Strength & Conditioning's Misuse of "Occam's Razor"

The quest for knowledge is a phenomenal piece of our coaching culture. But as with anything, questioning our assumptions becomes key. By now, some of you may have heard of the principle, Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor is a principle that claims, "Entities should not be multiplied without necessity" or more simply, "Only believe the explanations that are maximally simple".

Occam's razor consists of two main parts for deciding the best possible solution or explanation. Those are simplicity and explanatory power. Simplicity is defined as the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions. Explanatory power is the ability of a hypothesis to explain a phenomenon in the real world.

One simple example of Occam's Razor is when seeing you have a flat tire, you have two theories:

1) You ran over a nail in your garage

2) Your neighbor snuck into your house, waited for you to go to sleep, and popped your tire before sneaking back out as retribution for never giving back his hedge clippers

Based on Occam's Razor, option 1 is likely the correct answer.


Applying Occam's Razor to Sports Performance

Now that we have defined it, let's put Occam's Razor to use in our setting. For the majority of strength & conditioning coaches, the simplest answer to improving the athlete would be: "Just get them stronger". While on the surface this seems the most simple answer, it does a great job of hiding assumptions. If our goal is to increase sports performance:

"Just get them stronger"

turns into:

"We will win the game by improving muscular strength, which will increase force production, which could help the athlete produce more force quickly, which could aid in change of direction, which could aid in eluding a defender, which could produce more goal scoring opportunities."

The assumptions that are hidden in the first statement become incredibly clear when you keep in mind what should be the ultimate goal of sports performance: Scoring more points than your opponent. Each step further away we get from the goal, adds one more assumption to the statement.

With that in mind, the simplest answer must include starting as close to the goal to reduce these assumptions. If the goal is to score more points than the opponent, that should undoubtedly be the starting point. From that point, we can work back and see what needs to be affected in order to achieve that goal. If we could win every game by only training the sport, is there a point of doing all of the extra training? Hopefully you answer no here.

Occam's Razor in Action

We can take the starting point of a sport, say American football (not my expertise, but I'll give it a shot). We realize that the goal of the game is to score more points than the other team. From there we understand that in order to do that, we have team actions of defending, attacking, and transitioning.

Through film study of the previous game, we realize that we conceded too many points to the opposition and we dive into which football actions were the reason for that. It turns out that of the 40 passing plays that our defense was out on the field, our defensive line hurried the quarterback on only 2 snaps. From this point, we can use CDE (Communication, Decision Making, and Execution) to evaluate the players performance.

Of our 3 linemen:

Player 1: Was very slow to react off of the snap, and therefor was unable to create any penetration

Player 2: Was very fast to react off of the snap, but continually ran himself into double teams and his teammates

Player 3: Was very fast to react off of the snap, found himself 1v1 vs an opposition player, but was continually overpowered

These three players each tell a very different story. Player 1 is unable to receive the communication and is therefore slow to react. Player 2 on the other hand is great at receiving the initial communication, but is unable to make the correct decision. Lastly, Player 3 receives the communication, makes the correct decision, but fails in his execution due to lack of physical strength.

While strength training could improve all of these players, the simplest of answers for players 1 and 2 would be to improve their communication, and decision making abilities. On the other hand, due to the fact that player 3's limiting factor is his strength, it would be appropriate to train that.


All in all, this is more of a question of the starting point than anything. If your starting point is strength, you are hoping that in the end, it will improve sports performance. On the other hand, if your starting point is the sport, you only have to reduce down as far as necessary, negating any assumptions.

This is a hard position to argue, as many coaches hang their hat on sprint times, jumps, maxes, conditioning tests, and so many other non-contextual factors. We have all heard my favorite coachism, "Strength is Never a Weakness". While this could be true (it's not, but I digress), the quest for strength could be a weakness. If too much time and energy is spent on something far away from what the sport is, it very well may be taking away from what is important to coaches and players:


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