Curiosity and Connection- Why the 'boring stuff' in training is the most important.

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Curiosity is by definition an interesting subject. It’s that process of how an idea can suddenly pop into our mind, only to open up an array of doors for us to gaze into. The ability to be curious about the way the world works is one of the most underrated qualities or talents that one can develop. If we have curiosity, we have a never-ending supply of wonder that makes the drive to follow through on such ideas completely secondary. When one is highly curious, it no longer becomes a question of whether you have the motivation to put the work in to find the answer, the work simply happens as a by product of wanting to satisfy the curiosity.

How does this state of curiosity come around and more importantly, how can we develop it? In my recent perusing of books and research on the subject, most notably Curious by Ian Leslie and Riveted by Jim Davies, I couldn’t help but think of how curiosity is developed translating back to the world of running and training.

A Base of knowledge:

We often to think that curiosity is developed through this grand free flowing open spirited method. If we could only set our minds free from the trappings of our own mind and structure; perhaps exhibit some sort of freedom exhibited by Thoreau or any of the other’s writing who express this degree of independence. In modern society, the common complaint, perhaps rightfully so in some regards, is that schools inhibit any kind of curiosity and beats the wonder out of our kids. There’s been a suggestion to create more free flowing school, with kids following their interests or passions as they say.

But there’s one problem with this kind of thinking. The “boring stuff” matters. It matters a lot.


It’s often thought that if we know too much about a subject, our creativity decreases, but the opposite actually turns out to be true. As Peter Brown puts it in Make it Stick:

“Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.”

What research has shown is that what the basic foundation allows us to do is establish more connections. The wider base of support, or knowledge in this case, the more connections we can make. The key is the wide-ranging base of support, and not skipping the foundation. If we skip the foundation and “boring work” and just go for instant gratification of what interests us at that moment, we miss an opportunity to expand our future horizons.

 As we grow our knowledge in multiple domains, we can begin to connect seemingly unrelated concepts and ideas back to our own specialty. Curiosity kicks in as this motivating force that comes about by having enough familiarity with a subject by just enough incongruence to drive us towards finding an answer.

It’s related to our innate need to make meaning and patterns of the world. Biologically we’re primed through some nice hormonal contributions to be intrigued by slightly hard to see patterns. What knowledge and learning allows us to do is reach continually find new ways to see patterns.

As Jim Davies said in Riveted, “As we become familiar with a subject, such as a school of painting, or a language, or a musical style, we notice more and more of the patterns that make it up.”

As our knowledge base grows, our view expands. This phenomenon is what partially explains people’s interest in the seemingly random world of modern art. From an outsiders perspective, indeed from my own, it seems like a useless random piece of art work that we wonder why in the heck people are willing to pay so much for. What research (Taylor, 2011) has shown thought that these art works might have actually patterns that humans can pick up in them. Studying modern art like Jackson Pollock’s work, researchers have found “fractal” patterns in the paintings that people can actually pick out, based on eye gaze. What’s even more interesting though is that the more “well-trained” someone is in art, or looking at art, the better their able to pick up these patterns or pick up even more complex patterns.

I guess, contrary to my previous viewpoints, modern art isn’t random and may have a point?

The fascinating thing though, is the adaptation process that occurs. As Ian Leslie wrote in Curious, “The closer you look at anything, the more interesting it gets. But nobody tells you this” What happens is we can dig deeper and see the world through a slightly different lens. As we gain knowledge, the way we see the world shifts too, “Highly curious people, who have carefully cultivated their long term memories, live in a kind of augmented reality; everything they see is overlaid with additional layers of meaning and possibility, unavailable to ordinary observers”

The more knowledge, even of the basics, allows us to see things we never thought would connect.

