Sports have always been an arms race to acquire a competitive advantage. Athletes seek out and spend their time and money on new approaches to nutrition, new training methods, and new technology that will help them train and/or recover better yet few athletes look toward embracing a generalist approach when it comes to their physical and cognitive development. All sports, actually all life, is pattern recognition. In life our behaviours are the reactions to various social cues we encounter and in sport split second decisions are made based on the moves of an opponent or the bounce of a ball. So, if all things were equal, someone who is exposed to more patterns would, by this logic, be a better athlete than his/her counterpart.
Simple right? Then why aren’t there more movement practitioners and facilities throughout the world?
The answer is that everyday people tend to want to look good and that’s all. Some will even go to the extremes of hypertrophy or very restrictive dieting to attain a look they consider aesthetically pleasing. While that’s a choice they’re entitled to make, in both cases, these people end up performing horribly in both physical and cognitive tests. From the perspective of athletes, whose time to train may be limited because of their specialized sport training, as well as other life commitments such as school, relationships, jobs, etc. additional training concepts may not be prioritized because they are seen as non essential.
I’ve always felt, however, that exposing an individual to various internal and external stimuli within a variety of scenarios will upgrade the individual’s software to be able to perform a larger variety of tasks better than their peers. Early specialization for young athletes can lead to a lack of their development as an athlete overall. Sure, exceptions exist, like always, but I believe this is true for the majority.
So what would a generalist approach to training look like? This is an ever-changing stimulus with the aim to pull yourselves out of your comfort zone. Let’s say our hypothetical person is a young athlete, at this stage he/she should be exposed to as many different sports and activities as possible. Although I believe some choices will make for better foundations than others, such as gymnastics, wrestling, and dance, exposure to swimming, basketball, or rock climbing provide rewarding opportunities for physical and cognitive learning as well. The idea is to cover a broad spectrum of experiences, to gain a wide variety of skills and pattern recognition.
For a more developed athlete, it could be as simple as taking a contemporary dance lesson, a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, learning to juggle, or dropping into your local rock climbing gym. Can it be scary? Yes. Will you most likely be bad at the discipline? Yes, but remember that generating feelings associated with the unfamiliar is the point. You cannot develop further if you stick with what you know.
A generalist approach will provide benefits to both younger and older athletes. A lack of new stimulus often leads to disease and diminished brain capacity making it more important to present your brain with new learning tasks as we age. Learning different disciplines also provides framework for learning in different scenarios. If you learn how to play a musical instrument, with some thought you can learn to breakdown the learning process and apply it to throwing a baseball.
In the end, a generalist approach creates physical and cognitive learning scenarios that will make you a better human being, learner, and athlete. We often say that self-development is important to us, but if it were, we would get off the hamster wheel (treadmill) and join a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Salsa dancing class. So, approach each one of these disciplines like experiments for yourself and aim to extract valuable physical and cognitive lessons. Just remember: Don’t simply do what you’re good at, make sure to do something you suck at each day. That is where the largest room for growth is.