Expectations of Multidisciplinary Training

Weightlifting plates and tyres at an outside gym
The Trackside Gym at Oxford University’s Roger Bannister Track

Let me start with a link to the One Day challenge for newcomers.

As a multipotentialite, to use Emilie Wapnick’s term, I have always done many things at once, but in the past year I have been actively training towards many things at the same time. And I wanted to pass on some of the things I have learned so far. Especially some of the adjustments I have had to make to the way I frame things.

As a reminder, here are the events I will be doing, within the space of 24 hours, next June. I am actively in training for all of them.

  • 100 kilometre run to test my endurance
  • 3 classic powerlifts — deadlift, bench press, squat — to test strength
  • A 2km row for speed and overall fitness
  • Memorising a deck of cards for memory
  • A Torrance Test for creativity
  • Speed reading a novel

Think about this question. Suppose you are a world class 400 metre runner. After years of 400 metre running, you decide you would really like to give the decathlon a go. 400 metres is one of the decathlon events so you still train really hard for it. Two years later, you have gone from wibbling when you so much as look at a pole vault to being a really good decathlete. But what’s happened to your 400 metres performance?

The answer is, of course, that as you get better and better and continue to train 400 metres, your performance at it has got worse. Because that’s what happens when you switch from a single goal to an goal with multiple parts — you’ve gone from aiming at the highest point you can to aiming for the maximum area under the canvas as it were.

But if you don’t understand that from the outset it can mess with your head. Because it is easy to be sucked into thinking that you can keep your 400 metre performance at the same level and just bring other things up. Especially as this might be true to a the extent that without losing 400 metre performance you could improve other things *a bit* by improving technique alone.

But the simple truth is that to build a body that maximises overall performance, your musculature and infrastructure will need to become less specialist and more generalist and performance at the thing at which you used to excel will go down. Of course it’s not just in sport that people struggle to understand this. It’s at the heart of a lot of inaccessibility in the workplace where managers want, say, a neurodivergent person’s skills but doesn’t realise that if the employee also has to do other things to fit office culture those are precisely the things that will diminish that skill.

One of the things that’s been a learning curve for me has been watching this play out. I threw discus and hammer for my university *ahem* more than 20 years ago. But my athletic prowess is way way short of even average for an active person. That means that any kind of focus on it leads to some really good progress.

As a mind athlete, it’s more mixed. I have a very average memory. But I’ve won championships at international level in creativity and speed reading.

One of the big challenges for me remains knowing what to expect my performance in each area to do as I train for an interdisciplinary event.

I would expect all my physical performances to increase for a considerable time with no noticeable adverse impact anywhere else — simply because I’m building baselines and learning technique. And that’s happened for a year. I am just starting to notice within that, though, that my weight, now I’m under 15 stone, is at a point where absolute strength gains are harder to attain and are part of a balance against gains in speed at endurance.

It has been harder for me to achieve results mentally in the past year. In part, as I’ve talked about previously, that has been a result of really very poor mental health and the effects of the pandemic on that poor mental health. But there has also been a level of fatigue that’s physical. My memory has improved, but as an average memory athlete, I would have expected improvements to be quicker.

And creativity has dipped a little. Which is surprising in a way because creativity should grow the wider the base of activity and knowledge in one’s life. So I will be really interested to track this over the coming months to see what the longer term trend is. But one thing I have noticed is a tendency to beat myself up over slower mind sports progress even though the overall progress has been consistent. Something I need to work on.

I would say the results on the impact of mental and physical performance on each other are still “pending”. I am not yet at a performance level where I can differentiate inevitable performance increase from stuff that’s down to savvy training. But I’m getting there — I’ve noticed that most in what I would call my higher performance endurance — I can sustain levels of performance far longer and with less effort than I could. And the sessions where I’ve blended mental and physical exercises have been fabulous.

This is more of a progress report than an analysis of anything deep. But I do think the question of mindset when we move from single to multi discipline is something we can miss — and in more than just sport. And if we don’t prepare ourselves we can end up beating ourselves up not because we’re underperforming but because we haven’t understood the shift in focus.

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.