What waters do you swim in?
The power of the paradigms of your path
“What the hell is the water?” asked one fish to the other when an older fish just crossed them saying “How is the water?”
With this story, David Foster Wallace transmitted that the most obvious and important realities —which completely affect the way of living— are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.
The water that David Foster Wallace talks about is what Donella Meadows, Thomas Colin Campbell and Howard Jacobson call paradigms: mental filters that restrict what we are able to see at any one time. They are all the ideas and beliefs we share as a society about how the world works. This set of beliefs affects our day-to-day because they are the sources of systems. Paradigms are the water we swim in.
These concepts were completely aligned with the one from John Kiely that enlightened me one morning long ago. The paper of John was what I have explained as a mental earthquake and he was talking about the path-dependence phenomenon in training: how the legacy of past beliefs influences the practice of the present moment. In simpler words that is, where we go next depends not only on what waters do we swim in now, but also from which seas we have been. The paradigms that have existed in the past and exist in the present, greatly affect our future.
Paradigms formulated in times when scientific environments had less information, technologies... may be no longer valid. How we think is dependent on a historical moment with a certain knowledge. We should not change assumptions, presumptions, and rules simply to innovate without meaning, but we must be aware, review them and decide: analyze which waters we come from, which paradigm we find ourselves in... in order to keep moving forward, in order to make our way. Because a paradigm can be liberating… and also can become a prison if we think that water is all there is, so we don’t even have a name for it anymore.
“In confidence lies danger.”
—Thales of Miletus
Sport is no exception. The paradigm in sport has not escaped the great influence of Newton’s linear physics and Descartes’ metaphor of “L’homme Machine” that has so characterized past social developments.
We found ourselves swimming in reductionist waters in which we conceived of athletes and sportsmen as machines: we valued the quantitative assuming that “what gets measured, gets managed” and we obsess over data and statistics (such as heart rates, VO2Max, sprints, accelerations...) as if we were talking about a car with different gears, speeds, horsepower, etc. We have forgotten the qualitative and difficult to measure aspects such as interactions, adaptation to change, emotional states, self-awareness, cognitive load, etc. In a period marked by the collection of simplistic data… Saint-Exupéry would say: '“The essential is invisible to the Excel spreadsheet.”
The coaches, teachers, mentors... with whom we have swum generate a great influence on the waters towards which we will head in the future. I don’t know about you... but I, the more beginner I was, the more I reproduced what my past coaches had done. I entered university thinking that the body was a machine, that the ideal athlete was physically prepared in the gym and then the physical coach left, and the court was the responsibility of the head coach. In the same paradigm —treating people like machines with separable parts—, in one of the first subjects, they clearly instilled in me the existence of “technique”, “tactics” and “strategy” and I was already more dependent on these concepts than on the sport itself. I was training according to a model very well thought out and worked on by one person… and I was drifting away from the sport.
“Something that seems normal today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, and survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.”
— John McWhorter
As a child, I was told that I couldn’t go to the gym until I was 16 because “the muscle must grow lengthwise, not wide”. I wonder if it had any influence the fact that one of the first and most influential studies in the field of strength and childhood was conducted with kids working on muscle strength activities under malnourished conditions in post-war Japan. A clear example of the perpetuation of beliefs based on simplistic conclusions taken out of context: “the original story may be forgotten but the belief persists even though amounts of disconfirming evidence” says Kiely.
A similar case as it happens with the periodization of training, it is assumed that the body adapts in a linear way due to muscle stress. Hans Seyle —quoted continuously at the university— contributed to a better understanding of the principles of the adaptation process, but the assumptions he proposed are not much more valid for dealing with complex beings like humans. I know what I’m talking about: Less than 5 years ago, one of my training course teachers had us plan a 10km race at 3 months seen just by typing metrics on a computer spreadsheet.
Why do we find these cases in which many many beliefs are they not even questioned? Kiely explains that in the game played by the available scientific evidence and the intelligence and creativity of the coaches... the path-dependent cultural inertia always ends up winning. It is easier to persevere in common habits than to cut with tradition and reformulate a new paradigm in accordance with current knowledge.
All is not lost yet… Meadows, in his book Thinking in Systems proposes leverage points which are places to intervine a system, they are points of power. One of the most effective leverage points is changing the paradigm. How easy it is to say. An example was Copernicus and Kepler demonstrating that the earth was not the center of the universe or Einstein and his theory of relativity. The paradigm of the ancient Egyptians made them built pyramids because they believed in an afterlife. By changing the paradigm, we change the world.
But… if you want to win the game, you have to transcend paradigms, the most effective leverage point. This is to develop the skills of swimming in different waters, finding oceans never sailed before, to stay flexible, to understand that every water shapes our own worldview… to let go into not-knowing: to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms. Paradigms are big stones in the path, they are harder to change than anything else about a system. They change little by little, step by step…
“Real freedom is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
—David Foster Wallace
So… “What the hell is the water?”
I have no idea and the best answer I can give is David’s: awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time.
“This is water.”
Water can be our prison. If we are not aware of it, if we do not consider changing the water to swim… we expose ourselves to blind certainty: a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up. Living unconsciously on automatic pilot we will be monkeys, not creators of our own destiny.
The best thing is that... Water can also be the rocket that makes us fly towards seas we have never imagined. If even the world map is wrong... let’s learn the lesson of being less arrogant and have more critical awareness about ourselves, because a big percentage of things we are convinced of may be totally wrong and deluded.
Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop
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