Philosophology: An Inquiry Into Practices
We are being led by the blind and uninformed. There is a virus infecting our culture and growing to epidemic levels. Our social patterns of value have tipped the scales towards ignorance. This plague is Philosophology, and it has the world of sports in a death grip.
Robert Pirsig birthed the term Philosophology in his book, Lila. He writes, “Philosophology is to philosophy as musicology is to music, or as art history and art appreciation are to art, or as literary criticism is to creative writing. It’s a derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host’s behavior.” Philosophology is rapacious in academic, medical, coaching, and training institutions because it is easy to teach. It has spread so much further than when Pirsig wrote about it in 1991. This Chinese proverb captures much of the meaning behind Philosophology:
For the topic of Philosophology, I would change the last line to “involve yourself and you will understand.”
Furthermore, Pirsig adds:
“You just Xerox something some philosopher said and make the students discuss it, make them memorize it, and then flunk them at the end of the quarter if they forget it… you can imagine the ridiculousness of an art historian taking his students to museums, having them write a thesis on some historical or technical aspect of what they see there, and after a few years of this giving them degrees that say they are accomplished artists. They’ve never held a brush or a mallet and chisel in their hands. All they know is art history.”
You can spot philosophologists in the wild masquerading as coaches, trainers, and therapists who do not receive coaching, train, or compete. Philosophology can be seen with sport-researchers who do not play the sport they research. And athletes who say they want to be the best and that they want to grind. In fact, they love the grind. You know who these athletes are because of how often they share their “grind” on social media and in personal conversations. They want “all the gainz.” The best athletes in the world spend more time on mental skills and recovery than grunt effort. Chances are if you’re “grinding” you might be taking an inefficient path. Those who grind tend to believe that hours spent is a linear transaction of gains made.
The bottom feeders of Philosophology are sports anchors, writers, and analysts who have never competed in anything. We see TV personalities who have never coached or played a sport, critiquing coaches and trainers and athletes and anyone else that can boost ratings. Many coaches and trainers have only studied sports and methods without ever experiencing them. Lastly, many athletes have no idea who to trust because everything sounds so damn convincing. They are blinded by job titles and friend recommendations.
Philosophology within children might look like this- Imagine a group of kids standing off to the side of a playground analyzing what is happening in front of them. They are wearing lab coats and glasses and holding clipboards to make sure they look the part. They are deliberating what the other humans their age are doing. On their clipboards they write:
1. Why do they smile?
2. Why do they chase each other?
3. Why do they push each other down?
4. Why do they swing? …They go nowhere. Fascinating.
The child scientists make all sorts of claims and theories. They continue their study of play until they become the foremost “experts” on the topic and eventually host a TED talk exclaiming all their findings. The audience is swooned by their presentation, speech, and cute little outfits. They are kids in suits speaking at TED! Adorable.
Can these children truly know what play is without having stepped foot on the playground? These children are claiming to know about something without ever experiencing it. Their parents have failed them in placing so much value in the knowledge and so little in the experience. This is Philosophology. The people who have not lived what they study or what they value. How can one truly understand play, or any topic, without playing? How can they approach truth without ever having the experience?
Theodore Roosevelt also expressed concern for the philosophologist in his speech titled The Man in the Arena:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
To claim knowledge without experience is a lie, lazy, and cowardly. It misleads anyone who listens. We should steer towards more Quality experiences. Claiming to really know anything is a bold statement. To make the claim without having the experience is arrogant and irresponsible. If we value knowledge more than experience, we have no one to blame but our teachers, parents, environments, cultures, and ourselves.
Recently, I heard a caring parent say “well, a formal education is better than no education” (when referencing going to college vs. not going). This is not an absolute truth. The educational environment is one of the most densely packed areas of philosophologists. Education does not teach you how to live or how to experience life. Most college graduates have already existed through twenty-five percent of their life and have no idea how to live. They do not know who they are or what they value. The Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca the Younger states that if you “ask about those whose names are learned by heart, and you will see that they have these distinguishing marks: X cultivates Y and Y cultivates Z — no one bothers about himself.” Two thousand years later, this is still true. Our culture shapes us to be herded like sheep and learn how to simply follow instructions.
