“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them”
- Mark Twain
2014 wasn’t a great reading year for me - I’m not sure how many books I got through, but it was nowhere near the 100+ I managed in 2012. However, I did still read quite a bit - I try to put aside at least 60 minutes in the morning, and another 60 minutes each evening.
The reason for the drop-off? Mainly the high quality of podcasts that are now available - some favorites being Philosophy Bites, WTF with Marc Maron, Modern Day Philosophers with Dan Lobell, The Joe Rogan Experience, The Drunken Taoist, This American Life, Talk Nerdy, Radiolab, and the recent addiction that was Serial.
But I still managed to get through a few good books - and thought a review of some of my favorites was an appropriate step back into the blogging world (I really hope to be more frequent in 2015).
So - in no particular order:
(FYI - not all of these books were written in 2014 - this just happened to be the year I read them)
Science Set Free - Rupert Sheldrake
You may be most familiar with biologist and biochemist Rupert Sheldrake from a series of trialogues he hosted with philosopher Terrence McKenna and mathematician Ralph Abraham back in the 80s and 90s. If you haven't seen these, I suggest you check them out - some cool stuff. You also may be familiar with his books The Presence of the Past and A New Science of Life, and some of his slightly controversial views (much of what he says and writes has been termed pseudoscientific by the traditional scientific community, and a TEDTalk he presented in London was controversially taken off the TED site).
His research focuses predominantly on the kinds of things that science dismisses out of hand "but which people are generally fascinated by and made to feel stupid about". Designed to challenge “core doctrines of materialism in the light of hard evidence and recent discoveries”, Science Set Free is almost a 'best of' Sheldrake. Taking ten commonly-held scientific beliefs (for example all matter is unconscious, the total amount of matter and energy is always the same, and memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death), and offering ten ‘alternatives’.
Sheldrake is apparently most interested in re-discovering the ‘spirit of radical skepticism’ - and takes issue with a scientific community that he says has become overly reductionist, mechanistic, and materialistic.
I’m not familiar enough with the science behind much of what Sheldrake critiques, but I can’t help feeling like he has an agenda; ‘morphic fields’, ‘morphic resonance’, and ‘perceptual fields’ seem to me to be his theory for almost everything - and it is difficult to ignore his overall defensive tone.
That being said, I found this book fascinating - he operates at the margins of science, and this alone makes him readable. But it is more than that - as much as I am often put off by his tone, I cannot help also feeling that perhaps not so far in the future, a lot of his theories may be confirmed, and his legacy perhaps re-established (for instance, one of his chapters posits that the ‘laws of nature’ are not laws at all - that they are prone to evolve in time. He points to what we currently know, and do not know, about the universe, for example - mainly that 83% of it is now thought to be made up of ‘dark matter’, and subject to forces that science today cannot begin to explain).
In the meantime, I will be rooting for him. Essentially cast out of the mainstream scientific community upon the release of his first book in 1981, I feel that Sheldrake - and others like him - will more and more be taken seriously as what we don’t know returns to the forefront - rather than what we do know.
“…new discoveries are more likely to happen if we venture off the well-trodden paths of conventional research, and if we open up questions that have been suppressed by dogmas and taboos.”
Take-home for coaches
As human beings living in 2014, we exist in a world of almost infinite information. As coaches, we have a responsibility to make coaching decisions based upon the best information we have available to us. There is no excuse for dogmatic thinking - to clutch to it as you would a security blanket - too insecure to question. Too lazy to look.
We assume, for instance, that we already understand the nature of adaptation, and all that Hans Selye has left for us is to fill in the details: choose our method of periodization, and plug the numbers into a graph. But what if our initial assumption was incorrect? What if Selye’s work with poisoning mice cannot be translated accurately to elite athletes 60 years later? Would it change the way in which we program if we re-examined our foundational (‘dogmatic’) principles? It did (and/or does) for many of us - including über-successful coaches Ivan Abadjiev, Mihaly Igloi, Anatoliy Bondarchuk, for example. The success of these coaches have had with emergent, non-traditional programming would seem to suggest that perhaps we don’t know as much as we thought.
Perhaps there is more left to know than what we know.
Squat Every Day - Matt Perryman
I hated this book. Not because it was a bad book - quite the opposite.
I hated it because I wish I would have written it. In fact, I very well might have - so similar were much of Perryman’s thoughts to my own.
But I didn’t ... and probably couldn’t.
Putting my obvious jealousy aside, I offer you my unbiased thoughts:
I’ll admit - I had never heard of Squat Every Day - or of its author, Matt Perryman - until Joy Victoria told me that some of my views reminded her of this book, and suggested I gave it a read.
