What’s your bias?

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when we start discussing what is important to a particular outcome, which is very much a result of our innate psychological need to value our knowledge and our selves.  As someone who has his hat in many different areas of sports performance and who recently has been venturing outside the confined world of endurance development, I’ve got to see this effect first hand.

On the training side, if I were to ask a group of traditionally trained strength coaches what they see in the training of endurance athletes, the group would most likely go on about the frustrating resistance of endurance athletes to incorporate strength and conditioning practices, plyometrics, and power work into their regime. If I was to talk to a speed/sprint coach, they’d lament the lack of pure speed work in the program and how endurance coaches were obsessed with “mileage” and have their athletes spend much of their training time using  “bad movement patterns.” The endurance coach would counter with the importance of aerobic development and most likely quote the dearth of performances in the 1990’s in American distance running as
evidence against the too low mileage phenomenon.

If we brought sports scientists into the fold, we’d hear about evidence based workouts, perhaps Billat’s 30/30, or the importance of tracking, measuring, and improving parameters like running economy, VO2max, and lactate threshold. While the physiotherapist might say that the lack of foundational movement and dysfunction, or in other words the chassis of the car and not the engine, in most distance runners is what is
holding them back.

If you spread yourself around and go to different conferences and engage in quality conversation with different coaches, athletes, and scientist, these themes will come up again and again. It’s not limited to the world of distance running, or even sports, but applies to almost any situation looking to maximize some endeavor.

Some 40+ years ago, athletics coach and author of one of my favorite books “The Mechanics of Athletics” summed up similar thoughts on how different people see performance.

“In his study of athletic performance the modern coach stands at the crossroads of several sciences. Thus, to the physiologist, athletic performance is a phenomenon of cells, humours, tissues and nutrient fluids obeying organic laws. The psychologist sees the athlete as a consciousness and a personality, while to the physicist he suggests a machine unique in its organization, adaptiveness and complexity. To the imaginative coach the borders of these and other specialties are seen to overlap; the techniques of one science become meaningful and illuminating in others.” Geoff Dyson

The point is, the reason there are so many different opinions, reasoning, and justifications, should show how complex performance in any endeavor actually is. But beyond that, it displays a particular fault in human nature, our innate bias towards what we know, do, and experience.

The issue with bias:

How we see the world is created by our past experiences. In terms of training, the model we have in our head for performance is a result of how we learned our craft. What route we took, what worked in the past, what failed miserably, and who influenced us along the way.

It seems obvious, but this creates a bias towards favoring what we know and what we do. It’s the reason many different intelligent people see performance from so many different angles. The strength coach, who feels more competent and comfortable in the world of sets, reps, and loading sees the world through a strength and conditioning tainted lens, just as the distance running coach sees a different shade when evaluating the same athlete.

Why should we be concerned with our bias? As Seattle Sounders conditioning expert, Dave Tenney pointed out:

“Coaches, I find, prefer certain types of training which will overload some positions, and under load others.”

We prefer certain types of training because we are innately biased towards them, and it leaves a distinct signature on our training programs.

In the running world, you can look at a coaches training design and see who is major influences were growing up, whether it was Coe, Lydiard, Daniels, or any myriad of other coaches. These signatures are left behind, but it goes beyond our many influences.

As an athlete, did you have a propensity to overtrain and underachieve? Then you most likely are a cautious coach who tends to undertrain athletes now. Did you do too much heavy anaerobic interval training growing up? Then you probably found your way to a more aerobic based program and shy away from heavy doses of interval work. In your coaching career, did you “screw up” a kid when peaking by doing too much of a taper, then you’re likely to be scared away from tapering in the future.

All of these decisions and experience influence our bias.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have some degree of bias. After all, many of “default” patterns exist because they worked in the past. Learning from what has worked is obviously a good thing. But we need to be sure we don’t get stuck in autopilot mode, defaulting to our norms because that is what we are comfortable with.

Often times, we go into default mode when we are either unsure what to do, faced with a challenging decision, or on the opposite side, stuck in autopilot mode. We reinforce our bias by becoming more insulated in our particular side of the sport. If we are a distance coach, we might get labeled as a 5k/10k and train even our middle distance athletes as an extension of that philosophy. Or we might take our sprint bias and apply that to the 800/1500 athletes who may need to go in the opposite direction.

Or, as Dave Tenney pointed out, in the realm of team sports, our training of either extremes of positional demands, will slowly gravitate towards the middle ground of our norm. The explosive Fast-Twitch forward may take on more characteristics of our endurance based midfielder if that’s our area of expertise.

Being aware of when your bias is taking over is paramount. It’s not always a bad thing, but understanding when it occurs is necessary, because we are going to face individual athletes who go against the grain of our natural tendencies. We are going to face sports or challenges that force us to train in a way that challenge our norms.

So what?

The point is this. As a coach, you have to be a generalist.The further specialized and segmented we become, the more insulated our worldview becomes. We start seeing things through a thicker lens of bias.

Get outside your comfort zone. Don’t go to conferences where you show up and everyone nods their head in agreement and the whole group ends the weekend feeling like they have solved the worlds issues, only to enter a world with many more degress of uncertainty and shades of grey. Step outside your particular worldview. It helps you recognize and alleviate your natural bias.

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    1. Boris Hornbei on August 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      The thought occurs: with so many influences and so many options – try what works. If Lydiard's athletes have scored more records and medals, choose Lydiard. Second step: then fine-tune Lydiard to YOUR OWN needs and abilities, and supplement him as you personally need to. Example: I choose Lydiard because his athletes have the results. But I see that every superstar high school female runner today either cross-trains with a second sport, e.g., swimming, or she comes from triathlon. Hm, I ponder – I can get a major aerobic training effect without busting my whole body, if I swim 1-2 days a week. And I can get big-time training for the major running muscles – in the thighs – by riding the bike everywhere and doing a fairly hard ride 1-2 days a week.

      And then, of course, you've got to know how the grab-bag of proven methods applies to YOU. This is why the best coaches, including Steve, are one-hundred percent individually oriented. They are fanatically focused on getting to know the individual runner and his/her needs. A fine example is Bill Aris, coach of the Fayetteville-Manlius girls cross-country teams that have won seven Nike NXN Nationals. Bill says he spends 80 percent of his coaching time not on planning workouts but getting to know each runner and helping them advance, step by step, at their own level. It's very inspiring – and obviously it works.

      If you don't have a coach, of course, you're on your own. You can learn from what the best coaches do and apply it to yourself. Know that you must balance calm, focused intuition – listen to your body very hard and have the discipline to do what it tells you. And be fanatical about your training diary and about collecting tidbits of hard, objective information from here and there. Remember that happy runners are the most successful runners. If you're starting to feel over-pushed and unhappy, irritable with a runny nose, it's time to re-evaluate. Happiness is a sign of good training. Pretty neat, huh?

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