The educational system is more of a business than a place of learning. The learning is just as transactional as the tuitions paid. Pay money to University, receive list of things to memorize. If we fail you, we keep your money. The 10–15 weeks of your life, lost forever. At the end, here’s a piece of paper, if you are fortunate.
The business of education and our society do not teach how to cultivate one’s self. The business of education preaches memorization and values fact recital. The internet has replaced the need for memorization, and society needs to reformat what an education really means in the 21st century. What we need is creative problem-solving. The best athletes in the world have some of the most creative and efficient solutions to the ever-changing problems of their sport. This can only be achieved through experience. A majority of what is sold in the business of sport and training education will not help athletes become better. Those who want to help athletes must understand that more interesting and representative movement problems will produce better movement solutions.
Meet Oliver, a high school soccer player on his way to a Division 1 soccer program. He has had a long history of injuries, and his most recent one was a hernia. Prior to his hernia, a spinal fracture. Prior to that, shin splints. His back doctor advised him how to move his spine to avoid another fracture. He said to keep it flat at all times, or rounded like a hill, but never ever extended, like a valley. The wise Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “only the Sith believe in absolutes.” I was unaware the Sith had doctors outside of the Star Wars universe. This doctor is a philosophologist and does not understand the field he is advising: movement.
One day recently, Oliver had just come from a session with his “technique coach.” I was curious what a “technique” coach actually does. I asked what happened at their session and what came next made me cringe. It could hardly be considered technique, or coaching.
In this particular session, he said they were working on “cutting drills” to avoid defenders. The drill they had set up surely was out of a textbook, online instructional video, a misled prior experience, or god forbid Instagram. There were three cones that Oliver had to dribble towards and then “cut” at a predetermined cone. Voilà, that’s all there is to learning the skill of cutting. After all, to the ignorant observer, it all looks the same. It is foolish just to study the player with the ball as the main focal point. The player is part of a larger system. Isolating the skill like this is trying to study the path of a singular fish in a school of fish. One cannot fully understand the path of a single fish without understanding the dynamics of the group.
A practitioner is someone who is actively engaged in their art. The practitioner-coach may eventually come to understand that the athlete’s actions are just one part of a larger system. For there to be offense, there must be defense. For there to be success there must be failure. For there to be action there must also be perception and clear intentions. To put it in familiar Newtonian terms, an object or athlete will stay in motion unless acted upon by another object or athlete. The soccer player cuts only as a result of perceiving an attacker getting close to them. NOT because of a silly cone.
Now, imagine a game where Oliver executed exactly what his technique coach preached in practice. After all, that’s what he is rewarded for in school and society. Listen and execute instructions. Here’s the announcer’s play-by-play:
Oliver is on a fast break, there are no defenders in front of him, and he has the entire field open to him! It’s just him and the goalie! There’s no one anywhere near him. He will have an amazing attempt on goal! Wait, what is this?! He stops in the middle of the field from a full sprint and makes a cutting motion and then quickly picks his feet up and down as if he is going through…an agility ladder?! Is this guy nuts?! Kick the ball at the goal! He dances around the last imaginary cone, and to his surprise, the ball is gone. During his silly agility show an opponent caught up to him and stole the ball. He looks down in confusion and disappointment.
Surely his technique coach would be smiling in the stands after such a display of mastery, but instead is screaming, “why did you stop?!” Even the technique coach knows this is wrong but does not yet understand. So he continues to coach more of these useless reps in the next practice. This relationship is really just an athlete spending money to waste time. Gambling is a better use of one’s time and money — at least there’s a chance you’ll get some return on your investment. To clarify, these cone drills might lend some benefit to early beginners but are not necessary. There are better ways, even for beginners, to practice.
