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The Value of Interdisciplinary Thinking

In the first in a series, Strength and Conditioning Coach Jason Tee shares his view on the importance of interdisciplinary thinking and encourages all coaches to consider holistic development within their practice

The word ‘complex’ defines systems composed of many components that interact with each other. Complex systems are difficult to understand and work within because the interactions between different parts of the system are difficult to understand or predict. Coaching is a unique vocation because it takes place in a complex world.

The following image highlights the differences between simple, complicated and complex systems.

Examples of simple, complicated and complex tasks include:

  • building lego (simple)
  • designing a formula 1 car (complicated)
  • raising a child (complex).

Simple processes can be explained using instructions and have predictable outcomes, such as following a recipe to bake a cake.

There is no doubt that people get better at these tasks with practice, but even a beginner can complete a simple task given enough time and motivation.

Complex tasks have a high level of unpredictability and uncertainty, and success requires the combination of several factors. There is also no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

Consider the experiences of parents and raising a child. Children brought up in the same household and schools with the same parents and expectations of behaviour can still have vastly different abilities, interests and personalities, and different solutions are required for the same problems to meet individual needs as they progress to adulthood.

What does this mean in coaching?

Football academies are highly resourced development environments designed by experts to maximise the chances of players developing, progressing, and maximising their potential. Even within these environments, some players learn the skills and attitudes to progress, while others don’t.

Coaching is therefore a complex task! You must attempt to guide participants to grow and develop, but there is no guarantee of success.

Experience helps. Experienced coaches are more likely to be successful because they’re better at noticing, questioning, understanding, reacting to and influencing changes in circumstances. The difference between novice and expert coaches is the expert’s ability to use professional judgement to make better decisions at each stage of the coaching process.

Professional judgement and decision-making

Developing the ability to make good coaching judgements and decisions is dependent on two key things:

  1. Knowledge. There are certain things that coaches must know to be effective in their role. For example, you can’t be a gymnastics coach without a deep technical knowledge of the sport.
  2. Experience. No two participants or coaching environments are the same, and therefore coaches are continually trying to apply their knowledge and experiences in new contexts. This is something that you can get better at with practice. 

Combined, these enable you to make informed decisions (using your knowledge and experiences, and by understanding the context) about the possible courses of action for any given situation that are appropriate under the circumstances.

If you can consider more options and solutions before you make a decision, you’re giving your participant the best chance to develop and succeed.

What areas could you consider in your coaching practice that would provide you with more solutions?

  • Technical Development.
  • Tactical Awareness.
  • Fundamental Movements.
  • Physical Preparation.
  • Rehabilitation.
  • Prehabilitation/Injury Prevention.
  • Physical Conditioning.
  • Psychology.
  • Lifestyle.
  • Nutrition.
  • Well-being.

What knowledge do coaches need?

It goes without saying that you must have a deep and detailed underpinning knowledge of your sport. However, just an in-depth understanding of a particular sport (technical skills and tactical awareness) is insufficient to guarantee success.

Turn on the TV on any given day and you are likely to hear pundits speak with great understanding of their respective sports, but few would be able to operationalise these views with a practice session or coaching programme. The reason why knowledgeable TV pundits and armchair critics may not be effective coaches is that you don’t coach sports, you coach people.

A coach needs to be responsive to the needs of the people they are coaching. As everyone is different and all their needs are unique, you need to draw on different areas of knowledge and experience to best support the individual in front of you.

For example, if a participant lacks confidence, you need to employ your knowledge of motivational psychology. Where a participant lacks fitness, you need to be able to advise on strength and conditioning. Where a participant has a technical deficiency, biomechanical analysis and skill coaching may be required. Finally, if a participant has suffered a bereavement, none of the things that you know may matter as much as your presence, caring and support.

Abraham Maslow’s law of the hammer states that ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer, you might treat everything as if it were a nail.’ Applying this directly to coaching, there are a limited number of coaching problems that can be solved by the ability to explain the merits of ‘playing a 4-5-1 formation versus a 4-4-2’.

As such, coaches clearly have a responsibility to acquire and develop as many tools as possible to be able to support participants' diverse needs. This is the foundation of interdisciplinary thinking, which avoids applying the most familiar lens to the problem (often technical and tactical), but instead asks: ‘What is the best tool for the job?’

The value of multidisciplinary teams

In the realm of professional sport, interdisciplinary thinking is often put into practice by employing multidisciplinary teams: groups of professionals who are experts in particular areas of performance (such as skills coaching; strength and conditioning; physiotherapy; medicine; performance analysis; nutrition; logistics; and management). However, this isn’t the only way to develop interdisciplinary thinking.

Individual coaches working at a community level can simply apply this approach if they are willing to ask: ‘What is the best way to solve this problem?’

Example scenario

A participant lacks energy in the last quarter of games.  What may be the issue?

  • They lack aerobic conditioning.

  • They may not be fuelling well enough before a game.

  • They could be experiencing poor sleep.

  • It may be connected to their positional understanding and tactical awareness (being efficient and effective).

Advising this participant on healthy nutrition or sleep habits may have a greater impact than hours of gruelling conditioning training, but to do this, you must have first developed some knowledge of these areas.

The value of interdisciplinary thinking is that it enables you to consider the participant as a whole and determine what their greatest need is, and how you can support that. Coaches who get stuck in a single approach arrive with a solution that they hope fits their athlete’s problem. When you embrace interdisciplinarity, you will have a range of solutions at your disposal, ready to adapt depending on the problem that you are presented with.

More on Interdisciplinary Thinking

This is the first part of a series on interdisciplinary thinking with Strength and Conditioning Coach Jason Tee


Related Resources

  • Coaches Should Develop the Whole Person

  • Coaching the Person in Front of You: The Key to Helping Your Participants Thrive

  • Building Your Coaching Philosophy


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UK Coaching Team