Specificity Trap (Part Three)

IV. Professional Development

“10 years of coaching without reflection is like one year repeated ten times”

Gilbert and Trudel (2006)

Expanding beyond the S&C field, the specificity trap can also be interpreted within the much coveted domain of experience. Drawing upon an analogy, during World War One, mules were called upon to transport heavy military equipment and supplies. One particular mule accompanied the soldier on the battlefield for every mission. By the end of the war, the soldier went on to become a decorated war veteran. The mule, who had attended every single campaign alongside the solider was, however, none the wiser. This links in with the comment above where ‘time spent’ cannot be considered of much worth if it does not contribute to one’s own growth, insight and discernment. In fact, it can be argued that it is much more about the quality of learning experiences than it is about experience as a whole. Job advertisements within the field of S&C frequently stipulate the criterion of >5 years of experience as an essential. Whilst it would be inconceivable to hire someone lacking the essential skills and expertise to perform the role with exceptional competence and due diligence, it is of the writer’s opinion that there may well be practitioners who though on paper possess less “experience”, the depth of their experiences and opportunities for learning may well have been greater than someone who has just been hanging around and clocking up the years. Whilst this may be less likely for those relatively new to the industry (<5 years), as the demand for “experience” increases, this becomes an even more important point for consideration. Case in point, though there may be quite a distinct difference in skillset between a practitioner of 5 years and that of 2 years, for practitioners of e.g. 6 and 8 years respectively, the distinction may be much harder to make. This will be contingent on how the individual/s in question utilised their time in the field for personal and professional development.

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education”

Albert Einstein

Moreover, the same principles can be applied to continuous professional development. In order to gain experience in the first place, opportunities need to be offered. Though this may be stating the obvious, it is worth reminding ourselves that the most well-established practitioners in any field will have started out with negligible experience. This may in turn serve as a poignant reminder for companies/organisations/institutions to search beyond the superficial layer of experience alone. What is this person’s learning potential? What are the quality of his/her interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence? Do they portray good work ethic and can they be depended upon? These personal traits are not directly specific to the job itself and thus don’t require the individual to be within the field to develop these. In fact, how will the candidate likely differentiate himself from hundreds of other applicants who have been educated in a similar fashion with similar formal qualifications and little to no experience? Similar to early diversification mentioned above, so can this be applied to the early-year practitioner in exposing oneself to a broad variety of formative experiences that equip him with e.g. the ability to problem solve, work under pressure and establish rapport. The specificity trap holds equally true for the established professional. Having become reputable and well respected within their field, the challenge for such a practitioner is to continually broaden and deepen his quest for learning drawing upon a wide variety of disciplines.

V. Concluding thoughts

The threat of the specificity trap looms large for athlete and practitioner at both early and specialised stages of development. For a practitioner who has specialised the majority of his career in one sport and maybe even at one club, one may need to exercise caution in succumbing to unintended consequences of confirmation bias and the uncritical adoption of practices from other self-proclaimed leaders of that sport. Confining oneself to the practices of a single sport or field at the exclusion of others, even at this specialised stage, may incur undesirable consequences insofar as stifling creativity and the ability to innovate. Indeed, the capacity to innovate is underpinned by linking together sources of information that would not inherently be linked together. These sources of information are constructed from being exposed to a number of key formative experiences; the most profound formative experiences can be garnered from environments and disciplines that we are unaccustomed to. Thus, before claiming to be a specialist, one should endeavour to earn the stripes of a great generalist.