Well, folks this is exactly how a majority of our athletes are training today. The spine advice Oliver received was from a doctor who has no “practice” of his own, nor does this doctor understand the demands of sport or the dynamics of movement. He only thinks he does because he received an A in his 10-week class on Kinesiology. This doctor may have 7 degrees from “Memorize Or Fail University,” but has exactly zero degrees in the University of Hard Knocks. No degrees in movement. No degrees in real experience. No understanding of how to teach, how to communicate, or how to listen. Oliver is one of the many casualties of Philosophology. Yet, people still wonder about poor performance and injuries within sport…
A trend that halts forward progress is people continuing to do things the way they have always been done. Sometimes this is useful, sometimes this is not useful. Regardless, each thing should be questioned. This is where research comes into play. Ever so slowly, people are valuing research over poor traditions. Some even romanticize research over all else. This has upsides and downsides. Those who are somewhat interested can see research shared all over Twitter and other sources. But, I wonder how many shares are from people who read all of the research or just liked the title and clicked a button. They have been swooned. I admit I have done this too. I am not yet immune to Philosophology and am guilty of the things I mention in this article. Yet, each time I am a philosophologist and recognize it I become a bit more immune to it. To talk about Philosophology, I must also experience it.
At the very least, I hope more research promotes better questions. Research should be a search for truth. People wonder about an interesting problem and then conduct an experiment to see if it is true. This is so basic, even children do this. “Ow! The stove is hot. Is it always hot? …No. Only when the burners are on.” Informal research is life.
Pirsig warns us of romanticized research, “A man conducting a gee-whiz science show with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of Frankenstein equipment is not doing anything scientific if he knows beforehand what the results of his efforts are going to be.” This gee-whiz science show can be quite seducing to the observer. Many magic tricks are extremely simple but must be dressed up for the audience to believe it might not be possible. Just like a magic trick, research can be a practice of misdirection. Sometimes the magic trick is so simple the audience won’t believe it. So you have to dress it up to make it believable that it is complex magic, instead of simple misdirection.
Often times athletes and coaches are impressed by seeing thousands of dollars worth of expensive testing and training equipment. When I see this, I am more concerned than impressed. Just because someone owns a Ferrari does not mean they know how to drive it well. All they have done is spend money. I know of several training facilities that get sent professional athletes from all sports because of their gee-whiz science show. The training that follows the testing is an utter waste. I experienced this seduction after spending over $30,000 on testing technology. I spent all this money therefore, I must use it and integrate my practice with this equipment. Turns out the data it provided was misrepresentative. I still use it but in a much different regard.
Some of the most accurate “research” out there is not published and does not look like research at all. Albert Einstein understood this so well. He said that “Play is the highest form of research.” The best research is not conducted in a formal lab but in the tinkering departments of craftsmen. It is in the places where people trying to help are willing to get their hands dirty and attempt new things. It is where norms are challenged and hard questions are asked. The craftsmen even question themselves. They are wise enough to reflect and see what works and what does not work. Since this is messy and not suited to the rigid formalities of research, people often ignore it. Observing this situation accurately Pirsig chimes in, “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.”
Recently, I was at a conference that had three kinds of speakers: researchers, sport coaches, and strength coaches. It was easy to spot the philosophologists. There were coaches preaching methods, forms, and beliefs without experiencing them enough to really understand them. The researchers were talking about baseball pitching and batting. The way these researchers demonstrated their researched movements, it was clear they could not strike out a five-year-old and would struggle to hit a ball off of a tee.
Do these researchers know what it feels like to try to hit a game-winning home run after having a 95 mile per hour baseball thrown at his head? What about pitching to win the game when the bases are loaded? Do they know what it is like to be in a batting slump? How would these experiences change their research? If you were a soldier following the orders of your general, how would you feel if your leader had never been to war? Would you trust him with your life? The general had only studied war theory and played some video games that simulate war. Does that qualify him?
I wonder if Ernie Adams, the Director of Football Research for the Patriots, has ever thrown a ball when someone is trying to tackle him. Has he ever tried to score a touch down running through a linebacker? How would his understanding of football change if he had some actual on field experience in addition to his research?
