Starting with Why in Sports Science
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Last summer I was excited to attend the Seattle Sounders Sports Science weekend. I was honoured to be asked to present at the event and spoke about individualising training load monitoring. Having read Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action’, I used his Golden Circle as the structure for my presentation. In this post, I will outline some of the concepts from the book and examples of how this relates to Sports Science.
Crucially, the “Why” is a purpose, cause or belief that has nothing to do with the “What” and the most inspiring companies and leaders start with their “Why”. For example:
Apple talks first and foremost about challenging the status quo rather than the technicalities of their products.
Dr Martin Luther King spoke about his dream and not specifically how he was going to make it a reality.
The Wright brothers wanted to change the world for all by making flight a reality, rather than for fame and fortune like their better equipped rivals.
They all start in the middle of the Golden Circle with clarity of their “Why”, then know “How” they will bring it to life and finally are consistent in “What” they do and how it relates to their “Why”. They work from the inside of the Golden Circle and move outwards.
As Sports Performance practitioners it is arguably natural to us to think of practical reasons for our “Why”. Explanations such as supporting objective decision making, improving player availability, and minimising injury risk all immediately spring to mind. Especially when you consider the evidence that player availability is associated with success as discussed previously here. Remember though, Sinek argues the “Why” at the centre of the Golden Circle is a purpose, a cause or a belief, rather than such substantial, objective and factual explanations.
Why do you do what you do? Why did you become a Sports Scientist, a Strength and Conditioning Coach, a Nutritionist or a Physiotherapist?
It’s not all about marketing however, Sinek proposes some biology to support his theories. He discusses different areas of the brain, what they control and how this relates to the Golden Circle. The neocortex is responsible for rational and analytical thought – facts, figures and language (the “What”). The limbic brain is responsible for feelings and decision making (the “Why” and “How”). Thus, decision-making and the ability to explain those decisions exists in different part of the brain, which he proposes explains “gut decisions”. Sinek expands on this to say:
“Our limbic brain is powerful, powerful enough to drive behavior that sometimes contradicts our rational and analytical understanding of a situation. We often trust our gut even if the decision flies in the face of all the facts and figures.”
As I was reading this, I immediately thought about the stereotypical difference between coaches and support staff. As Sports Scientists, we are driven by facts, figures and rational thought. On the other hand, coaching staff often (but not always) talk about gut feel and the coach’s eye. Perhaps to better connect with coaches, we need to leave the facts and figures in our neocortex and first try to appeal to their limbic brain. We need to start with “Why”.
Sinek goes on further to discuss the ability to win hearts before minds – the delicate balance of art and science. To me this further highlights the relevance of these discussions to Sports Science.
Sinek says there are two ways to influence human behaviour: by manipulating them or inspiring them. While manipulations (like a sale or special offer) may lead to transactions, they do not gain loyalty. A promotion may lead you to purchase an electronic item but it does not necessarily get people queuing outside the store overnight waiting for the latest release, like Apple does. Similarly, fining players or getting a coach to tell athletes to use a piece of tech might get them wearing it, but it does not get them to buy into why they are wearing it. With a clear sense of why, we have a stronger ability to interest others in working towards our “Why”.
As Sinek highlights in his book, “people do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.
Below, you can also watch Simon Sinek in his 2009 TED talk, called “How great leaders inspire action”: