Knowledge between skill, talent and training in sport: Philosophical voices on the twist of nature and culture

Mikael Lindfelt
Åbo Akademi University

Gunnar Breivik (ed.)
Skills, Knowledge and Expertise in Sport
128 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018 (Ethics and Sport)
ISBN 978-1-138-55967-7

The leading sports philosopher in Norway and perhaps all Nordic countries, and sports science’s “Grand old man”, now retired professor from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences Gunnar Breivik is up to date with a new book. For those who know Gunnar Breivik’s earlier sports science production, the theme itself is no major surprise. In recent years, he has invested a great deal of time and energy into philosophically solving relationships between key concepts such as “knowledge”, “skill”, “ability”, “expertise”, “competence” and similar concepts in the elite sports context. Not because these concepts are interesting in themselves, but mainly because they are concepts that are difficult to really get hold of or “attach to the idea” in sporting and body cultural contexts.

In sports science contexts, studies often relate to double axes between the poles of physiology and sociology, or psychology and pedagogy, mostly with empirical and semi-normative normative approaches. With this in mind, it is really nice to read solid philosophy. Between the covers of the book, Breivik has collected various philosophical styles and positions, but they gather around the same theme. It is solid sports philosophy, nothing one easily skimmers through the evening before it is time for examination. No, it’s hard work, it’s cognitive training. Thoughts that force you to stop and, in several instances, investigate your own underlying assumptions about how knowledge and skills are formed in a body-cultural context. How easy it is not to end up in a world of ideas, a world where knowledge that is not discursive or empirically measurable seems like a mystery without anyone daring to express it, since anyone who has experienced the kind of knowledge mediated by corporeality cannot deny it.

The book Skills, Knowledge and Expertise in Sport (2018), edited by Gunnar Breivik, consists of eight articles originally published in the journal Sport, Ethics and Philosophy in August 2016. The vast majority of authors come from Norway or Denmark. The exceptions are Jennifer Hardens from the UK and Bryan Hogeveen from Canada, but since these two have written an article together, the Norwegian and Danish contributions dominate the anthology. This is all fine, because the quality of the texts is mostly high.

There is an interesting sidetrack in the anthology. The fact that the theme itself is something that Breivik himself has done his research on becomes obvious when reading his own article in the anthology, “The Role of Skill in Sport”. The interesting thing, however, is that all the other articles, both directly and indirectly, suggest that they have been intellectually “forced” or tweaked into relating to the reasoning presented by Breivik in his article or in his previous studies on this theme. Also, in that respect the anthology confirms the status of Gunnar Breivik as a sports philosophical pioneer in this thematic field, at least in the Nordic context.

The tension between the concepts of “skill”, “knowledge” and “expertise” but also “talent” is in various ways related, at least when one’s trying to understand how it is that any athlete or trainer is more competent than anyone else. In its most simplified form, most articles focus on the relationship between an elite athlete and his/her coach where the aim is to continuously improve the athletic performance. The basic distinction in the context can be captured in the already classic distinction (Gilbert Ryle) between “knowing that” and “knowing how”.

There are more outbursts of judgments and selective choices than robust examples that have emerged from the discussion.

The meeting of the “heavyweight champions”, i.e. the intellectual dialogue, is represented by Gunnar Breivik and his counterpart Jens Erling Birch, regarding how to address and master this conceptual landscape. While Birch questions the Ryle distinction straight away and believes that all knowledge, including practicality, can ultimately be understood/presented/transposed to the discursive form of knowledge, ‘knowledge that’, Breivik takes a more positive attitude towards Ryle’s famous distinction, but argues more distinctly for a more open “awareness model” for the actual practical knowledge in sports practice. Thus, he turns to the very often discussed theoretical model, which is called the “skill model”, which was originally presented by the brothers Druyfuss & Druyfuss in 1986. This skill model is very close to the notion of top performances in sport and other contexts popularized by the psychologist and performance researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with the concept of ‘flow’.

The skill model assumes that expertise and top-level skillfulness in sport is something intuitive and talent-based, and refined by constant repetitions. The emphasis is on how knowledge at its highest level is performative and beyond reflexive, cognitive decisions. Breivik thus turns against this model, even though he argues for the peculiarity of practical knowledge. Birch, on the other hand, takes as his approach a discussion of the reasonableness of Gilbert Ryle’s distinction, eventually landing in and arguing for a position where he deliberately opposes Breivik’s “practical-oriented reflexivity”.

For me, the dialogue of the heavyweights ended pretty much in a draw. Both have their points. Birch’s reasoning is very compact and cohesive. At the end of his own article, Breivik follows a line of reasoning on normality that is not convincing, in my view. Not because the reasoning itself has problems, but because the elements that are involved seem to be more shaky when skills perspectives are brought together with a normative sports ethics perspective. There are more outbursts of judgments and selective choices than robust examples that have emerged from the discussion. In any case, I became a little uncertain whether the points made in this passage contribute to the power of the supporting argument.

At the same time, I cannot get away from the impression that Brevik and Birch talk a little bit past each other. While Brevik is more or less dwelling on the sporting subject’s perspective, a kind of self-experiencing perspective without being included in a “natural talent-mysticism”, Birch, at least implicitly, and now and then explicitly, is more concerned with the fact that knowledge in sports contexts cannot solely be placed in an I-experiencing perspective. Although I personally prefer the kind of argumentative analytical style that Brevik represents, I see an important point in Birch’s emphasis. The discussion at this point needs to continue.

I suspect Breivik feels great sympathy for this article, although he may not feel as comfortable with the philosophical environment his thoughts ended up in.

In most other contributions, well-known phenomenological starting points appear with references to the Druyfuss brothers, but also to the anticipated “house philosopher” M. Merleau-Ponty, who is always given space in discussions of body knowledge, talent and expert experiences in sport; but also a pragmatist like J. Dewey gets a small spot in the sun. Most of the articles are well written and concise in relation to the theme. In that sense, the book is a well-coherent thematic whole that actually adheres to the given theme. But mostly the articles go straight into a phenomenological world of discourse without the starting points being properly discussed.

However, there is an exciting exception to this “taken-for-granted phenomenology” in the anthology. It’s offered by the two non-Scandinavians, Jennifer Hardes and Bryan Hogeveen, and in their joint article “Flow, skilled coping and the sovereign subject: toward an ethics of being in sport”. They take their point of departure in philosophers who have not so often been discussed in sports philosophical texts, for instance Heidegger but above all the French post-structuralists such as J. Derrida and J-L Nancy, and to a lesser extent the disputed sociologist B. Latour.

I find the approach to be very brave and interesting, and on the whole their argument is (at least mostly) in line with Breivik’s criticism of the skill model, almost with similar arguments. But when the philosophical setting is another, the reasoning becomes as vigorous as it is fresh. What they do is more or less a frontal attack on the “flow discourse” of top sporting achievements as some kind of autopilot experiences. They take on body experiences without linking to phenomenology, but rather to Nancy’s reasoning on “body as meaning” and “body as contextualized in community”, a reasoning that could reasonably be found in various third-wave feminist texts. The critical edge is directed at the basic assumptions that phenomenology takes as given at the outset, namely the sovereign subject position. Thus, Hardes & Hogeveen will both argue for the position that will partly be Breivik’s, and, with their perspective, expand the reasoning into a community dimension that does not exist with Breivik.

This article distinguishes itself from the rest of the collection, and makes me smile. It makes me want to think further. In depth, its criticism of flow-phenomenology and the skill-model is deeply moral, not conceptually-logical as with Birch. I suspect Breivik feels great sympathy for this article, although he may not feel as comfortable with the philosophical environment his thoughts ended up in. In my reading, the article is a broadened anti-automation position, but presented in voices other than those who usually enjoy the colder Nordic seminar rooms. If you look for the continuation of the heavyweight meeting that ended in a tie, you’ll find it, according to me, in this text. The reasoning has a completely different philosophical tone, but this article displays respect for the ethical realities that Breivik wants to safeguard, as well as the urge for non-subjectivity that Birch is looking out for.

Touché, in my view.

Copyright © Mikael Lindfelt 2019


Table of Content

Introduction: Skills, knowledge and expertise in sport
Gunnar Breivik

  1. The role of skill in sport
    Gunnar Breivik
  2. Skills – do we really know what kind of knowledge they are?
    Jens Erling Birch
  3. On phenomenological and logical characteristics of skilled behaviour in sport: cognitive and motor intentionality
    Vegard Fusche Moe
  4. Habits, skills and embodied experiences: a contribution to philosophy of physical education
    Øyvind F. Standal and Kenneth Aggerholm
  5. Flow, skilled coping, and the sovereign subject: toward an ethics of being-with in sport
    Jennifer Hardes and Bryan Hogeveen 
  6. What can the parkour craftsmen tell us about bodily expertise and skilled movement?
    Signe Højbjerre Larsen
  7. Expert tool use: a phenomenological analysis of processes of incorporation in the case of elite rope skipping
    Kathrine Liedtke Thorndahl and Susanne Ravn
  8. Gamechangers and the meaningfulness of difference in the sporting world – a postmodern outlook
    Anders McDonald Sookermany



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