Research starts as a curious thought in the mind. This thought can only be a product of prior experience. To be inexperienced in the arena of your research is to conduct poor research. How could the children studying their peers on the playground fully understand what is going on without participating? What if researchers explored for answers in reality rather than behind the microscopic lens in the confines of their lab?
I can imagine the Quality of research increasing dramatically by researchers having more experience in their field; although, there is an incredible value to having a beginner’s mind and outside perspective. Aspects of the beginner’s mind can be maintained with a good practice. I would seek to maintain certain qualities of the beginner’s mind while progressing down the path of mastery. The simple questions are often the best ones and most overlooked.
There are many benefits to having a beginner’s mind. Having someone’s opinion and observations from outside your niche can be invaluable. These people will ask extremely simple, child-like questions. The ensuing answers might be extremely thought-provoking, or even revolutionary. It is this kind of questioning that can challenge the way things have always been done. Athletes, coaches, trainers, practitioners, researchers all could benefit from having someone to consult with outside their expertise.
The last thing that is comical about research is the niche of Sport Pedagogy. Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching. Within this field, we have people studying the optimal way to teach and learn concepts. However, when these authors and researchers try to teach the reader, they fail in the actual communication. They fail to use some of the most effective teaching methods: storytelling and analogies. When in conversation, many fail to listen deeply. They seem to be caught in a cycle of intellectual babble and cannot escape into the messy world of creative art. I don’t see why these innovators cannot do both. Write compelling information through storytelling. I am not a writer by trade, but I am a craftsman who enjoys working on my craft of writing and storytelling.
Here’s a sample story in case anyone wants to hire me:
Two brothers, Thor & Loki, grew up loving soccer. Loki would see each movement for what it is, and Thor would see what each movement meant. These differing views resulted in them finding different coaches and developing different practices. They would both watch their favorite team and study the film rigorously. Loki would see his favorite player, Bruce Banner, dance his way past opponents through his signature cutting moves. Loki memorized these dance moves and repeated them again and again around a variety of colorful cones.
Thor also loved watching Banner move and took meticulous notes. He noticed that each cutting maneuver only happened once opponents got close to him. Upon this realization, Thor knew he needed some help. He called up his friends, Luke Skywalker, Superman, and Harry Potter. Thor would ask Luke and Harry to steal the ball from him as Superman would try to become an available pass option. Thor struggled at first, but soon found solutions to this problem. The next week, Loki and Thor had a game. Early in the game, Loki got pulled out because as soon as any opponents got near him, he lost the ball. He would look at his feet in bewilderment. Everything worked out so well when he just had to dribble around cones. Thor, on the other hand, scored 57 goals that match and was MVP of the league.
Now, here is a basic pedagogical concept taught through a story of the only inter-universe soccer game in existence. Everyone should have been able to understand this story.
Lastly, if you are reading research to a client, friend, or on your podcast, please do not just read the research. Talk about it. Teach it through analogy. Engage the audience, whoever it is. Conversation is infinitely more compelling than rote reading. Take the risk of speaking authentically rather than reading the words off a page. Speech does not have to mimic the rigid confines of writing. If you’re bored reading it, we are bored listening to it.
A friend of mine recently had a conversation with a “doctor.” This “doctor” recited some research that stated non-organic food may be as nutritious as organic food. My friend being sound of mind, and curious, found the article and read it. Turns out the “doctor” had stopped reading after she found a sentence that confirmed her bias. The “doctor,” with a degree from the most prestigious Memorize-Or-Fail University, did not even read the entire research article! The very next paragraph was explaining that eating organic food would help avoid pesticides. A very useful statement! These are the “doctors” that many people depend on for their injuries and illnesses. John Hopkins Medicine recently published that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
When I brought this up to a doctor, who has proven to be above the rest, he ventured to say these numbers are vastly underreported and that medical errors are likely the number one cause of death in the U.S.
