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  • Writer's pictureJo Clubb

Embracing Rethinking in Sports Science

Undoubtedly, one of the best books I’ve read in recent times is Think Again* by Adam Grant. It delves into the concept of rethinking and how it can lead to better decision making, problem solving, and innovation. For sports science practitioners, this book provides valuable insights into how we can embracing rethinking; individually, interpersonally, and collectively.

Why scientists are already ahead (but shouldn’t get complacent!)

On an individual level, Grant discusses the importance of being actively open-minded. He draws on the work of Phil Tetlock, who categorises people into three types: preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. While preachers deliver sermons to protect and promote their ideals, prosecutors use arguments to overcome flaws in others reasoning, and politicians campaign to win over an audience.

Grant argues that actually a "scientist mode" of thinking, where rethinking is fundamental, is most effective. Scientists are seen to lead with questions, not answers, teach from evidence, not intuition, and are willing to disagree with their own arguments. As we’ve previously discussed, we are expected to doubt what we know, be curious about what we don't, and update our views based on new data.

“Scientific thinking favors humility over pride, doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure” - Adam Grant

Yet, it may seem to be increasingly difficult to doubt ourselves or adjust our beliefs. Society and social media drive reductionist and often dichotomous viewpoints. Nordics; good or bad. Acute: chronic workload ratio; good or bad. Carbohydrates; good or bad. Plus, the pressure and insecurity of the applied setting rarely fails to accept, let alone encourage, mistakes.

Nonetheless, we must keep a scientific mindset central to our responsibilities. Grant’s Rethinking Cycle, underpinned by doubt and curiosity, trumps the Overconfidence Cycle, which is driven by pride and conviction. Grant also highlights the dangers of cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, seeing what we expect to see, and desirability bias, seeing what we want to see. Beware these biases when consuming sports science literature!

The overthinking cycle links pride to conviction to confirmation and desirability biases to validation and back to pride. Whereas, the rethinking cycle links humility to doubt to curiosity to discovery and back to humility.
The Overthinking Cycle vs The Rethinking Cycle

Seeking “Confident Humility”

We’re all in danger of the overconfidence cycle. And, as individuals gain experience and confidence, they can also fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where overconfidence grows as they move from novice to amateur. This effect has been eloquently described by Dr Steve Ingham, upon his first meeting with Sir Steve Redgrave. This parallels the threat of Cognitive Entrenchment in sports science, which we’ve previously explored too.

In Think Again, Grant suggests that the "sweet spot" is confident humility, whereby individuals have faith in their capability while appreciating they might not have the right tools or solution, and are keenly aware of their limitations. Indeed, with sports technology it is paramount we maintain awareness of their limitations, despite the value they can bring.

The author also delves into the concept of "the joy of being wrong." He argues that individuals need to detach their present self from their past and their opinions from their identity to embrace the joy of being wrong. By doing so, individuals can actively consider their desirability bias and be more open to updating their beliefs as new data becomes available. Grant quotes Jeff Bezos:

“People who are right a lot listen a lot, and they change their mind a lot. If you don’t change your mind frequently, you’re going to be wrong a lot.” - Jeff Bezos

So consider, when was the last time you changed your mind?

Build a “Challenge Network”

Changing your mind can be encouraged by those in your challenge network. A challenge network (or “Good Fight Club” as Grant labels the chapter!) consists of individuals that we trust to activate rethinking cycles, point out our blind spots, make us humble about our expertise and doubt our knowledge, and be curious about new perspectives. So, who is in your challenge network? Or do you only have a support network?

By acknowledging the dangers of cognitive biases and being actively open-minded, sports scientists can better analyse and update our beliefs and practices as new evidence becomes available. By having a challenge network of individuals with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, we can bring fresh ideas and avoid overconfidence cycles. This provides yet more grounds to promote diverse support staffs in sports.

Debating is a dance not a war

In the second part of the book, Grant discusses interpersonal rethinking. Social media battles have limited productivity. Instead we can use motivational interviewing, with curiosity and humility, in a manner that encourages the individual to hold up a mirror and let them re-examine their beliefs.

Such techniques include asking open-ended questions, acknowledging common ground, engaging in reflective listening, affirming the person’s desire and ability to change, and summarising the conversation. Grant describes persuasive and influential listening, by asking and responding we reiterate our interest in them rather than us.

“Listening is a way of offering others our scarcest, most precious gift: our attention. Once we’ve demonstrated that we care about them and their goals, they’re more willing to listen to us.”

This may be a particularly useful approach for sports scientists seeking to gain buy-in or understand why an athlete or staff member is non-compliant. Start by listening to their perspectives and their concerns, and avoid counter-arguments as this only makes beliefs stronger.

We may want to ask “what evidence would change your mind?”. From my experience, this is evidence of information actually being used, not just collected. Therefore, communicating and demonstrating the value of data collection is critical.

Complexify not Simplify

Humans have a binary bias. We tend to simplify complex problems into two categories. Polarisation feeds on simplicity. But we can encourage collective rethinking by complexifying (attributed to Dr. Peter Coleman at Columbia University) contentious topics.

While we already mentioned the benefits of scientific thinking, this means we have a greater responsibility to this approach. We should admit uncertainty, include caveats, highlight nuances and limitations. Of course, there is a time and a place. Perhaps do not mention the uncertainty around injury risk or a rehab process to an athlete as they’re about to take the field for the first time!

‘Best practices’ suggest that the ideal routines are already in place. Whereas, Grant argues, striving for ‘better practices’ is a way to keep people rethinking. This is paramount in sports, as my friend Will Greenberg and I also discussed in a BJSM editorial (admittedly, a clear case here of confirmation bias!!). The complexity of sports performance and injury means the quest for so-called ‘best practice’ is often misplaced in our field.

Think like a scientist!

Think Again* by Adam Grant certainly makes you rethink the need to always be right. It provides valuable insights into the dangers of cognitive biases and the importance of being actively open-minded, having a challenge network, and embracing the joy of being wrong. By incorporating these principles into our work, sports practitioners can better support athletes and engage in healthier debate.

*Affiliate Link: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases but it does not cost you any extra.


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