Being a coach is such a privilege. It’s a giving profession in which we use our knowledge to provide expert instruction to help others achieve their goals. Scientific innovations, technology, training interventions and nutritional strategies guide us in doing so. However, sport is as full of “fake news” as politics. None of us are immune to it. We are often guilty of criticizing others for taking “extreme” positions and adopting performance optimization practices that we think are quite ridiculous. This is despite all of us adopting practices with limited basis in truth.
Whilst being the perfect coach eludes us all, I’ll explore how to provide expert instruction to our athletes with confidence by avoiding coaching fads, quackery and perpetuating accepted practices that are based on flawed assumptions.
The power of the coach
As coaches, we all have superpowers. For example, as soon as I call myself “coach,” athletes listen to me as an oracle of wisdom. What I say is usually accepted without question. To demonstrate these superpowers to a group of trainee coaches, I asked them to act like chickens. None questioned why and all complied.
I did so to illustrate the point that many athletes perceive coaches as experts, acting on our instructions without question and following our advice uncritically. In my research, athletes state that their most trusted source of information is their coach. What we believe and say matters. This is because others will often do what we ask of them simply because we call ourselves “coach.”
This is despite the fact that anyone can call themselves a coach and it that a short training course gives us endorsement from our federation or other sporting brands. However, to be effective in our role involves understanding complex processes relating to human adaptation and behavior. It also involves answering complex questions.
Providing expert instruction
Athletes trust what we say and often come to us with specific questions relating to their sport. It’s our responsibility to give accurate and appropriate responses. Let’s consider the following questions that relate to current trends in endurance sport:
- “I’ve just bought a Low Carb, High Fat recipe book, as it will make me go faster, what do you think coach?”
- “Daniela’s using a 55-tooth chain-ring and pedaling at 70 rpm. Should I do the same?”
How would you answer these questions? I’d guess that this would depend on your knowledge, expertise, biases and levels of confidence. If you expressed your views with great certainty, advocating an absolute answer to the questions, my initial thoughts would be that:
- You don’t really know what you’re talking about.
- You were guilty of confirmation bias, a type of bias where you go seeking evidence to support your own views without adequately considering the views of others.
This is because the answer to virtually all questions relating to performance optimization is, “It depends.” Coaching expertise comes from our understanding of what “it” depends on and how we account for factors that are highly individual to our athletes.
The questions posed above are relatively challenging and complex ones; ones in which I’d argue the first represents a relatively extreme position and the other is far more nuanced. But how we answer is critically important.
Firstly, there are health and injury implications. Secondly, our responses may determine whether an athlete achieves their dreams or not. Finally, our credibility is at stake, especially when we do not show humility or due-diligence constructing our responses.
Constructing our answers whilst avoiding extreme positions
Copernicus was a mathematician who demonstrated that the sun was at the center of our universe. In the 16th Century, his was an extreme position, especially when we understand that it contrasted with the views of the church and state.
Of course, we know now that Copernicus was right and most others who cared about such things in the Dark Ages were wrong. This is an important lesson when we’re presented with what may be extreme views at the time, but ones that become conventional wisdom in the future. However, it’s far more typical for extreme positions to be extreme for a reason. The way to avoid them is through intellectual rigour.
Before we suggest a new way of training, a different diet or a costly piece of equipment, we should understand the basis and mechanisms of why they work (or not). This means being open to new ideas, different perspectives and beliefs.
We typically learn to coach through trial-and-error, from our experiences as athletes and through reflection on what is perceived to get results. We also take advice from other coaches, glean information from academic journals, books and magazines.
Fellow researcher Professor Chris Cushion would describe much of our knowledge as “self-referenced and tacit, based on what we believe works in practice.” However, having worked across many sports from downhill skiing to triathlon, I believe that many coaching practices are more often influenced by tradition and culture rather than being guided by evidence or intellectual rigour.
None of us are immune because evolutionary processes are at work; we want to “fit in” with our peers and often need the ability to make decisions quickly to survive.
Now let’s get back to the question on a low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet. My belief is that this “fad” emanated from scientists who presented plausible arguments to suggest that such a diet is beneficial in health and performance terms.
There are other scientists (with a greater body of evidence) who argue that that the LCHF scientists are talking nonsense. Most of us coaches are not sufficiently knowledgable in nutrition science to make sense of the opposing arguments, and become confused as a result.
I deal with such confusion by reverting to common sense, in which I advocate a healthy, balanced diet, low in processed foods which have been ethically produced. This isn’t laziness. I’m lucky enough to know a few world-leading nutritionists who tend to back me up in my belief that quality and composition of the macronutrients is what matters most.
Therefore, my answer to any athlete who has questions on diet is “tell me about your current diet and let’s explore how we can improve it.” If they still want to adopt a LCHF diet, then my eyebrows will raise, and I will “pull a face” to suggest slight disdain.
Now let’s take a look at the gearing question. My responses to questions on gearing will reflect the lack of consensus on the topic in the academic literature. Showing an old video of Jan Ulrich racing up a mountain against Marco Pantani is one strategy which proves that there are more ways than one way to “skin a cat.”
The fact is that the most appropriate gear and cadence is influenced by training history, physical resilience, muscle fiber type distribution, pedaling technique and motor-skills. What Daniela does is fascinating, but it should rarely determine our coaching practices.
Rather, how I address the question would be very specific to the individual athlete rather than me adopting a particular stance. We must be critical of all our coaching practices and be willing to accept when we are wrong.
For example, there are other widely accepted principles such as such as periodization, which are imbedded in coach education that are based on flawed assumptions. Understanding what these assumptions are and how to account for them is critical if we are to use the PMC’s and other planning tools in TrainingPeaks appropriately.
Similarly, I’ve advocated daily use of foam rollers and had scientific evidence to justify my beliefs on their effectiveness. This was further justified by me being in environments where I see world-class athletes with them attached to their kit bags. However, a chat with my hugely experienced and evidence-based physiotherapist convinced me that, whilst rollering has its place, doing so daily is tantamount to making schnitzel out of human muscle.
It also meant admitting to myself that I was wrong. Part of my decision-making process is that I understand the limitations of science and that clinical expertise fills the gaps that theory cannot.
Like coaches, scientists are fallible human beings who are often guilty of bias, egocentrism, focusing on making money or “following the path of least resistance.” I often reflect on how my knowledge and beliefs have changed over time too.
I’ve been wrong about so many things in the past and I now actively seek evidence to prove myself wrong. The key lesson for us as coaches is to recognize that the search for one right answer to many training questions is a futile one. That’s because the answer is nearly always “it depends.”
However, there many false beliefs in sport too. Adopting extreme positions or being overly dogmatic in your beliefs heightens your chances of getting it wrong, but limits your coaching effectiveness and openness to learn new things. But being rigorous and open-minded allows us to avoid dismissing people like Copernicus as pariahs too.