Clocks and Clouds

Karl Popper, a great philosopher of science of the 20th century, first iterated the contrast of clocks and clouds. The idea being that clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be defined and evaluated using reductive methodologies. You can take apart a clock, inspect the pieces, and see how they fit together. In contrast, clouds are irregular, dynamic, and idiosyncratic.

John Lehrer, author and journalist, has noted one of the great temptations of modern research is that it views every phenomenon as a clock, which can be evaluated using mechanical tools and regular techniques.

Along with modern research, many PhD programs tend to work in the same fashion, breaking down categories into sub-categories and subsequently breaking these sub-categories into the smallest units possible. This results in experts of one particular, specific field.

Thank goodness for these experts. My mind is best suited for a different approach. A more “generalist” approach. I tend to get super excited and passionate about a particular topic or idea, get stuck in for a period of time, then move on to a new area. With the breadth of knowledge available at the click of a button, the digital age has me programmed to traverse the landscapes of many different fields and instilled in me the desire to broaden my horizons as far-reaching as possible. It is both a curse and a blessing, but that’s another story.

It can easily be argued that I am biased towards my own natural tendencies. Nonetheless, coaching is a cloud rather than a clock. Coaching is not neat and orderly. It is messy and chaotic. It is both a science and an art. One must skim many different pools of knowledge when diving into human movement and behavior.

Science provides the foundation for coaching just as gases and particles provide the foundation for clouds. Formal education does a fine job of passing along knowledge in anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, psychology, biomechanics — the groundwork on which a young coach is constructed. Anatomy and physiology will give you the tools to understand the human body. Kinesiology will give you the tools to understand movement. Psychology will give you the tools to inspire action.

That being said, coaching is more than its individual parts — the sciences. It is the fluid, dynamic and ever-evolving interplay of these parts that create the whole. A whole which cannot be reduced to one element just as a cloud cannot be reduced to one particle. The art comes from blending these sciences into working with inherently individual athletes and maneuvering through any and all obstacles that will arise on a daily basis. The art comes from experience.

To reach your potential as a coach you must gain as much experience as possible and then reflect on these experiences and draw conclusions. You need to coach. You need to find athletes to work with. You need to get your hands dirty. Equally as important, you need to perform all these tasks mindfully, with intention and attention, just as you hope your athletes will perform their tasks.