When I first got interested in learning more about coaching and the science behind it, one of my mentors, Tom Tellez, told me about the process of learning. When you are new to a particular topic, everything seems intriguing and complex. You don’t have a built in filter, as you don’t know what is right, wrong, or controversial. It’s a very intimidating time in the learning curve.

In essence, you haven’t built the model in your head of how a particular aspect works. So there’s no model to compare the information your reading to. The goal therefore is to build that model. Coach Tellez explained it, in his own usually precise way “that you need to just keep reading. It won’t make much sense at first. But as you read more, eventually it will clear up and all of the sudden you can tell within the first paragraph whether you should read the article or throw it away.”

His point was that you have to have a foundation upon which to decide whether something is worthwhile or not. Once you have that foundation, it’s all about filtering the information.

How to filter?

In the information age where we get our information and how we process it is perhaps one of the most fundamental skills that we need to develop. In the past 10 years there’s been a democratization of information. No longer are those in the know, who can afford it, or connected, the ones who have all of the information. Now we can find information on top level athletes training, the latest scientific research, and any other random persons opinion on the latest trend.

The issue we face is how to decide whether it’s good or bad.

For example, a study I was looking at the other day testing a training program using “the most up to date science” had athletes doing 5 days a week of intervals to exhaustion with between 30sec-2min reps, and 1 day of a 30min run, to improve aerobic endurance. Now these were very smart scientists in their field who came up with the idea. To us coaches, it looks like a throwback to 1920-40’s track training with Woldemir Gerschler. In other words, a horribly out of date program.

The point isn’t to question the intelligence of someone designing that program, but instead to show how where we get our information matters. Seen through a modern context, the researchers probably took it from the recent HIIT( High-Intensity Interval Training) research out there, and just took it to an extreme. The problem is their model, and thus their filter, wasn’t well developed enough to understand the flaws of this approach.

The point is, even the smartest people are susceptible to filter malfunction.

BS Detecting:

With so much information out there, one of my interests has become how do we figure out and decide  what is good or bad. In my book, I explain the concept of my grad advisor, Dr. Jason Winchester, 3 stool model (theory, research, practice) of deciding whether something works or not. But what I’d like to share is some of the methods I like to use when reading a new article or listening to someone at a conference.

In the slide above, I list 5 of the big tell tale signs for someone who is trying to fake it and really doesn’t know what they are talking about. But what I’d like to talk about is the manipulation of vocabulary and the complexification of subjects.

The Big Word Phenomenon:

Coach Tellez was also fond of telling me his hatred of presenters at coaching clinics who would use big, complex sounding words to woo people into thinking they know what they are talking about. Now, when you are talking about a topic like sprinting biomechanics of course some technical words need to be used, but his point was that using complex vocabulary and explanation when it didn’t need to be was a sure sign of someone didn’t fully understand what he was talking about.

The reasoning is pretty simple, when you truly master a concept, or at least have a working model of it in your head, you can distill that model down into a useable form. You don’t have to try to make it sound like you understand it.

If you don’t full understand the concept, then you are either consciously or sub-consciously aware of that fact. So as a form of insecurity almost, you spice up the language and complexity to convince both yourself and your audience that you actually know what your talking about.

If you know enough to be dangerous, you try really hard to make sure you check off the right words to say and tend to talk in more rigid technical talk, even if you don’t need to. You are trying to create the impression that you know more.

Ever since I published a book and gained some perceived expertise I get to see this phenomenon all of the time. I’ll have some young exercise science or running enthusiast come up to me and try to talk in technical terms or ask a somewhat technical question. They’re essentially doing that as a first impression to say “hey, listen, I know what I’m talking about,”.  You see the same effect in undergrad and grad classes, as students that my college runners would call “try hards” try to phrase a question in a seemingly complex way so as to get noticed and seen as smart.

Someone like Coach Tellez didn’t need to convince anyone he knew what he was talking about. He just did. Which is what you see with most true experts.  They can take complex ideas and distill them down into at least someone simpler concepts.


The simple explanation for why we do this is that we’re exploiting human nature. Fake it till we make it.  It’s almost as if we are trying to reassure our selves or prop up our depleted self confidence by using complex language.

We are balancing out our slight lack of knowledge with an overcompensation or overcorrection in our technical explanation.

Research in the world of psychology has shown that how we view concepts changes based on the vocabulary used.  For instance, a 2008 study showed that when researchers made an exercise routine hard to read, they judged the actual exercise routine as more difficult to perform than when the routine was easy to read.

