Over the past several weeks, I have been reminded how much of a “groupthink” there is within athletics. “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.” – Wikipedia.  Before anyone gasps as quoting wikipedia, I did it because it goes against what would normally be accepted, and it has a straight to the point definition of the word.  In fact, using wikipedia’s definition is an excellent example of going against groupthink.

So, how does groupthink come into athletics? I find that it keeps a strong role in athletics due to very strong traditional views in certain sports as well as everyone being an expert in the field. I hope after reading this you can take a step back in your sport and truly question why you’re doing certain things. Is it because its always been done that way or because its actually in fact the right way to do it?

Traditional Views and Breaking the Mold

To be honest, both of my points will go together due to the traditional view creating so-called experts. However, lets focus on traditionalists first.  Have you ever gone to a football practice in the middle of summer and noticed how few water breaks the team may receive? I bet if you would have gone 10 years ago it wouldn’t even seem out of the ordinary. This is a great example of a traditional view that somehow water may make you weak, or if you train without it you’ll become stronger. Now, in todays age with safety of utmost concern, you’ll see athletes getting water breaks as needed, but just as short as 10 years ago that wasn’t always the case. Coaches learned this from their coaches and therefore it must be correct.  While this is just a small example of how groupthink works, I can promise you that its embedded in nearly every sport you’ll encounter. It’s always been done this way therefore it must be the best way.

What I’m not here to say is that the traditional view is wrong in all cases. It could very well be correct. My only goal of this blog is to make you aware of this phenomenon in sports and get you thinking about things. Does it really make sense to always go to track practice and have 50% of your weekly miles run at high intensity?  Does it make sense to go out for an 8 hour ride just because time in the saddle helps? Does it make sense to have 100 pitches as the theoretical cut off for major league pitchers? The answer to all of these questions is maybe in the right context, but what we fall into with traditional thinking is a black and white way of decision making that doesn’t allow for any grey area. Groupthink guides all decision making in these situations.  When it’s either one way or the other, we get trapped in a psychological box that doesn’t allow for us to maximize the situation. That is what we should try to avoid and being aware of this is the first phase in better understanding.

Everyone is an Expert

Quite possibly one of the downfalls of american athletics is that everyone is an expert. This stems from the traditional way of thinking in that their coach taught them this way, it worked, and therefore they are now an expert in the field. While this was good for the individual and may work for 95% of others, it is limiting growth at its roots by only doing things one way forever. We all know you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, yet that is what we are doing with athletes today. Let me use an example that gets me pretty fired up.

The idea of pedaling drills on a bike. At some point someone thought it was a good idea to focus on pedaling drills to make someone faster. This idea then went onto others and quickly it has become a prescribed workout by coaches to help with pedaling efficiency.  While all of that sounds fancy and good, I can’t find a single scientific article that actually justifies doing this to help efficiency. Rather, what it may do is increase muscular effectiveness (actual power), but have a conflicting result for efficiency.  So let’s get this straight, pedaling drills may improve effectiveness, but they will conflict with efficiency. Its simply an error of words, but in all actuality it is wrong at its foundation and causing headaches for many.

Let me explain further. By using the term efficiency, the athlete assumes that they are getting better at riding a bike. In all actuality they are producing more force for a given amount of time, but their body is requiring more work and therefore reducing the efficiency.  For an athlete that is looking to be a sprinter, okay, this works. For an athlete that is looking to ride an Ironman, not so much. The cardiovascular strain on the body will be much higher than the extra watts you may squeak out.

While this is a small hiccup and many will read over it, these small word errors or thoughts without actual scientific evidence are destroying proper and efficient training at its foundation. People are telling others what they heard and these false ideas are spreading like wildfire. What we need to be better at as a whole is understanding the mechanics behind different training methods and giving educated feedback based on this understanding. Simply telling someone to go swim 10×400 yards because it worked for you is like giving them the keys to the car but the car doesn’t have a steering wheel. They will only crash in this situation.


I know the traditionalist will fight me on this, but that is fine.  A good conversation needs to be had. If new ideas weren’t brought into training then we would still be trying to break the 4 minute mile along with other athletic feats. What I need to drive home is that groupthink in all athletics can be a scary thing for development. Along with this idea of traditional coaching, you also have the idea that everyone is an expert and false information is spreading constantly. The best approach for all of us is to take a step back and truly think through what we are doing. If you don’t want to do this yourself then the next best step is getting a coach that will do it for you. Understand that you are an individual and everything should be catered to your athletic abilities. Each individual is a square peg, if we keep trying to fit them into round holes then we are going to be left with a big mess at the end of the day.