Systems Thinking Creates Champions

To train effectively for the original ultimate runner competition, (10k, 400 meters, 100 meters, a mile and marathon all held on the same day), I had to understand the processes of lactate threshold training, VO2 max training, long runs, speed training, hill training, running economy, flexibility, pacing, mental/spiritual preparation, nutrition, hydration, and many other “process training areas”.  

All of these areas (and others) are part of the endurance training system. Running the Original Ultimate Runner Competition years ago reinforced to me the incredible importance of process and systems thinking in coaching.

All training processes are important

All training processes that led up to the Ultimate Runner Competition i.e., lactate threshold training, VO2 max training, marathon pace training, long runs, speed training, pace training etc. were important to the successful completion of the Ultimate Runner Competition.

It was not just “one process” say, VO2 max training that led me to victory in the Ultimate Runner. All processes within the “overall training system” were part of my training regimen and mission critical to optimum performance.    

Having an understanding about how all training processes interrelated with each other in the endurance running system, was the key to victory in this event. You can read more about the Ultimate Runner here:The Original Ultimate Runner Competition

Systems thinking opens the door to breakthroughs

Systems thinking looks at how all pieces of a particular life puzzle fit together. All major breakthroughs in life require some form of process and systems thinking. Rather than focusing on one small piece of the puzzle, systems thinking intentionally looks at how all pieces of the training puzzle fit together and interconnect.

Many people and organizations never reach their God given potential because they don’t systematically engage in process and systems thinking.

Stay away from silo thinking  

People have a tendency to focus on just one or two reasons for success or failure in a process. In addition, the focus is generally on blaming others when things go wrong, rather than looking under the hood together to see how to solve process problems with others in the system they are working in.

In business, this problem is called “silo thinking”. This means that people generally stay in their own world or “silo’ when trying to solve business problems.  They don’t venture out into the work areas of others to help solve problems on an enterprise wide level.

By definition, the silo approach means that a problem is not fully solved because people who live in their own work silo don’t seek input from other departments about how they can improve and make a process work better for the end customer.

Said another way, the vast majority of people in organizations don’t understand how their silo (their work unit) interconnects with the rest of the other sections or other “silos” in the organization. They don’t know how the work they do each day impacts the people in other work units.

How can people solve problems fully when they don’t know how their piece of the puzzle impacts the entire puzzle of the organization? How can you solve a problem if you don’t know how your actions impact others who are downstream in a process?

People who work in silo organizations, or who have a silo mentality, don’t understand nor do they necessarily care about what happens after their part of the process is complete. The impact of their actions in work areas outside of their own, is invisible to them because they don’t have a clear understanding of the entire process. Another way of saying this is: “The left hand never knows what the right hand is doing”.

Breakthroughs happen when you consider all processes in a system

We also have a tendency in life to simplify complex issues, including training issues. For example, some “experts” in endurance sports state that the next great performance breakthrough will result from stronger mental strategies. Others say the next breakthrough will take place in the development of more speed or more endurance in the physiological realm. Still others say that performance will transform by focusing on injury prevention or running economy.

The expert makes it sound like the next breakthrough in human performance is dependent primarily on just one process or critical success factor. This is not normally the case.

Each process in this example cannot stand alone if optimum performance is going to happen. All strategies must be coordinated in the yearly training plan.

Examples of silo thinking in endurance sports

If you know and understand the complexities and interrelationships between endurance training process A, endurance training process B, and endurance training process C, breakthroughs in performance happen. However, in many situations as discussed above, the people who perform the processes of A, B, and C rarely talk to each other and go about business as usual in their own work silo.

How can the end customer of professionals or businesses (in this case, an endurance athlete) reach their performance potential if the people involved in process A, B, and C never talk?  The answer is:  They can’t and won’t.

Let’s look at one quick and specific example of silo thinking in process A, B, and C in endurance sports.

The silo players: Physical Therapist, Coach, Sports Psychologist

Let’s say that a physical therapist gives an athlete some challenging exercises (Process A) to improve flexibility. In most real-life cases, the physical therapist never talks to the coach about the athlete’s training or treatment plan (Process B). Because the coach does not know about the physical therapist’s plan, he gives the runner a hard workout the same day the physical therapist gives the athlete tough flexibility exercises.

Unfortunately, because the coach was out of the loop with the physical therapist’s treatment plan, the athlete gets injured due to too much physical stress on the body or healing is slower because of the lack of communication between the physical therapist and coach.

In the meantime, a separate sports psychologist suggests new mental toughness strategies (Process C) to the same athlete in the example above without talking to or telling the coach.  The athlete gets mixed messages because the sports psychologist and coach are not on the same page when it comes to preparing the athlete mentally due to the coach and psychologists lack of communication. The athlete's performance suffers as a result of poor communication between the coach and sports psychologist.

Each person in this scenario stays in their own work silo and fails to communicate critical information about the athlete to the other professional in the process. Not good.

The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing in these scenarios. The athlete may get hurt because the people in the ‘work silos” don’t talk to each other. Therefore, the athlete never reaches his or her full potential because the people in this scenario don’t discuss the big picture of the athlete’s performance and training needs.

Stop the blame game

The professionals involved in the examples above also generally blame each other for the athlete’s poor performance or injury problems rather than getting together and reviewing how to work together as a team.

Not communicating training process information between professionals is one main reason why athletes don't reach their God given potential in some sports including endurance running. 

Training processes cannot stand alone.  Everyone involved in the training process needs to be on the same team for optimal results. A good project management plan for endurance athletes includes a communication plan that helps ensure all parties come to the table to talk about their role in helping the athlete reach their potential.

Summing it up

Identify all key training process in the yearly training plan. Talk to the key people involved in all training processes. Coordinate training activities as much as possible between all people in the training process. Stay away from the silo training mentality by meeting with all key stakeholders involved in the endurance training process frequently (on a set schedule) throughout the yearly training cycle.

 Copyright 2019 Larry Weber