How do we measure athletic performance?

In Critical Chain, Eliyahu Goldratt captures a statement that has been immortalized in the arena of business management:

 “Tell me how you’ll measure me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.”

When the criteria that we measure are wrong, or incomplete, we can create disastrous consequences.

Goldratt tells the story of a steel company, in which the standard for measurement for the production division was tons per hour. This is great, right? Measure how much the production division is putting out, and everything should go well! Well, not so much: this form of measurement wasn’t taking into account the needs of the company as a whole.

As Jamshid Gharajedaghi writes in Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos, “Major organizational theories have implicitly assumed that perfectly rational micro-decisions would automatically produce perfectly rational macro-conditions.”

That was the assumption in this case: measure tons-per-hour (which is a rational measurement for the production division) and the macro-conditions would be rational too: the company would just make more money!

As you probably can intuit, that wasn’t the case: the imperative to maximize tons per hour created a situation where materials that were easy and quick to process were processed first (regardless of delivery promises), and specifications that the buyers asked for were ignored, in order to reduce production time: if the buyers wanted say, a ton of 12” steel beams and a ton of 10” steel beams, the production division would just produce two tons of 12” steel beams (cutting down set-up time by half) and then complain to the supply division that they only received a single ton of steel to work with.

A very similar thing happens in athletic training: we tend to create all the wrong results because here too we measure the wrong things.

For example, look at how catastrophic it has been for a majority of people to focus on weightloss when they want to become “fit.” People have been pushed into disregarding a majority of the body’s systems to focus on only one variable: the amount of visible body fat. That’s what we measure, and people’s behavior typically homes in on body fat (or on any one thing), disregarding anything else.

As Goldratt cautions us, “Most of the local improvements do not contribute to the global.” In other words, by homing in on body fat we might be creating huge problems for us further down the line (see: thyroid problems).

A similar thing happens when we try and measure “miles.” That we measure this is ridiculous, given the well-known saying “quality over quantity.” Well, what is a “quality mile”? Do you know? I certainly don’t—or at least, it hasn’t been defined for me. How many runners out there hobble out their miles, fighting through knee pain and achilles tendonitis, popping kidney-destroying doses of ibuprofen? A lot.

We’re measuring the wrong things, we’re seeing the majority of people behave the wrong way, and we’re achieving the wrong results.

The successful ones are those who staunchly ignore the ravings of modern exercise culture—“fight through the pain,” “pain is inevitable”—and concentrate, against all odds and against the prevailing cultural current, on quality, precision, and correct function.

Even though we’d like to think that these problems are intractable, and solutions are difficult to find, they’re actually out there. Solutions to these problems have been diligently developed in the realm of business management, and have yet to reach the domain of athleticism.

The fact of the matter is that by measuring the wrong things, we’ve created these negative, pathological systems for ourselves. It is because we measure the wrong things, that we create the wrong behaviors. Injury, overtraining, and hypergymnasia don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a context of social pressures and cultural expectations—cultural measurements of people. And they’re the wrong ones.

So what are the right ones?

That’s the million dollar question.

The beauty of the thing is that tens of millions of dollars have been already spent in answering this question—and the answer has already saved smart businesses hundreds of millions of dollars. We have ten-million dollar answers to our million dollar question.

And the answer, generally speaking, is to make measurements that reflect the whole, instead of a particular faculty, property, or variable. Generally, this means changing a quantitative measurement (position of the heel upon foot-strike) with a qualitative one (gait harmony).

Instead of measuring foot-strike, let’s measure correct movement. Instead of measuring miles, we can measure distance covered without injury. Or, for example, if we must insist on measuring power, let’s make sure it’s not muscle power (of one or two muscles or isolated systems) but rather athletic power (of various systems in various domains across the whole body).

Always, always, measure the whole. That’s what coach Alberto Salazar does with his Athletes at Nike: he learned the lessons of overtraining—what he calls “extreme athletic excess”—the hard way. And he knows that the only way to get quantity—lower times for his athletes (or perhaps, more medals), is by addressing the qualitative aspects of training, and by being better at it than maybe anyone else in the world.

Most of us fitness enthusiasts know how to periodize training plans so well that we can’t get any better at it. Most of us would benefit little from broadening an already encyclopaedic knowledge of training exercises. How we implement training programs is where most of us fail. And our behavior, the execution of the “how,” is tied above all to the way that we measure ourselves, and to the measurements that we conceive for others.

Let’s make damn sure that they’re the right ones.

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