The reason is that the fluency of processing was made more difficult, so because it was harder to process, the perception of difficulty for the exercise was increased too. The same phenomenon happens when using bigger words. When we use unfamiliar vocabulary it decreases processing fluency too. When processing fluency drops and difficulty increases, we perceive whatever we read or heard as requiring more skill or intelligence. A 2013 study using vocabulary to impact fluency found that:

“When reading information about a target service, consumers interpret the difficulty of processing information as a signal of the level of difficulty and skills required to execute the task, which highlights the expected utility of the agent.”
The catch was that the person using the words had to have some level of perceived competency in order for the “big words” trick to work.

So what?
The point is to be aware of it. We all use it and do it. In fact, the researchers from the above mentioned 2013 study pointed out nicely that “”Dim lights, hard-to-read menu fonts, and long and convoluted dish names are frequently used in fine dining restaurants.” And those tactics work for the reasons mentioned above.

Next time you go to a conference pay attention to the speakers. Are they complexifiers or simplifiers? And the thing is, we all do it. Without knowing it sometimes. We’ve all fallen into the trap of trying to make ourselves sound smart.

So next time you start pulling out the big vocal words and complexifying the topic, step back and ask if you really have a full grasp at what you are explaining.



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    1. George Beinhorn on September 18, 2014 at 10:57 pm

      I see this all the time. In fact, it's an absolute rule in the strength training, body building, and power lifting world that everybody does all of these things all of the time. In fact, it's so common that I would add two BS signals to watch out for specifically in the iron-pumping world:

      1. "Research says." Iron heads absolutely love studies that prove that what they like to do is right. And there are a ton of studies that will tell you that high-intensity intervals improve VO2Max faster than "aerobic training," whatever that is (we're supposed to visualize gentle joggers doing 12-minute pace).

      2. "My Own Little Island." The iron pumpers will absolutely not look at research – much less, experience – outside of what they believe. In this behavior, they are exactly like fundamentalists everywhere. If it weren't so utterly ignorant, it would be funny – how they willfully put their fingers in their ears when you try to tell them that Lydiard's Olympic medalists did their three main workouts at, or very near, the top of their maximum aerobic pace (and somewhat above it on the climbs) – this means 6:30 to 6-minute pace for 22 miles over mountainous terrain toward the end of the aerobic base phase. That is not anybody's grandma jogging.

      The muscle heads are as dyed in their own wool as southern snake handlers, ISIL/ISIS killers, or Richard Dawkins, the biologist-atheist who wouldn't condescend even to look at Rupert Sheldrake's studies that suggest the existence of consciousness outside the brain.

      Hearing them talk is maddening. It's like that old joke about St. Peter who's giving a newcomer to heaven the grand tour of the place. They pass a block with high walls and the newcomer asks, "What's that?" St. Peter says, "Oh, hush, let's tiptoe as we go by. Those are the Catholics – they don't know there's anybody else here.

      • leonids11 on September 27, 2014 at 8:22 pm

        Mountains of BS are detectable in "studies that suggest the existence of consciousness outside the brain." As the name of this website indicates, Steve advocates the use of science, not pseudoscience.

    2. Hibernation on September 19, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      Really well devised article Steve. I find I catch myself doing this some times. If I'm on a particular focus – researching a topic for example – and start bringing that new information into coaching… It takes a little while to feel like I have the communication, or perhaps teaching ability to do this well. The good thing, is that the BS filtration system can be used to help you see that you need more work on a topic to really "get" it, and to be able to teach it ideally.

      I find this to be a big challenge in athlete education overall. With so much info, so available, people with minimal background or no science background take huge amounts of info and try to assemble it. It can make it very hard to communicate with athletes some times when they want what they are doing to appear complex and high tech – because that's what the latest podcast suggested their thinking and training should be.

      Simple is a good litmus test for my understanding, for my athletes understanding, and for the sake of my coach athlete relationship.

      Thanks for getting me thinking today –
      Will Kirousis

    3. skyislandrun on October 15, 2014 at 1:13 pm

      Great blog.

      Whenever I see HIIT or CrossFit come up, the big word syndrome seems not far behind. And then close on their heels are Paleo and unstable surface training.

      I like to occasionally just sort these things in terms of math. For instance, I recently saw someone note that even trained athletes tend to spend most of their time below their ventilatory threshold (big word, there) when they are not specifically doing intense training. It's called being alive, and most people don't view this state as a problem. His prescription was ballistic and high intensity training matching the total length of the athlete's sport. The specific context was recreational skiing, where a full day at a ski resort may involve over an hour of active skiing downhill. So, an hour of ballistic and high intensity training? Really? No wonder some of these people train their athletes into kidney failure. Math fail. Big word success.

    4. […] Magness put together a great blog post a few years ago on his filter. Steve was a guest recently on GAINcast 70 and GAINcast […]

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