Traditional Chinese Medicine

Where Traditional Chinese Medicine Meets Modern Athletic Performance

By Paul Markgraff, Managing Editor, CSCCa Monthly

Among typically Western minds, there are few practices that simultaneously inspire both curiosity and doubt as quickly as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Those three words are saturated with erroneous assumptions, misunderstood intentions and a level of concrete definition so lacking that even adept practitioners disagree on what its terms represent.

And yet, you can’t argue with its staying power. For more than 5,000 years, the practices that combine to form TCM have been achieving undeniable results in the physical world. For example, you can argue all day about what a concept like Qi (pronounced “chee”) entails, but you cannot deny that applying the concept in the physical world produces physical results. Definitions and results may vary, but the consequences of its practice are real.

It’s at this intersection – where TCM and rigorous, evidence-based research meet – that a new understanding of TCM’s role in athletic performance coaching is beginning to emerge.

Leading that charge is Tsz Chiu “Andy” Chan, MS, CSCS. Though he now spends his days teaching, coaching and working in Hong Kong, Chan’s formal education took place at Indiana University, where he earned his BS in accounting, then went on to earn his Master’s from Concordia University Chicago in Exercise Science. It’s one of many degree programs available to coaches who are now choosing to seek advanced degrees as hard as they push for certification credentials.

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As a coach, author and presenter who has travelled extensively across the globe, Chan is uniquely suited to understand and describe the intersection between these two widely divergent frameworks for understanding similar things.

Along with co-author Yat Kwan “Stella” Wong, Ph.D., Chan has written what amounts to the most detailed investigation into this crossroads of thought. Surprisingly, as he began peeling back the layers of the onion, Chan found that the two ways of thinking are not intrinsically opposed. Rather, there is significant crossover, but Western coaches will need to open their minds to seriously evaluating and integrating concepts that may at first appear esoteric and mystical.

“At the time of writing the book, my topic of interest was the efficacy of cupping,” says Chan. “Back during the Olympics, people saw the purple dots on Michael Phelps. In the fitness community, we’re thinking, ‘What is this? Is this helpful? Is it pseudoscience?’ I saw it as a great opportunity to get my hands wet and looked into available research. I found that there were basically two perspectives: human movement science related to soft tissue and fascia and the TCM perspective, where cupping originated.”

Chan found that while both approaches focused directly on the effects of cupping on real world soft tissue, a certain mysticism pervaded the TCM perspective that was entirely absent from the human movement science perspective. He learned that – because cupping evolved in a historical context that lacked what we would call the scientific method and significantly predates The Enlightenment of late 17th century Western Europe – TCM practitioners used their own subset of languages to explain their techniques, which caused translation problems, produced confusion and invited deep Western skepticism. After all, if 10 different people can’t even agree on the definition of a single misunderstood term, how will arguably rigorous scientists using statistical arguments even begin to measure efficacy. Thus, out go both baby and bathwater.

But again, regardless of whether Western minds choose to understand or believe in these often ineffable concepts, their practice does produce measurable consequence in the real world. That intersection is where Western and Eastern minds can find common ground. In other words, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so quoth The Bard.

For his Master’s degree project from Concordia University Chicago, Chan pitched the book and the idea was immediately embraced by publishers. He followed that trail, and by the end of 2021, he and his co-author published Dynamic Balance: Integrating Principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine into Strength and Conditioning.

The concept of balance appears everywhere among the book’s 316 pages, where the two authors demonstrate why the rigors of Western approaches to athletic performance training can unnecessarily introduce imbalances into an athlete’s physical and mental health. Every coach knows that fitness targets and modalities are always evolving for an individual athlete based on defined necessity. Consequently, coaches capable of bringing often competing factors into relative balance produce athletes who are both prepared to compete and also experience life in an emotionally healthy way, thereby encouraging still further success. It’s a feedback loop that — instead of degrading — becomes more positively refined.

“We wanted to unpack these often esoteric and seemingly unrelated concepts and investigate just how outsized the role played by language and culture might be,” says Chan. “These ideas behind TCM have been working for better or worse for 5,000 years. Rigorous scientific research is a relatively recent phenomenon when measured against a backdrop of five millennia. If you look at a concept like acupuncture, there are many that identify it as pseudoscience, and maybe it is according to their misapplied framework for how they think about things so culturally removed from their experience and education. But whenever we are touching the skin in any way, we are exciting sensory receptors that lead directly to the brain through an incomprehensibly complex network of nerve cells and pathways. Sometimes we’re even eliciting response in the limbic system, which is the highly evolved and ancient part of the brain responsible for your flight or fight responses.”

Chan believes it is at this crossroads of Chinese philosophical concepts and Western scientific research where the consequences of such actions can be observed, measured and understood, regardless of whether your terms originate from Latin and Greek or unfamiliar Chinese medicinal vocabulary.

Expert Credibility

Measured in any way, Chan’s project to earn his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Concordia University Chicago has reaffirmed the value of an advanced degree in the strength and conditioning space. Advanced degree programs in human performance, exercise science, and strength and conditioning are expanding and their growth is accelerating. Strength and conditioning coaches were once hemmed in on the education front, because obtaining certification credentials was as far as they could take a conventional education. Now, advanced degree programs are offering coaches the opportunity to balance their own continuing education and their search for meaningful and rewarding employment in a positive way.

Certainly, colleges and universities will continue to require certification credentials from strength coaches just to get into the interview room, but now, with the recent and explosive growth of related advanced degree programs, coaches can pursue academic interests that leave them feeling intellectually rewarded and dramatically more qualified in this highly competitive landscape.

“Everyone keeps raising the standard in this industry,” says Chan. “Sometimes, the pressure to perform is so great that it can feel overwhelming. Coaches will have a dozen acronyms behind their names. It shows a desire to learn that’s great for the profession. But often, it’s those same coaches complaining online that they’re underpaid or can’t unlock the opportunities they desperately desire. I think, for me and for many coaches out there, there are prestigious certifications we want, don’t get me wrong.

“But we can’t fall into the mindset of thinking that after we obtain our certification credentials, we are setting ourselves apart. I would argue against that. Just as important are things like learning to properly conduct research, how to analyze your findings and step out of your comfort zone. It’s these things that make institutions want to hire coaches, and it stems from a deep mentality about the positive consequences of lifelong learning rather than a single-minded approach to maintaining a credential.”

For more information or to purchase Chan’s book, visit Dynamic Balance: Integrating Principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine into Strength and Conditioning.

For more information about advanced degree programs from a variety of post-secondary institutions, check out the following links:

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