People tend to believe someone’s title rather than her character. If a doctor is obese and smokes does her title still hold the same weight? Character is simply behavior repeated over time. Recently, I had a funny, and not uncommon, conversation with a stranger. Deep into the conversation, he became intrigued with what I do with athletes. I proceeded to tell him my behaviors, and he still didn’t understand. He eventually asked, “what do you call yourself?” Still, he didn’t get it. I said, “…Uh, I call myself Austin…” I don’t identify with some surface-level form or title. Exasperated, he eventually pleaded, “just tell me what is on your business card.” I felt like a broken record, I responded with “my name and contact information.” He was searching for a formal title like Strength and Conditioning Specialist, essentially a meaningless category to put me in. This title is NOT more important than my character. We should seek to know more of the character of our coaches, doctors, therapists, trainers, etc.
I recently broke my health-span streak of 8 years with a case of strep throat. In the stark white doctor's office, I wish I had seen pictures of this doctor’s character on the wall. Perhaps a medal signifying the completion of a marathon. Pictures of his hobbies, his friends. I don’t care what university he graduated from. I want to know what his health routine looks like. I want to know who he is and what he values.
I have a relationship with an athlete on a certain U.S. national team. She has had knee pain for several months. The staff helping her continues to give the same exercises that do not help her get better. She comes in with pain, the staff repeats the exercises with more frequency and more volume. Yet, months later she still has not gotten any better. Let me state the obvious, this is happening on a national team level! Elite teams are not more immune to Philosophology than anyone else. Again, titles do not mean anything.
If the staff member used any sort of critical thinking about this problem, maybe he would try something different. What if this staff member actually had knee pain of his own to deal with? He might realize the crap he has been distributing is not useful.
In most cases, if an athlete still has pain six months into treatment, maybe there’s nothing wrong with the athlete. Maybe it is simply a low quality therapist/coach/trainer. Whatever they want to call themselves, they offer shit help.
Let me offer a simple equation to think about if you are confronted with a shitty helper. Remember our chat about character being behavior over time? It works for trust too. Trust equals behavior over time. If Shitty Helper shows shitty behavior over a long time, they have no reason to be trusted. If you find yourself in this predicament, find someone else to help you.
Another potential trap of Philosophology is seen in those with positions of power who demand militaristic behavior of their athletes yet have no discipline themselves. Many times, these people are called “coaches.” Very often, they tend to be strength “coaches” or football “coaches.” Across the country, we have overweight football coaches demanding physical efforts they have never even attempted. They have no idea what it is like to stack lifting, on top of practice, on top of conditioning within practice, on top of academics (if a student), on top of having a life. I pick on football because it stands out the most, but this can be seen in any discipline. I wonder if they understand how much tissue damage and inflammation they are causing with their ignorance. Have they ever speculated that they might be doing more harm than good?
In some cases, these philosophologists are known as “teachers.” An identifying characteristic of these “teachers” is excessive work assignments. They have forgotten what it is like to be a student, let alone a student in present day. Teachers across the country see open space in a calendar and assume it should be filled with even more assignments. School breaks are no longer breaks but extended periods of homework without class.
What if teachers valued teaching better instead of assigning more work? What if coaches and trainers understood the same principle? When work is voluntary, you no longer have limits of performance, and the divide between the dedicated and the unmotivated is revealed.
A potential symptom of the Philosophology virus is the lost skill of object permanence. Object permanence is the basic understanding that something still exists even when you cannot see it. This is a skill learned at 18–24 months of age! These coaches, trainers, and teachers seem to have forgotten that these athletes and students have other things going on when they cannot see them. Luckily, object permanence can be restored when the philosophologist gets out of the role of the spectator and into the arena.
Staff members must understand what it is like to be an athlete or student. They must understand that athletes have other responsibilities, and god forbid a life. It is no surprise that athletes everywhere tie their identity to their sport. They hardly have time to develop passions or hobbies outside of sport. No wonder many student-athletes don’t know who they are. They have no time to develop a life. If you are one of these athletes, you also have yourself to blame. You always have a choice. Find out what you want, and realize it.
