, 2012; Stults-Kolehmainen et al., 2016), current emotional state (Rathschlag & Memmert, 2013; Smith, Macora, & Coutts, 2015) pre-exposed tolerance and resilience to the specific stressor (Bunn, Wells, Avery, & Manor, 2018; Moberg et al., 2020), and lastly, perceptions of the stressor experienced by the individual (Angeli, Minetto, Dovio, & Paccotti, 2004; Lazarus, 1984). This highlights the difficulty for S&C coaches when trying to programme a safe and optimal path. It is evident the interaction between the human organism and the environment is highly complex and individual (figure 2).

Figure 2. Reprinted from Kiely 2019.


Therefore, it must be questioned, when these numerous potential biological and non-biological variables have an effect on the outcome, how is it possible to pre-determine the best course of action? Additionally, when determining the success of a programme, how can the S&C coach be sure of the exact mechanisms which generated the outcome? Whether this was a personal best or a career threatening injury, it is presumptuous to assume linear cause and effect exists within this paradigm. Perhaps Usain Bolt's hamstring tear in the final race of his career was caused by inappropriate foot position on ground contact, alternatively perhaps too much training volume in the weeks prior or too little sleep the night before.


Taleb (2007) offers a three step critical thinking tool as a rebuttal for platonification termed “the ludic fallacy” and should form part of the theoretical armour for S&C coaches in the field. Firstly, Taleb (2007) contends It is impossible to know all the information and to account for all the moving parts in a dynamically changing landscape. The S&C coach should therefore embody a Socratic “I know that I know nothing” philosophical mindset to programming. This can help increase the chances of identifying the shortcomings of platonified models. From weather systems to stock markets and stress adaptation, these entities aren’t based on predicable games in which events can be pre-determined. Secondly, small sensitive changes in initial conditions can drastically change the outcome. Edward Lorenz (figure 3) stumbled upon this revelation when he returned to his laboratory after a coffee break, giving birth to the now universally acclaimed chaos theory and butterfly effect (Gleick, 2015).

Figure 3. Lorenz attractor "organised chaos".


Anecdotally, adding an extra hour of sleep a night, getting to the gym five minutes earlier to implement an effective warm up or even choosing to train in the morning or the afternoon can all potentially be small sensitive changes which can manipulate the training effect. Lastly, Taleb (2007) identifies the problem of induction, a philosophical dilemma originally discussed by Hume. That is, models that are based on empirical data are flawed, as they fail to predict events which are previously unobserved (Henderson, 2018). Taleb (2007) uses the example of the black swan to highlight the failings of induction. Supposedly, all swans were considered white in the 19th century until black swans were found in Australia, thus demonstrating the future will not always follow the past or more commonly put, don’t assume absence of evidence is evidence of absence. When applying critical thinking tools like Talebs (2007) ludic fallacy, it is not surprising some S&C coaches have chosen to label periodisation as the biggest time waster in the field (Boyle, 2019), and it can be argued postulating on best theoretical methods of periodisation is a redundant process in practice (Buckner et al., 2017; Mattocks et al., 2016). Ultimately, periodisation literature is built on an imperfect platonified model of stress adaptation and therefore the theoretical merits of periodisation should be heavily scrutinised before being applied in practice.


It becomes clear an individualised approach should be championed in periodisation literature with the purpose of adequately representing the contemporary understanding of stress adaptation. This has led DeWeese, Gray, Sams, Scruggs, and Serrano (2013)

to revise the definition of periodisation, advocating for an increased emphasis on a continuous and comprehensive individual monitoring process throughout training, measuring physiological, biomechanical and psychological responses using a battery of tests. This will enable a greater insight for the coach to adjust and manipulate training based on what is happening in reality rather than what is expected to happen. Furthermore, incorporating a broader definition encompassing the humanistic nature of the coaching process can help challenge the mechanical programming bias of intensity, volume and load. That is, the coaching-athlete relationship is fundamentally a social contract, and the success of a training programme is dependent on the success of this relationship (Cassidy, Jones, & Potrac, 2016). This 'people first athlete second' approach acknowledges the non-biological components of stress adaptation and therefore concedes its impact on performance. Anecdotally, Dave Spitz, a US national weightlifting coach, tells an important story (TrainHeroic, 2017). Spitz fundamentally believed if he was able to bring Bulgarian weightlifting mastermind Ivan Abadjiev over to America to train the US team then they would be just as successful. Retrospectively he admits this was a learning curve for him as a coach, he didn’t realise how the profound sociological differences between communist Bulgaria and his western democratised American weightlifters would drastically change the adherence to the programme and training outcomes. This led to Spitz abandoning the method 8 months after his athletes either complained, sustained an injury or ceased to continue, wisely stating “success is situational”. This coaching empiricism is what Bartholomew (2017) calls a "deep social intelligence", learned from tacit knowledge and skin in the game. Ultimately, expanding the definition of periodisation beyond its mechanical components can help develop this social intelligence and humanistic intuition. This was appreciated by Pedemonte (1986), who states, “we can take full advantage of periodisation only when we know the objective basic laws of this process and when we really know the person who is in front of us”.


References


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