Joy was right. It was excellent, and I enjoyed it.
Using folks like Bob Peoples, Anthony Ditillo, and Ivan Abadjiev as his springboard, Perryman presents his primary thesis - doing takes precedence over abstract PubMed theory - through practical example, a re-examination of some scientific ‘truths’, and plenty of personal emotional-psychological discovery.
Like Sheldrake, Perryman challenges traditional dogma - in this case, most notably, the fact that squatting more than every couple of days is ‘reckless, counterproductive, and dangerous, and is unsustainable without drugs’. Perryman offers an alternative - one that treats the squat (and you can replace ‘squat’ with pretty much any other movement) as a skill - a skill that requires practice to improve. And the more we can practice this skill, the better chance we have at improving it. Pretty simple, really…
He begins by presenting his ‘case for more’, and digs deep into nonlinear progression, auto-regulation, Taleb’s ‘long tails’, central governor theory, Baumeister’s willpower theory, HRV, activity set-points and responder types, genetic determinism, and Dweck’s mindset research. Throughout, Perryman does a fine job of offering alternatives to traditional thought - backing it all up with both practical example and contemporary study.
My one critique is in his editing. For example, he spent rather too long detailing his own personal programming. I am far more interested in the theory that went into his work, rather than his program. There is plenty of historical and contemporary examples that support his thesis (and he does a fine job of presenting much of it) - without reverting to detailing his own personal experiments.
Otherwise - it’s a great book. One I will be picking up again in the near future for a re-read. And I look forward to his next book - as I am certain one will be upcoming …
“The more you practice a skill, the better you become at that skill. Practice enough and the skill hardwires itself into the brain.”
Take-home for coaches
Beware the dangers of minimal effective dose. Although I do not agree with progressive overload ad infinitum, the human being is most definitely capable of more work than we believe. As long as we can positively adapt to the load we place upon the system, then I have little issue with ‘more is better’, and I most definitely believe that ‘practicing’ the specific skill more often (density of practice - what my good friend Derek Evely calls ‘compression of specific abilities’) leads to more efficient adaptation. Almost every successful Olympic Weightlifting program relies on practicing the competitive events daily, for example.
Ready to Run - Kelly Starrett
There's probably not a soul reading this who has not now heard of Kelly Starrett. Introduced to the public via 100s of self-produced YouTube clips, Starrett has quickly risen to vanguard status in the industry (notice I didn't say 'guru'). And rightly so. His videos are excellent. Supple Leopard should be read by all coaches. And Ready to Run should be read by all athletes - runners or not.
Essentially, this is a call to arms to take responsibility for your own body; to take a proactive, rather than a reactive view. I have written a lot on the need for a new sports medicine model - one that is based upon performance, and not rehab, so no need to go into it further here. Just go read this book!
“human beings should be able and willing to perform basic maintenance on themselves. Sports medicine has its place, but you have both a right and a responsibility to know what’s going on in your body, the hard truth is that routine maintenance on your personal running machine can be and should be performed by you. Routine maintenance on your personal running machine can be and should be performed by you.”
Take-home for coaches
Demand athlete self-responsibility.
We can very easily fall into a micro-management trap when coaching athletes - putting together the most intricate plans for even the most uninterested of athletes, somehow feeling that the more work you put in will somehow convince the unmotivated to step up. However, one thing I have learnt over the last 25 years is you cannot want it more than the athletes you coach. If the athlete is not motivated enough to take on appropriate regenerative responsibility for themselves, for example, then there is no point in you busting your ass putting together a kick ass training plan. When the athlete proves to me that they are truly committed, then I will do everything I can - and more - to match their motivation.
Homework of the sort that Starrett suggests will - if taken onboard - tell you a ton about the athletes you work with. Demand it from them. Challenge them.
Tides of War - Steven Pressfield
I'm not sure I enjoy reading anyone more than Steven Pressfield right now. Equally adept at fiction and non-fiction, Pressfield is totally on top of his game.
If you haven’t already, please do check out novels Gates of Fire, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Virtues of War, and his non-fiction Do the Work, Turning Pro, and the classic The War of Art.
Tides of War is historical fiction written so well you assume every word to be true. It is the story of the epic struggle for control of the Helenic world between Athens and Sparta, told through multiple viewpoints - mainly the characters of Athenian General Alcibiades, and his executioner Polemides. As Polemides awaits his own execution (along with Socrates in a nearby cell), he tells the story of Alcibiades and the ‘thrice nine years’ Peloponnesian War.
It takes a little while to appreciate the alternating narration, but once you get into it, it’s hard to step away. Like great Russian novels, it requires some patience, but you are well-rewarded in due time!
