Hang up those Question Marks

If Charles Darwin had chosen not to bother questioning the origins of life on Earth, the assumption might have remained that a supernatural being, ‘God’, shaped each living organism on our planet. Of course, this belief has been since ‘blown out of the water’ due to the debate which ensued from Darwin’s Theory (or rather, fact) of Evolution through Natural Selection.

Questioning one’s beliefs and, debating the opinions of others, has transformed civilisation over the past 500-years; it remains our societies most important tool in progressing peace, social justice, and, science – although, this is not an exhaustive list.

Debate can reveal to an ‘opponent’ the gaps which permeate their knowledge and, may, lead them to fill-in said gaps of ignorance with the appropriate information. Criticism of an idea can lead the originator to question the accuracy of their belief and, can assist in improving it – this may entail abandoning it all together. At the very least, engaging in an open discussion about a concept can improve the advocate’s articulation of it to others.

An important distinction to clarify is the difference between the critique of an idea and, an ad hominem attack on a person. The former involves scrutiny of a thought created in one’s mind – it has no feelings, it does not care how much you criticise or ridicule it. The latter involves fallaciously rebutting an opposing point by attacking the person, rather than debating the argument itself; even if the criticism of the individual is accurate, it has no relevance on whether the claim made is valid.

Ad hominem non-sequitur:
“You’re an ugly person. Therefore, you’re wrong” – the perceived beauty or, suggested lack of, has no bearing on whether the opponent’s argument is sound or not.

Scrutinise what the person is saying, not who is saying it.

That said, there are many unfortunate individuals and, organisations, in society who cannot bear to hear an opposing opinion – particularly, one which confronts a long-held view. They wish to remain in the safety of those who agree with them and, run away from, or verbally attack, anyone who dares trespass into their blissfully ignorant world.

What is the worst that could happen? You’re proven wrong, through the use of rational argument – based on evidence. As I see it, you are left with two options: 1. You can continue to deny, in the face of logic and the evidence, that the critic’s view is not accurate and continue to shamefully remain within your ‘safe zone’ or, 2. Explore the person’s claims through your own research, and, if the evidence appears to be valid, accept it, utilise it and, voilà, you have improved your view/opinion/model/strategy/, etc.

No one’s opinion is infallible; rejecting to hear an argument against your view suggests you believe it to be so.

This skill can also be applied to your own ideas. Indeed, it is often essential to dispute one’s own beliefs before challenging those of others. How do you know you’re right? How do I know what I know, except that I’ve always been taught it is so, and, I’ve never been told otherwise?

As the philosopher, Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” When is the last time you hung up those question marks on your long-held beliefs?

Depressingly, in the world of swimming, the art of critical thinking and scientific scrutiny has not permeated many levels nor is it a skill employed by all swimming coaches – I would boldly claim that the majority do not. That said, this is not entirely the fault of coaches. Unfortunately, the pool of scientific studies into competitive swimming is relatively limited and, can be rather difficult to find – not to mention that most coaches aren’t taught how to review or analyse, research papers. This a major shortfall on the part of swimming organisations and sporting bodies – a topic I wish to write about in the near future. Instead, coaches often resort to belief-based practices: copying other club programmes and reading swimming ‘manuals’ which are themselves based on dogma. Only now, as the evidence sources (and reliability) increases, we see the debunking of many traditional training practices – training which YOU likely use in your club programmes.

There has been no better time to debate the training prescriptions of other coaches, research the science available (and learn how to do it properly!) and, start questioning your own beliefs. No matter how long you have coached for, no matter what your track record is, no matter how strongly you believe you are right, hang up those question marks!

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu