The debate on whether it is better to be a specialist or a generalist might never be resolved but competitive sports provides us with a useful insight: If you choose to specialize, be careful to keep your options open.
We can learn this lesson from renowned strength coach Shannon Turley. During Turley’s 7-year tenure with the Stanford football program, there was an 87% decrease in the number of games that players missed due to injury. As a result, the National Strength and Conditioning Association named Turley its 2014 Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year.
How did Turley achieve these results? By focusing on helping athletes stay in the game as long as possible, rather than just improving their strength.
Before Turley’s approach, most athletes – especially in football – followed a strength program based on weightlifting. Football players competed to see who could lift the most weight. However, Turley found no relationship between how much players could lift and their performance on the field. As he quipped, “In football if you’re on your back, you’ve already lost.”
Instead, he instituted a program based on good nutrition and flexibility exercises such as yoga. He also focused on healing existing injuries that restricted athletes’ performance. A healthy, uninjured player misses fewer training sessions and stays in games longer. There’s also less chance of needing surgery or of being forced to retire prematurely from competitive sports.
Turley’s approach improved athletes’ optionality.
If you’re not familiar with the term, optionality is a framework for maximizing gains while minimizing losses. An elite athlete will always have some bad performances but the more they play, the more likely they will perform well and even have a few extraordinary performances. You can’t win if you’re not in the game.
A similar philosophy works well in business. Being all-in on one idea or one strategy might seem appropriate but it’s rarely the right idea because it repeatedly exercises the same muscles and doesn’t preserve optionality. As Peter Sims advocates in the book Little Bets, instead of starting with a big idea or planning an entire project out in advance, make a methodical series of little bets. In the same vein, the Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast” usually forces you out of the game quickly; I prefer experiment more often and be resilient.
As the old saying goes, you play the game to win. But the best winning strategy might be to stay in the game as long as possible.