My favorite way to illustrate this phenomenon is to look through my own intellectual history. High school me absolutely despised reading. If there was a movie, cliff notes, or some other way around reading some classical book, I would choose that route without even opening a book. There was the time in my senior year English class where I read the children's picture book of A Tale of Two Cities instead of attempting to read through any of it. As an 18 year old, I would rather have been put through the most brutal interval set filled with puking afterwards then read one page of such a book. Yet a decade later, I can be seen reading ancient classics like Marcus Aurellius Meditations, or any other myriad of books constantly. Why?  While there are numerous reasons, one that sticks out to me is how now I can relate and connect everything back to my own love of running and understanding the human condition, which wasn't possible until I gained a large enough base of knowledge in several areas. I couldn't connect any book I read in High School to anything that mattered to me.



The Curiosity of Training:

And as I sat at the recent Boulder Running Clinic speaking and listening to the likes of Vern Gambetta, Richie Hanson, and Charlie Kern, I couldn’t help tie this back. Everyone, from top to bottom, preached understanding and nailing the foundation first. Whether it was endurance, speed, mechanics, or strength, it was about getting the basics down.

It’s such a simple message. Understand and perfect the basics. But, we resist. We want to push forth and progress to the “interesting” workouts or skip to the advanced complicated drill, instruction, or training style.

So what we should take away from this is simple. The basics matter. It allows us to increase our connections to the specific work.

If we have a wide range of movement patterns, our efficiency is most likely going to be better, as we have a wider base of support to pull from. The same can be said for training. In presentations, I often post a picture of my training design workbook, where I show how different training types connect to each other.



And to me, that’s what training is all about. It’s about connecting. The more we can connect different workout types and mold them into the adaptations we want, the better we will be and the more flexible our athletes will be.

The larger foundation we have the more connections we can make. By having a larger base of support, our options and directions that we can go skyrockets, but we are also able to delve deeper into a particular workout. Exploring places in training that only open up and can be seen once our foundation is large enough.

This is one of the reasons why we most likely see athletes who are multi-sport athletes succeeding at high level sport. It runs contrary to the specialization, 10,000hrs hype that infiltrated sport in recent years. By spreading our athletic base over multiple supports, we’re creating a wide foundation of which we can latter connect to our own sport.

The same can be said for High School track and CC runners who skip straight to the fast interval work that might get quick results, but leaves athletes ill adapted aerobically, pure speed wise, and musculoskeletal wise to the progression of training that they will face in the future.

The way I see training is illustrated by this picture, which is actually a picture of a normal brain and a brain on psychedelics and the connections that are made in the brain. The goal of training is to build the outside circle early on that allows you create more of this valuable connections.



I can’t summarize it any better than Ian Leslie did in Curious. Tie this back into training, learning, or any endeavor and you are well on your way to success:

“Great ideas don’t just spring from the moment of the mental effort involved in trying to come up with one. Their roots extend back months, years, decades into their author’s life; they are products of long formed habits of mind as much as they are of flashes of brilliance….new knowledge is assimilated better, and has more creative possibilities the bigger the store of existing knowledge it is joining. Knowledge loves knowledge.”







Perceptual and physiological responses to Jackson Pollock’s fractals. Front. Hum. Neurosci., 22 June 2011

Episode 17- Falling into the trap to do more

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In the latest episode of the Magness and Marcus show, we discuss a familiar topic to all coaches, the trap to do more because you really don’t know what else to do. Yes, we’re talking about the age old problem of increasing work for the sake of increasing something. We begin with the diminished return and plateau effect and the mistaken and wrongly idealized linear growth mindset.

From here, we delve into how to manipulate variables and stressors to take an athlete slightly beyond their comfort zones to insure adaptation. Jon and I both talk about how we never repeat the same exact key workouts and what are reasoning behind that decision is.

After getting into the training a bit, we step back and take a look at some of the set patterns we fall into as coaches an athletes. Beginning with the issue of assigning importance to a component simply because we can now track or measure it, and then getting into relying on “default mode” workouts where we simply give a workout without really thinking about what we’re actually doing it. To get around this problem, we talk about responsive training and using a thinking pattern of breaking concepts down to their simplest components before trying to build them up.

