Hypothetically Speaking


Hypothetical questions and scenarios can be an extremely useful tool in planning and research. When applied to specific circumstances they allow us to create valuable contingency plans and obtain insight regarding novel situations.

The British Army call contingency planning “Immediate Actions Drills” i.e. the actions to be made in the event that a particular hypothetical scenario occurs. An example would be a commander briefing his men for a recce patrol:

“Actions on contact with the enemy will be to break contact and re-group at the last designated RV point.”

Given that objectives determine methods this may be very different if the commander was leading a fighting patrol in which case the orders may be to take on and defeat the enemy.

In a sporting context, hypothetical scenario planning can be extremely helpful too.

  • What type of game plan should we adopt if it is raining?
  • How will we adapt if the opposition select player Y who plays more of a kicking game instead of player X who passes more?
  • If a key player who is just returning from injury passes a fitness test should he start or be put on the bench?

In my opinion the key aspect to any hypothetical is “When applied to specific circumstances…” as these circumstances are the parameters for potential solutions. What works for one team or coach will not necessarily work for another due to the many different variables such as strengths, weaknesses, environment, technical ability etc etc.

It is becoming increasingly common, however, for hypothetical scenarios and questions to be posed in interviews to coaches or to followers on social media with little to no context. Questions such as “If you could only do one exercise what would it be?” or statements like “All other things being equal the stronger/faster/more flexible athlete will always win” really irritate me as I see them as being utterly pointless.

I cannot envisage any situation where someone could only do one exercise. In sport all things bar one are never equal and even if they were the statement is a worthless as it is merely a set up to confirm the particular bias that the author has.

In a similar vein “True or False” statements, which take a subject with a great many variables and boil it down to a one word answer, are equally useless but increasingly popular. True or False may work well in binary code but in the world of sport which is never black and white but many shades of grey it fails to spark, or add value to, worthwhile debate.

A recent example on Twitter was “True or False – For athletes, deadlifts take out more than they give back.” Cue much arguing about whether deadlifts are functional or non functional (I still don’t see how an exercise can be non functional), hard or easy to teach, general or specific and so on. However, without context the question and subsequent debate was meaningless. The answer will always be “It depends…..”

Who are the athletes? What sport do they play? What is their training/injury history? What are the loading/volume parameters?

The deadlift is a competition exercise for a powerlifter and therefore highly specific. Given the maximal nature of their sport it is likely to be trained at a higher intensity thus inducing higher levels of fatigue. For a teenage rugby player though it would be a more general exercise and if the focus was on correct technique using sub maximal loads and low reps unlikely to impact much on fatigue……….perhaps?

Case studies are far more valuable as they provide all the relevant information on a specific individual or team together with the course of action taken and reasons why. Hypothetical questions can then be posed within this framework as a method to stimulate discussion.

Darren Roberts, High Performance Manager at Red Bull, has started a series of very interesting and well detailed blogs following the rehab of some of the athletes he works with such as Taylor Vernon, Dan Atherton and Danny MacAskill. This requires the coach and athlete to be willing to share a great deal of information in the knowledge that any resulting dialogue will benefit them just as much.

But this requires time and effort – far easier to toss out a slightly controversial 140 characters and see how many “likes” or “retweets” you can garner.

I would encourage you to re-examine your planning process and see where hypothetical questions could help you find the nearest paddle shop if you find yourself heading up Shit Creek. I would also encourage you to share situations you have faced with other coaches and ask them what they would have done – you will both learn from the process.

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