Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sharpening the Saw

Just a quick blog entry today. I have just found another great analogy for a training situation I encounter very frequently. The analogy comes from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Although I found a  lot of good analogies for training situations/problems in this a must read book (one I usually use is Production~Production Capacity), this one is about Sharpening the Saw.

Sharpen the Saw
Here is how the story goes

A man was struggling in the woods to saw down a tree. An old farmer came by, watched for a while, then quietly said, “What are you doing?”
“Can’t you see?” the man impatiently replied, “I’m sawing down this tree.”
“You look exhausted,” said the farmer. “How long have you been at it?”
“Over five hours, and I’m beat,” replied the man. “This is hard work.”
“That saw looks pretty dull,” said the farmer. “Why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen it? I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”
“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

This particular 'habit' (or principle) can be used in a lot of situations, but one that is particularly frustrating to me is training during the in-season.

Me: The guys need to do strength training
Coach: Squats?
Me: Yes, heavy squats. They need to keep doing them
Coach: But Mladen, we have a game on Saturday. I want them to be fresh
Me: I understand, but if we stop doing strength training they will de-train.  The game is the priority, but we need to keep training.

Coaches that joined their team during the in-season are especially familiar with this hard situation. You need to build on what other coach left and be cautious not to cause soreness due new training stimuli.

Sometimes coaches forgot that athletes need to be heavy, slow and sore (due new training stimuli), but that this  is the temporary effect until they get used to training and build work capacity. If you want to 'save' them from this, are we doing them a favor or counter-favor and limiting them in the long term?
I get especially frustrated when I hear this from the kid's coaches. They want to win the game, instead of building the athletes. They should spend most of their time sharpening the saw instead of sawing.

In team sports, due competition calendar (for more info please read Problems of Periodization of Training in ixed Sports), both processes should be presented at all times - sawing and sharpening - in different ratios (see peaking index) during different periods. If we just keep 'milking' the effects (a.k.a. sawing) the saw will get dull sooner or later. If we are just sharpening, what is use of it? These two processes are complementary.

This sawing~sharpening  complementary pair is very close to production~production capacity and building~testing (see my comment on 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler in Random Thoughts from the Training Camp). You just cannot be 'fresh' all the time, because you will de-train. You cannot 'play' all the time and be in play shape. Coaches need to start to understand the complementarity between these two contrary (at the first look) processes/principles in training. 

"Contraria sunt complementa" - Niels Bohr


  1. Thank you Mladen. Nice as always to see you working on the complementary nature of your field~level. Excellent. I have a couple of thoughts. First, the very useful sawing~sharpening complementary pair and koan will always depend upon which saw and which tree, which saw and which sharpener. That is, intrinsic dynamics ~ training dynamics will always be relevant to this discussion. What if the tree your sawing is very soft and saw very sharp with diamond edges? In that case maybe the difficulties arising from dull saw will only rarely arise? Reciprocally, what if the tree is intrinsically so hard, the saw you have won't, um. "cut it". With training I would also suggest that the trainer~trainee complementary pair will also be crucial. If a trainer sticks to a given training stratagem regardless of who they are training, the training may fail due to lack of appreciation of how intrinsic dynamics might dramatically alter outcomes, etc. But if you continue to strive to appreciate that 1) these different complementarities exist, and 2) each complementary pair entails and is entailed by coordination dynamics, which means that it actually is possible to work with them all at once: They speak the same complementary language. Reminiscent of Zen, I like to think about stories like sawing~sharpening as koans, parables that teach us more about the complementary nature. And I agree with you Mladen, the better these dynamic complementarities are appreciated, their behavior understood and employed, the more successful will be the outcome. Keep up the good work! best from David Engstrøm

  2. Great post Mladen.

    It's easy to get caught up testing strength in the gym rather than building it.