In this podcast we also mention enough books to keep you busy for a few months!

Hopefully you all enjoy the podcast and let us know what you think.


Steve and Jon
@stevemagness
@jmarpdx



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Resources mentioned in this episode:

Upside of Stress  by Kelly McGonigal

What makes Olga run? by Bruce Grierson

Make it Stick by Peter Brown

The Rise by Sarah Lewis

TED talk- The first 20 hours- How to Learn Anything by Josh Kaufman

The reality of running professionally- Contracts, Agents, and having the right mindset

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In this episode, we open the doors wide open. We’re talking about the realities of post collegiate running. We take on a slew of topics in this hour long conversation, including transparent conversation on contracts, agents, how much athletes actually make, what training groups and coaches do, and much more. Basically, we try to spread what Jon and I have learned in dealing in the post collegiate realm.

In this episode, which we’ll call a reality check, we start off with discussing how athletes are essentially starving artists. What this means is that for the vast majority of us, it’s about the process and dedication to this process and not the financial reward that is the motivator. As a post collegian, you need to be self aware enough to know your own potential, limitations, and goals and when to chase your dreams and when to step away.

Beyond knowing what it takes, Jon and I give our opinions on what makes a successful professional runner. From their mindset, to their approach to racing, we delve into what makes people last for the long haul. In this same vein, we go over the attitude that new post collegians need to adopt “having power 5 talent with a mid major mindset” and why many look for the wrong things right out of college. One of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen in athletes coming out of college is in the “asking what you get” instead of asking what you can do. It’s about putting yourself in an environment where you can be successful, not necessarily chasing the environment that gives you the most money or prestige. We end off talking about how to find this environment and how it’s different for each athlete.

While this podcast is geared to a specific niche, we think that everyone will get some insight and knowledge from discussing a part of the sport that is seldom addressed. Consider this a glimpse of how to survive post collegiate running, or really anny transition in life.

Steve & Jon


Steve & Jon
@stevemagness
@jmarpdx



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Resources mentioned in this episode:

Taking Advantage of Distractions- Part 2

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In part two of our in person chat at the USA championships, Jon and I meander through a variety of topics surrounding distractions and performance. We start off with talking about taking the master chef approach. What’s this actually mean? It’s about how to get all of these different people to the same end game. Meaning that instead of following an exact recipe it’s about understanding and seeing the patterns but having the flexibility to work around it both in coaching and racing.

 From here, we dig into the difference between racing and time trialing and how we go about dealing with the fact that in the post collegiate world we spend the entire year racing one style (time trial) and then have to figure out how to run rounds and tactical races. How do we prepare for this and how do you get ready to prepare for the event demands in both styles.

 After that, we discuss the workout Wednesday response, where we tend to look at workouts as predictive. They aren’t. Athletes and coaches tend to think that “If I did X workout, then I should run Y,” when it doesn’t work like that. Instead of looking at workouts as predictive, we need to look at them as a simple way to adapt.

 To sum things up, it’s about reframing distractions as advantages. Don’t blow things up and make them bigger than they are, don’t use justifications, take advantage of the cards your dealt.

We hope you enjoy part 2 of our conversation on distractions. As always, reach out to us via twitter to let us know what you think and what you'd like to hear us talk about!


Steve & Jon
@stevemagness
@jmarpdx


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Resources mentioned in this episode:

Player's First: Coaching from the Inside Out- John Caliper

Strangers to Ourselves- Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious



Why we are bad at predicting our own behavior and what that means in coaching.

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I’m a science junkie. I admit it and while when I was a teenager I might have downplayed that side of me, now it’s something I wear quite openly on my sleeve. This couldn’t have been displayed more openly when at the post-USA’s Run Gum party, I was sitting at a table with coach Daniel Goetz, Phoebe Wright, Angela Bizzari and the Brooks crew talking about a study. Yes, I was at a post-race party, detailing a psychology study. If that doesn’t sum up me up, I’m not sure what will.

In a particular set of studies, they looked at how accurate people were at predicting their own behavior versus a stranger predicting their behavior. In one study, they had college students predict how nervous they’d be when talking with new people. The individuals were worse at predicting than people who had just met them. Another study looked at how well people could predict their future behaviors, in this case in purchasing flowers for a charity drive. 83% of the individuals predicted that they would buy flowers, while strangers predicted that 56% of the people would buy flowers. The actual percentage of people who bought flowers for the charity was 43%. So the strangers predicted behavior outcomes to a much larger degree. The same effect can be seen on giving donations and a lot of other behavioral outcomes.

The point is we suck at predicting our own behavior. As Timothy Wilson writes in his book, Strangers to Ourselves:

Episode 14- Taking advantage of distractions- Part 1

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Part 1-

Once again, Jon and I come to you from a coffee shop on location and simply talking shop. This week we’re covering distractions; how to deal with them, how do you adapt to them, and when they might be positive or negative.  We start out with the “Once A Runner” myth about living the life of zero distractions and how this might work for some, but it should be about learning how to thrive in a real environment. The oft-cited counter to this argument is the East African running only lifestyle. While this works well for them, the cultural differences and ADD type culture that infiltrates modern society, doesn’t allow for many Westerners to function in this type of set up. Instead of recovering during this type of environment, the “disease of doing nothing” creates a stressor because of ingrained societal norm of being a “productive worker bee.” It’s about finding balance in your life that allows for recovery and self-fulfillment.

From here, we jump to how to frame distractions and how pattern recognition is the key to successful coaching and performance. It’s about taking what your environment and conditions afford you and framing them as an advantage instead of a disadvantage. A great example of this is altitude vs. heat. Altitude has been framed as a positive adaptation because of the physiological benefits even though it makes you run slower workouts that feel consistently hotter. Yet, heat and humidity which makes workouts more difficult and slower in a similar way to altitude, is seen as a negative, despite similar positive shifts in blood volume, for example, that aid performance. Despite Frank Shorter training in Florida, the framing is different, although both offer benefits.

To end part 1 , we talk about Seth Godin’s principle of “just ship” and how we have to make mistakes, screw up, and fail fast to grow as coaches and athletes.

I hope you guys enjoyed another in-person podcast with Jon and I.

Thanks,
Steve & Jon

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Resources mentioned in this episode:

Strangers to Ourselves- Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious





Episode 13- Advice for a young coach- part 2

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In part two of Advice for a young coach, we start with the concept of coaching as a partnership versus a dictatorship. What does this mean? The goal should be to take athletes from dependence to independence, not the other way around. The goal of the coach shouldn’t be to prove their worth, but instead it’s to help the athlete foster independence so that they can be adaptable and ready under a wide range of situations, so that they are ready for whatever is coming at them.

From there we delve into what coaching actually is. Is it about collecting accolades, padding our resume’s, hitting PR’s, or is it about something else? Jon and I make the argument that it’s about development of people. Not just about hitting certain times, but developing people’s skills that not only help within the world of track and field, but also translate across life. One of the myths that comes along with that is that, excitement is dependent on the level of athlete you are working with. There is a great misnomer that the faster a person runs that you coach, the more enjoyment you get out of it, when the truth is that coaching is coaching, regardless of level. Along the same lines of this idea, is the trickle down effect where ideas/training/concepts come from the pro’s to the college to the HS level.

Finally, we summarize our thoughts with discussing how coaching should be about leaving your “space” in a better position than you found that. It’s about developing the culture, the team, and the circle that you have around you.


In the end, Jon put it best when he says that coaching is about relationships. We should continue to treat people with respect, kindness, and dignity, and above all treat people like actual people. If you work hard, accomplish that goal, then opportunities will present themselves.

As always, thanks for listening,

Steve & Jon


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