“You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.” — Seneca
Currently, much of the American puritanical public is upset at NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. I wonder how it feels to get upset at an NFL player kneeling while being comfortably and safely seated on a couch at home. I wonder how it feels to be unfairly physically beaten by anyone. This will start a long tangent for another article, so I will move on.
I dream of a world where every coach, trainer, physician, athlete, etc. is actively engaged in his or her own practice. Practice anything! Let it be fun. Become a practitioner in the true meaning of the word. A coach might reverse roles, practice like his athletes, and learn how to be a better coach. A trainer might lift and train as if he were competing for something. Or better yet, actually had an upcoming competition. A physician would actually fix his ailments and take care of his own body. I imagine a coach executing his last set of cone drills before his own basketball game and realize all the time he spent training agility never got him any better at being agile within basketball. If he was wise, he might reevaluate his practice and what he preaches to his athletes. The therapist might realize his endless terminal knee extensions and hamstring curls did nothing to solve his knee pain when he returned to sport.
I went to a painting class recently. One of those classes where you can bring food and drinks and everyone paints the same picture. I haven’t painted since I was a child. I loved it! I learned a lot more than how to paint. I noticed how valuable clear communication is. The instructor would quickly tell me to make the color mauve by mixing blah, blah, and blah colors together. What the hell is mauve? I was so lost. I was even more lost because I was still two steps behind her. It made me realize that she was not observing my progress and not to speaking at my level of understanding. She was not overwhelmed by the size of the class, there was only one other student. She just did not see if I understood any of her instructions. This experience was so incredibly valuable for me to be able to teach and help athletes even better.
What is the solution to the virus of Philosophology? Step one, be aware. Are you practicing what you preach? Do you reflect on your practice? Does your coach, trainer, or physician have a practice of their own? Do you know their character? If you don’t know, ask.
To all the coaches, who’s coaching you? Do you know what it is like to be coached anymore? Do you have the time and ability to be creative? Do you make the time to create art through unobstructed self-expression of your craft?
This creativity is essential for progress. In an article titled Creative Motor Actions as Emerging from Movement Variability, the authors state that “creative ideas that advance or transform human endeavors are few and far between. They are unlikely to occur within the walls of a science laboratory (Sternberg et al., 2001).” Although this article is about movement, it applies to everything. We MUST have practices outside of our main profession or skill. We must get into the arena and practice what we preach.
Later the authors state that “recent evidence shows that ideation or the generation of creative ideas depend on contextual characteristics.” Ideas depend on the context! They depend on the circumstances of the environment you put yourself in! You cannot think your way to a championship from your armchair. Hell, even going for a walk is a better context for ideation than sitting at a desk. Surround yourself with Quality. I am very deliberate with who I spend my time with. I choose to surround myself with art and beautiful quotes from people I admire. Here is a portion of my environment, some photography is mine, some is not.
To all the athletes reading this, when you play, are you practicing your art or reciting coaches instructions in your head? Make your performance your art and you will be at the pinnacle of human performance.
Albert Einstein was as great a philosopher as he was a scientist. He understood that experience is vital to find truth. He said that “the supreme task…is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them…” Only intuition from experience can discover the truth! He understood that ideation, learning, action, and motor behavior is a non-linear path formed from previous experience and understanding of one’s self. Growth is non-linear, not a grind.
Seneca reminds us that “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Part of having a practice is that it should be playful, meaningful, and fulfilling. It should be something you are happy to spend your life on. Seneca affirms “how stupid [it is] to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived.” This applies at all ages. Not just fifty or sixty. It applies right fucking now.
Lastly, he reminds us of a fact that is hidden in plain sight “what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?” No one but you can arrange your life to proceed as you wish. There is no guarantee of tomorrow. If you dislike the negative effects of Philosophology and do not take action, you are perpetuating the problem. Share this article with coaches, athletes, teachers, doctors, students, everyone. Be part of the solution. I do not expect a utopian future, only one that is better than today. Take action.
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