Is science making us stupid?


For 2 million years homo-sapiens roamed the earth as an insignificant animal, fighting for their survival. They were learners, yes, but they learned through experiences. They knew that if they ate the wrong berry they would die; simply because one of their tribe had perished that way before. They were behaviourists. They knew the outcome of the actions they could take by always focusing on the ‘what‘. “What happens if I do this?” “What happens if we go here?” By asking these questions and through story-telling, knowledge was passed from generation to generation.

About 70,000 years ago something happened that leap-frogged homo-sapiens to the top of the ecological food chain. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what, but at the same time man-kind went through a significant cognitive revolution. It’s been argued that this cognitive revolution was the cause of the leap-frog, not the result. But for some reason, man started asking themselves “why”?

Asking ‘why’ began to separate us from other animals. We started asking the hard questions. “Why are we here?” “Why does doing this, result in that?” Learning why helped to drive them to the next step; the ‘how’? And so we started looking at how we could improve the status quo. How do we create more food for less work? How do we get more money? How do we control other humans? Multiple revolutions followed, from the agricultural to the industrial, and now the scientific. With each revolution came more knowledge, and greater technologies.

We’re now at the point where certain humans know so much, others don’t need to know anything at all. We go to work and get told what to do and we create machines that allow us not to think at all. At school we get told what to learn, rather than how to learn it. Yes, science is making society as a whole more knowledgeable, but the individual is becoming less intelligent.

So what’s my point and how does this relate to sport? Athletes are becoming accustomed to being told what to do and when to do it. They are learning not to have to think for themselves. ‘Coach-led thinking’ involves instructing athletes what to think and when to think it. This must change to an athlete-centred approach and avoid developing athletes incapable of making decisions for themselves and thinking dynamically on their feet.

Coaches need to put the athlete in the centre of their own learning so that motivation becomes intrinsic. We must give our athletes the freedom to learn through their own experiences, and facilitate environments in which mistakes are encouraged and failure is ok.