The elephant in the room for improvement.

I admit, this is one of my hobby horses and I like to ride it hard and often.
In many fields of life, industry, medicine and sports, the scientific management principles of Taylor, mind you more than 150 years old, still dominate. (1)

Words such as manager, standardization, productivity, efficiency, protocol, KPI, assessment, norm or average, are still used to express the powerful impact of Taylorism. Yes, Taylor absolutely made a big step forward as far as efficiency is concerned. He sharpened the thinking about running companies in those days, but that step was 150 years ago! One of Taylor’s important approaches was that he timed the workers in completing a certain task. From this he derived an average time for an average worker, which then became the reference or norm.

Taylor wasn’t the only one in the age of the Industrial Revolution, who loved measurements and averaging. Quetelet, who averaged the size of the Scottish soldier (2). Francis Galton who measured human beings on many mental, physical and moral variables and based on these, ranked them from “Imbecile” to “Eminent” (3). Or Thorndike, who developed the IQ test and averaged these results for groups too. In fact they were the fathers of applied statistics, or the science of static numbers.
Those days were the days that the use of averages and generalizations was born.

Nowadays we realize that science has evolved in many fields, but somehow one of the biggest factors between success and failure in many fields, is based on something that looks so obvious that most of us don’t even recognize it: we are unique organisms in many aspects.

This possibly has been the most important basic pillar in my work as a coach and educator.
In an early stage of my work (it wouldn’t call it “career”), I realized that group programs or writing one training program for all of the athletes in my group did not bring satisfactory results. One-size fits all doesn’t go anywhere, because your favorite exercise might be the cause of my injury, my body is different from yours. Your superfood might be my poison, because the way your body handles food might be different from mine: think about peanuts being of high nutritional value but in some individuals causes a life threatening allergy.
The perfect dose of medication that takes your pain away without a problem, might be my overdose. Your reward might be my punishment. Your passion might be my biggest fear e.g. bungee-jumping. And in sports: your “easy” workout might be my exhaustive workout. If we do the same workout, you might recover in a few hours, but it might cost me more than a day to recover to the same level. We can also find it in the saying: “somewhere there is a little girl, just warming up with you 1 RM”.
Still, in medicine one only recently “discovered” that women respond differently to the same medication than man. And it was only 10 years ago that the idea of gender-specific medicine became an issue.

Overall, “averagarianism” still prevails in many fields, assuming that we are all pretty much the same and that we will respond in the same way to the same stimuli, e.g. training. In other words: that all of us are average.

One of the most interesting findings about the unique individual was done by Daniels, who was responsible for developing cockpits for fighter pilots.(4) He measured the proportions of many pilots and averaged the results. He however discovered, that there isn’t such a thing as “the average pilot”. The body dimensions of pilots differed in such a way that the cockpit design based on the average pilot did not fit any pilot! He took ten dimensions of pilots and measured 4063 pilots. And as it turned out: not a single pilot fitted the average of all ten dimensions! And less than 3.5% of the pilots fitted the average on only three dimensions. The message is clear: we all differ!

Also in other branches of science slowly the idea arose that averaging might be of statistic value, but not of any practical value. One of the proponents of the value of the individual in scientific sense was professor Peter Molenaar, who studied this issue thoroughly and stated: “Using a group average to evaluate individuals would only be valid if human beings were frozen clones, identical and unchanging”. (5) A pretty strong statement considering the fact that we as coaches often use group averages when deriving information for scientific journals and articles….

We can say that in Taylor’s days, the average men represented the ideal and the individual represented the error. But with the rise of “personalized medicine”, “personalized nutrition”, the time has come that we spend more timing focusing on serious personalized training. Especially when it concerns elite athletes whose main goal is to escape the average in the first place, and becoming “outliers”. Until now we adapted our athletes to our training programs and we adapted our training programs, our training methods, our exercises, our periodization models from averages. I bet you have heard it: “it takes 48 hours to recover from a heavy anaerobic workout”, or “one needs to squat 2 .5 times his/her bodyweight in order to be able to handle drop jumps properly”, “this is the best exercise …”(for whom?). Yes, averages, averages, averages.

Fortunately more and more research is done to show the inter-individual responses and differences to training (6, 7, 8, 9,10) Especially when working with elite athletes, keep in mind that the elite athlete is trying to get away from the average level, he/she is trying to become an outlier. And so should elite coaches do too, average coaches create average athletes, who perform average.

Bottom line: Kick the average elephant out of your room for improvement.

1. Taylor, F.W: The Principles of Scientific Management; Harper & Brothers, New York, 1911.

2. Mosselmans, B: Adolphe Quetelet, the average man and the development of economic methodology; The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Vol.12, No.4, 2005, pg. 565-582.

3. Galton, F: Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Development; J.M. Dent & Co. London, 1883.

4. Daniels, G.S: “The Average Man”;Aero Medical Center, Wright Air Development Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH 45433, 1952.

5. Molenaar, P.C.M: A Manifesto on Psychology as Idiographic Science: Bringing the Person Back Into Scientific Psychology, This Time Forever; Measurement vol.2, No.4, 2004, pg.201-218.

6. Tschiene, P: Die Individualisierung des Trainings: eine vernachlässigte Leistungsreserve; Leistungssport, No.4, 2012 pg. 11-12.(German)

7. Mori, M; Higuchi, K, et al.: Genetic basis of inter-individual variability in the effects of exercise on the alleviation of lifestyle-related diseases; J. Physiol. Vol.587, No.23 (2009) pg. 5577–5584.

8.Mann, T.N; Lamberts, R.P; Lambert, M.I: High Responders and Low Responders: Factors Associated with Individual Variation in Response to Standardized Training; Sport Medicine, DOI 10.1007/s40279-014-0197-3

9. Erskine, R.M; Jones, D.A; et al.: Inter-individual variability in the adaptation of human muscle specific tension to progressive resistance training; Eur.J.Appl. Physiol. Vol.10, 2010, pg.1117-1125.

10. Hautala, A.J; Kiviniemi, A.M et al.: Individual differences in the responses to endurance and resistance training; Eur.J.Appl.Physiol.Vol.96, 2006, pg.535-542.

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