“Corollary to the principle of minimal force was that of minimal supervision. When Alcibiades issued a combat assignment, he imparted the objective only, leaving the means to the officer himself. The more daunting the chore, the more informally he commanded it. I never saw him issue an order from behind a desk. Always assign a man more than he believes himself capable of. Make him rise to the occasion. In this way you compel him to discover fresh resources, both in himself and others of his command, thus enlarging the capacity of each, while binding all beneath the exigencies of risk and glory.”
Take-home for coaches
There is little doubt that Pressfield’s Alcibiades is a talented leader. And although Tides of War is a work of fiction, the real Alcibiades was respected as a skilled politician, tactician, and orator - and can offer coaches much counsel.
Alcibiades changed his political allegiance on several occasions; in fact, he did so three times during the Peloponnesian War alone - leading the Athenians through the Sicilian Expedition before fleeing to Sparta. Soon thereafter, he defected to Persia after impregnating the king of Sparta’s wife, before finally returning to Athens. Alcibiades was known to live lavishly, and was somewhat unprincipled, and the austere Spartan warriors were fearful that Alcibiades could corrupt their youth. But instead, he behaved just as they did - wearing his hair untrimmed, eating stale bread, and wearing simple clothes. Similarly, to a man like Socrates - who was a great admirer of Alcibiades - he represented the opposite of the simple and humble Socratic ideal; yet Alcibiades was able to win his support and trust by speaking to him at his level - by accompanying him on long walks, and talking only of philosophy.
It is easy to understand why Alcibiades acted this way - it was not dishonest - rather, he revealed different aspects of his personality to each of the people he came into contact with - with the specific intention of gaining their trust. And herein lies our take-home: trust is the single most important quality that a coach has to govern with an athlete. The instillation of unconditional belief is the key to a successful coach-athlete partnership, and by tending to empathy rather than imposing our own ego, we greatly enhance chances of success.
Create Your Own Religion - Daniele Bolelli
Daniele Bolelli is a bit of a modern-day Renaissance man. Mainly known as a philosopher, his degrees (a BA in anthropology, and graduate degrees in American Indian studies and History) are not philosophical. He is a writer (Create Your Own Religion is his third book), a martial artist (he has a 4th degree black belt in kung fu, and fought professionally in MMA), historian, professor (he lectures at a number of southern California Universities in a wide range of subjects), and podcaster (his Drunken Taoist podcast is highly enjoyable).
Although this may be a bit of a controversial title to some, it could just as easily be titled Create your Own Philosophy. Bolelli is not an atheist - rather, he professes to not know. And because he does not know, instead of following a pre-set path, he chooses self-exploration. He argues that any decision based upon incomplete information is at best tentative - a work in progress. His search for meaning is an ongoing quest - with no destination in sight. The only thing is to remain flexible, and strive to do one’s best. He spends a great deal of time eschewing the dangers of dogma, and dogmatic thinking.
Although his overall smarmy tone can be a little grating at times (I actually prefer how he comes across on his podcast), Create Your Own Religion is generally well-thought out, well-referenced, and his thesis is sound:
“On an individual level, one of the healthiest things we can do is question everything we have ever been taught. This is not motivated by disrespect or some adolescent desire to be rebellious. It is simply what becoming an adult is all about. Once we are old enough to figure things out for ourselves, we can look back at the beliefs we were taught to live by and decide what works for us and what doesn’t.
Testing our most sacred values against different options will only strengthen us. We really have nothing to lose by being open-minded. It's a win-win situation.
As Nietzsche puts it, “[I am] a man who wishes nothing more than daily to lose some reassuring belief, who seeks and finds his happiness in this daily greater liberation of the mind.”
Take-home for coaches
Question EVERYTHING. We must revisit the basics of our coaching philosophy continually. Every year, sit down and write out a list of what forms your philosophy. Ask yourself the hard questions:
1. What do you KNOW to be true,
2. What do you THINK to be true, and
3. What do you GUESS to be true?
Form the majority of your program on the first ‘truth’ - what you KNOW. But don’t be afraid to mix in a little THINK, and experiment with a little GUESS. And remember - what we KNOW is an organic-dynamic process. Your list should change every year. And if it doesn’t? You're not learning. You are more than likely reading only that which is confirming what you already ‘know’.
“Knowledge is fixed in time, whereas, knowing is continual. Knowledge comes from a source, from accumulation, from a conclusion, while knowing is a movement.”
