The End of Average… in Sports Science
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
When was the last time you calculated an average? Or referred to an average? Or read a finding in a study presented as an average? As a Sport Scientist, this may be a frequent occurrence, perhaps even multiple times a day. If that is the case, it may be worth reading “The End of Average” by Todd Rose.
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” – Bertrand Russell
This is a fascinating book that questions an aspect of our society that has long been accepted as the norm, using mean averages. It is interesting to reflect upon something so integral to our day-to-day lives, something we do not really give much conscious thought to. It is not just relevant to sports science but is arguably taken as a fact of life across many different aspects. The first part of the book explains how our society is shaped by “averagarian thinking”.
Dr Rose provides many examples of averagarian thinking, including how early cockpits were designed for the “average” pilot without the ability to adjust the setup. However, the lack of adjustment in the planes caused accidents because not a single airman (out of 4000+ studied) actually fit into the average specification for all ten ranges. In another example that still influences us today, Dr Rose explains how a factory worker’s day was designed to get the most out of the average factory worker. This approach was also transferred into schools, hence why the factory bell became an everyday part of the school day as well. Such methods were ideal for the industrial era when society needed to develop efficient and standardised systems. Nonetheless, many of our system’s today still reflect this approach. For more on this you can watch Dr Rose’s TEDx talk here.
The Average vs The Individual in Sport
Beyond the endless examples of averagarian thinking in society, how specifically does this impact sports science? Those supporting this way of life argue that the average represents the ideal and the individual represents the error. Regardless of the truth of this statement for wider society, surely the sporting realm is one that celebrates the individual and the distinction from the mean? Usain Bolt is the first person who comes to my mind but there are of course boundless other examples…
Dr Rose presents three principles of individuality that I will try to briefly relate to potential applications in sports science.
The Jagged Principle
We tend to use a one-dimensional scale to think about complex human traits. However, they are in fact multidimensional. In addition, subcategories of these traits can be relatively independent of each other. For example, Dr Rose describes the example of intelligence, which is multifactorial and yet we reduce it down to a single value; IQ. There are many examples in sport that comes to mind; body composition, training load, athletic capacity, performance etc. These are jagged and cannot be described by a single number, but as Dr Rose states “few can resist the lure of evaluating with a single number”.
Figure 1 (below) demonstrates the jagged profile of one athlete for skinfold data, plotting their standardised score (z score) compared to the rest of the squad for body composition measures of interest. Despite this jagged profile we may be expected to objectively or verbally summarise their body composition with a single number.
The Context Principle
Dr Rose argues that traits are a myth. Traits and situations interact, so we may act consistently within a given context but express traits differently in different contexts. For example, someone may be introvert on average, but once again this average does not account for all situations. Perhaps at work they display introvert traits but act extrovertly in front of their family. As Rose says, if we rely on averages we miss out all the important details of a person’s behaviour.
I believe this is relevant to aspects of performance, recruitment and development. For example, if we conclude that a player is good at heading the ball, we may miss the details of the context when they perform well and/or badly at this skill. Perhaps they are good at heading the ball defensively from opposition corners or goal kicks, but are less successful in the context of attacking corners when the skill involves keeping the ball down and on target. Therefore, we should use “if-then” signatures to profile the specific contexts within which an individual thrives or struggles. Interestingly, this research and specifically “if-then” profiles are also mentioned in David Epstein’s highly recommended “Range” (another fantastic read IMO). Epstein talks at length about how context, along with sampling activities, social groups, and experiences among others, change our personalities and therefore our desires and goals.
The Pathway Principle
This principle states that we do not follow a predefined blueprint in our development. This is important for talent recruitment and the development of athletes, especially in light of more formalised youth development systems. Stories such as Tom Brady (selected in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft) and Jamie Vardy (released at 16, played non-league football before signing for Leicester and later voted Premier League Player of the Season during their surprise championship year) remind us that athletes’ stories are not always linear. We should be providing different pathways for individuals to develop rather than ferrying everyone down a single approach.
Treating Individuals with Respect
In the many stories included in the book, one that was particularly memorable was Sridhar Vembu. He started the Zoho Corporation that used an open-minded approach to recruitment with a philosophy of finding talent anywhere (not just straight-A students from Ivy League schools). According to their website, 15% of Zoho employees do not have a college degree, because within their recruitment they look for transferable skills rather than purely academic achievements. We will close this post with the following quote from Vembu:
“I have a strong math background and I know numbers. And I know that you are in big trouble if you start to think about individuals as numbers to be optimized on average. Treat individuals with respect, as individuals, and you will get out more than what you put in.” – Sridhar Vembu, Zoho Corporation
Keep a look out for our next post, in which we talk about treating individuals with respect in relation to visualising sports science data…