The Bed of Procrustes

In the early 2000’s, as a young Strength & Conditioning Coach, I was appointed the S&C Coordinator for AFL Queensland.

My first priority included physically preparing Queensland’s top U18 footballers for the National Championship while my second priority involved preparing those that were invited for the AFL Draft.

Since I typically favoured ‘Strength’ over ‘Conditioning’, and given I have a rugby union background, it would be fair to say I wasn’t impressed with most of the young athlete’s gym numbers (i.e. squats, cleans, bench press, etc.).

In fact, I was so unimpressed with their general weight training ability I wanted to institute a rule of non-selection unless they could achieve certain numbers in the gym.

I can’t recall the exact goals but it would’ve been along the lines of:

  • Squat = body weight for 3;
  • Bench press = 75% bw for 3;
  • Chin ups = 10x chin ups

If they couldn’t achieve these rather low numbers I felt they weren’t deserving of selection for the State team.

I had a ‘Procrustean bed’ and I wanted to make my athletes fit into it.

Greek Mythology - Procrustes

According to Greek mythology, Procrustes was an evil character that would promise a ‘perfectly fitting bed’ to tired, and unsuspecting, travellers.

However, instead of fitting the bed to the traveller, he would either cut off the limbs of his guest or stretch them out, so that the traveller would fit the bed.

This myth has lead to a few terms that are important to understand in Athlete Development:

  • Procrustean bed – an arbitrary standard that is (usually) mandatory to achieve.
  • Procrustean solution – applying a predetermined structure to a query or question; or ‘making the data fit’.

Examples of the Procrustean Bed in the world of sports and training are rife in many domains.

Rehabilitation

Recently, one of my master weightlifters ‘tweaked’ her back.

Sitting caused her immense pain, as did rotation and any quick movements.

Wanting to see a physiotherapist as soon as possible, she called around and booked in with the first appointment available.

This idiot informed her that, according to his KPIs and despite her obvious pain, there was nothing wrong with her back.

He had a Procrustean bed and wanted her to fit to it.

Nutrition

It is not uncommon for dietitians to set skinfold targets for certain playing positions in each sport.

For example, rugby union props might have to be under 100mm, or in the AFL midfielders might be aiming to be under 50mm.

Is this based on evidence? Is it Individualised? Or is it a Procrustean goal?

(Heuristic: If the number is neat - e.g. 50 or 100 as opposed to 47 or 109 - it’s probably Procrustean.)

On a personal note, while I mainly adhere to higher fat, paleo-type diet (think: low sugar, low processed), my BMX squad performs well with their nutrition that includes high GI carbs.

On the other hand, my triathletes and ironman have improved their training and performance through adopting a similar nutrition plan as mine.

Applying a Procrustean solution to both groups would be detrimental to at least one squad.

‘Pathways’

We see this in ‘pathways’ of National and State Sports Organisations: to be selected the athlete must achieve X on the beep test, Y on the VJ or have a Sit ‘n Reach of Z.

The question each NSO and SSO needs to ask themselves: Are your selection criteria predictive of ability (based on evidence) or just easy to administer and monitor (Procrustean)?

350lbs Bench Press

Andre Agassi wanted to bench press at least 350lbs leading into the Australian Open.

This is not an example of a Procrustean goal.

Andre and Gil Reyes (his Strength & Conditioning coach of 17 years) had built up such a strong relationship, that Andre totally trusted Gil’s programming and planning.

He knew that when he hit 350 on the bench, combined with the accumulation and balance of all the other work he had performed, he was physically ready to take on anyone.

The 350lbs was not an arbitrary goal. Rather, it was built on experience and evidence (including Gil's extensively detailed notes!).

(Side note: Andre is one of the few players who used to ask AO tournament director, Craig Tiley, if he could be scheduled to play during the middle of the day in the hot Melbourne sun, such was his belief in his preparation).

Other Potential Procrustean Beds

  • Flexibility - How many athletes are unnecessarily told to 'stretch their hamstrings' to achieve the 'ideal' 90 degree single leg raise? Or to touch their toes?
  • FMS (or potentially any other screening)
  • Forcing all your athletes to squat with one technique (weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, etc.)
  • What about minimum reps for a body weight exercise before external weight?

AFL Queensland and the Brumbies

Returning to the opening anecdote… Before pulling the trigger to include minimum strength standards into the selection criteria I called Phil Mack, a Strength & Conditioning coach who was contracted to the Brumbies Rugby Union, for his thoughts.

He shut them down pretty quickly by informing me that George Smith, arguably one of the best rugby union players in the world for a period of over 10 years, never got close to Level 12 on the Beep Test (Multi-stage Shuttle Test).

What makes this even more powerful is that Smith played ‘on the flank’, one of the highest work load positions in rugby.

So one of the best players in the world, playing in one of the most physically demanding positions, never got close to reaching what many of us would deem a ‘minimum’ level for an elite athlete.

Why not? Maybe it didn’t challenge him? Or he wasn’t motivated in that context? Maybe he saw it as irrelevant? Maybe his ability to read the play and make decisions more than covered for his low test scores? Who knows?

The point is the Brumbies staff were astute enough to realise that it was performance on the field that was important, not some Procrustean aerobic test.

Conclusion & Challenge

Needless to say I dropped the idea of creating a Procrustean strength standard for my young athletes; and continue to ensure my paradigms are designed for my athletes, not the other way around.

Your challenge, is to ensure your athletes are getting what they need, when they need it and in the manner they need it... Not a Procrustean Bed.

Grant Jenkins is a Physical Performance Coach who tries to work from Performance backwards, not Procrustean beds forwards. Follow him on Twitter @Grant_Jenkins. 

About Grant

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