- Bruce Lee
Island - Aldous Huxley
Better known for his classic Brave New World, British philosopher and writer Huxley completed Island a year before his death in 1963. Huxley was considered a visionary thinker, and as a proponent of hallucinogenics, became an inspiration for the New Age philosophy of the late 60s and 70s.
Detailing a journalist’s stay on the ‘forbidden island’ of Pala in South-East Asia, Island is Huxley’s attempt at at presenting a ‘heaven on earth’ - an idyllic alternative to the nearby, metaphorical Rendang-Lobo - industrialized, militarized, and oil-rich - whose rulers look upon Pala as adolescent and backwards, in light of refusing to adopt technological ‘progress’.
Huxley described the book as “a kind of pragmatic dream – a fantasy with detailed and practical instructions for making the imagined and desirable harmonization of European and Indian insights become a fact.”
Island reminds me a little of some of Ayn Rand’s work; not really following any traditional literary rules, instead it is more of a political, philosophical, and spiritual treatise disguised as a novel. Like Rand’s books, I hazard a guess that upon re-reading, I might find this departure from novel form uninteresting (and perhaps tiring) - lacking as it does in plot, tension, character development, etc. However - as a philosophical discussion, I enjoyed it immensely.
"We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.”
Take-home for coaches
Huxley’s primary theme is that art, science, religion, philosophy, etc. provide little meaning as individual disciplines; it is their interaction that yields true understanding.
And it is this interaction - this power of the collective context - that we can relate to coaching.
Because coaching is the ultimate collective.
A good coach requires knowledge in biomechanics, training theory, physiology, psychology, pedagogy, philosophy, nutrition, S&C, etc. The coach who ignores this multidisciplinary nature has no context to judge his information on. Coaching is the ultimate contextual challenge.
Context determines the meaning of things - we cannot understand the view without a point of view.
Context turns information into knowledge, and the only way to provide context is to cast a wide net.
Show Your Work - Austin Kleon
I really dig Austin Kleon’s books (he has two others: Steal Like an Artist, which I mentioned in my best of 2012, and Newspaper Blackout). He describes himself as a ‘writer who draws’ (I also own one of his limited edition ‘newspaper blackout' drawings). He writes mainly on creativity and the creative process: Steal Like an Artist detailed combinatorial creativity - how knowledge is essentially a mash-up of what has come before. Show Your Work exists as a call to folks to contribute to this mash up; that ‘good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.’
While Steal Like an Artist related to the process of idea generation, Show Your Work is more about what to do with these ideas - how to contribute, and how to make your ideas spread. If you haven’t read either book, I suggest reading both - back to back, and in order. Great, quick reads…
“The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.”
Take-home for coaches
Share. You want my programs? Email me. I have no secrets.
I have a job where I am surrounded by brilliant people almost every day (I hermit myself most Sundays). I have over 40 elite athletes continually teaching me about performance. I am surrounded by a coaching staff with over 100 years of collective wisdom. Once a month, a dozen or so other elite people converge on our Center, and teach me more than I could ever teach them. I have friends and colleagues all over the world I can reach out to at a moment’s notice when I am stuck, or have questions.
But if I was not willing to share my stuff, this well would dry up almost immediately. Only by contributing to the collective myself, can I expect to gain from others.
So - develop your network. Share things that you find interesting. And they - in turn - will share with you. No one person has access to all the information in the world - but we can greatly expand our understanding by surrounding ourselves with smart people.
As we share with each other, expect emergence - the appearance of new capacity and intelligence. Not knowing becomes our greatest strength; the ability to ask questions - and to have a network we can ask them of - is far more important than superficial answers borne out of incomplete understanding, or fragile ego. Openness and sharing will consistently trump individual wisdom.
There is no benefit to pretending to know more than you do.
Best of the Rest
Olympian Manual for Strength and Size - Anatoliy Bondarchuk
Mo’ Meta Blues - Questlove
Functional Training Handbook - Craig Liebenson (Ed.)
Essentialism - Greg McKeown
Black Music - Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
The Obstacle is the Way - Ryan Holiday
I Would Die 4 U - Touré
Night - Elie Wiesel
Man’s Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl
A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson
Books I’m looking forward to reading in 2015
Waking Up - Sam Harris
Make Something Up and Fight Club 2 - Chuck Palahniuk
Of Africa - Wole Soyinka
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life - Russ Roberts
The Theory of Moral Sentiments - Adam Smith
The Meaning of Human Existence - EO Wilson
A Guide for the Perplexed - Werner Herzog
Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness - Rebecca Solnit
Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe - Curt Stager
Anatomy of Breathing - Blandine Calais-Germain
Wouldn’t it be Nice - Brian Wilson
“Applicants for wisdom do what I have done: inquire within.
Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.”
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