Science vs. Art of coaching- What actually is Science?
While reading the Carl Sagan book The Demon Haunted World, which is a classic about science, pseudoscience, and technology, I came across a section in which Sagan essentially discusses how science develops and what it actually is. His argument is that it’s really a method of seeing the world. Science isn’t the rote memorization and recitation of facts or the publication of experiments in journals, but a way of thinking. While there’s nothing new about this argument, I think it’s a clear enough distinction that is often forgotten in the world of declaring one a scientists because you have some advanced degree.
In particular, one of the examples he used struck home.
Sagan brought up the now well known story of African tribes hunting and tracking techniques. He takes us through how anthropologist study a particular tribe, the !Kung San people, as they tracked animals. What caught their eye was the in depth, and accurate, way in which the hunters tracked animals. They could distinguish the type of animal, if it was hurt, how long ago it passed through, the direction it went, and numerous other details just by a simple glance at the tracks and surrounding areas. While, we’re accustomed to seeing this in movies, when evaluated for how they did this, there were explanations of the depth of the depressions, the symmetry, whether there was “erosion” or a layer of dirt in the tracks, the swerve of the tracks and numerous other complex metrics. To accurately interpret all of this data, Sagan points out, the trackers would need to understand how the sun moves across the sky (for identification of wear shade is) during different parts of the year, how subsurface moisture impacts tracks, how different soil craters, and so forth. In essence, Sagan’s point:
“Is this really science? Does every tracker in the course of his training sit on his haunches for hours, following the slow degradation of animal footprint? When the anthropologist asks this question, the answer given is that the hunters have always used such methods. They observed their fathers and other accomplished hunters during their apprenticeships. They learned by imitation. The general principles were passed down from generation to generation. The local variance- wind speed, soil moisture- are updated as needed in each generation, or seasonally, or day-by-day…But modern scientist do just the same…”
Sagan goes on to compare this technique to how scientist judge craters in the moon in the same way that these trackers judge “craters” from animal tracks. But his point, is; these trackers developed this “scientific method” because of necessity. The good ideas (i.e. if the track is fresh, there’s no dust in it) survived because it increased the likelihood of catching the animal, while the bad ideas didn’t survive or get passed on. The tracking skills were refined over generations towards what worked best.
Further supporting this idea, Sagan points out that “Botanists and anthropologists have repeatedly found that all over the world hunter-gatherer peoples have distinguished the various species with the precision of Western taxonomist.” He concludes with “By his criteria hunter-gatherers ought to have science. I think they do. Or did.”
That statement is rather profound. Here we have a scientific titan, Carl Sagan, declaring that a group most of us would declare as ‘primitive’ have their own method of “science.”
What’s this got to do with coaching?
That lesson is one that translated rather nicely to the world of coaching. As I mentioned in a recent piece on Science vs. Coaching, I think sometimes we get stuck into this idea that science is the equivalent of journal articles and complex language that only experts truly understand.
People only think you are a “scientific coach/person/whatever” if you follow exact evidence based methods where you take whatever is in a journal as your method of training.
Instead, I prefer to follow Sagan’s ideas.
Similar to how hunter-gatherer’s refined their tracking skills and methods through evolutionary pressure to survive so that successful ideas stuck around , while less successful ones were discarded, coaching has followed a similar path.
Although that path is skewed and takes a wrong turn every once in a while, either by drug coaches/athletes distorting attainable training, popular fads that have limited success but a great presentation, or anything along similar lines; overall the good ideas stick around and the bad ideas get dropped. There is a selective pressure that drives coaching methods because in the end people want to succeed. The success gets imitated to a slightly larger degree than the unsuccessful; therefore the likelihood of a successful method gets passed on more readily increases.
I know I’ve discussed this at length, but it’s an important concept, so I’m going to hammer home on it.
Training knowledge evolves. It hasn’t been hundreds or thousands of years in refinement, but still we can see how training theory has changed appreciably over the past 100+ years. With each generation comes improvements (and wrong turns), but for the most part the improvements tend to outweigh the drawbacks. So we continually refine that process.
It’s this evolutionary system that makes training development a science. It’s a science in the same way that the hunter gatherers developed their skills. As coaches, we are figuring out what works so that we can survive. If what we do doesn’t work, our methods are simply weeded out. Yes, there will be wrong turns, like the 1990’s training era in the U.S., but corrections will be made. And overall, we’re in a better place now than we were decades before. Not because of actual scientific research, but more so because of this natural evolutionary pressure that is exerted on training.
For the scientist, this means, recognize this process. It’s like a multi-decade long study where we get clear data on what most likely works. Don’t discount it because of the lack of hard theory, research, or data behind it. For the coaches, look through history. Understand where we came from, so that we can know where to go.
There is value in understanding the path we’ve travelled to end up where we are training wise, where the wrong turns were, why they were made, and whether or not some pretty good idea mistakenly got left behind. It’s not a perfect process. There will be wrong turns whether from natural misguidedness (i.e. the popularization of a method that only works for a few) or from artificial means (i.e. steroids and PEDs shifting training design).The key is understanding what successful athletes were doing, why they were doing, and where we evolved to. If you understand this process, you’ll be able to better understand how to continue to evolve in your own training philosophy. And perhaps more importantly, reach back and realize the brilliance of some of those who have come before us, and perhaps realize the gem or two that mistakingly got left in the past which should have been carried forward. That’s where the next breakthrough in training theory lies.
The key is understanding what successful athletes were doing, why they were doing, and where we evolved to. If you understand this process, you’ll be able to better understand how to continue to evolve in your own training philosophy. And perhaps more importantly, reach back and realize the brilliance of some of those who have come before us, and perhaps realize the gem or two that mistakingly got left in the past which should have been carried forward. That’s where the next breakthrough in training theory lies.
So I’m going to end this post with a recommendation of historical training texts in the endurance running world which I think are a
How They Train by Fred Wilt
Run, Run, Run by Fred Wilt
any original Percy Cerutty book
Training With Cerutty– Myers
Arthurt Lydiard– (Go for any old/original copy!)
Running My Way– Harry Wilson
The Competitive Runners Training Book– Dillinger
The Van Aaken Method by Ernst Van Aaken
The mechanics of Athletics– Geoff Dyson
The original Track and Field Omnibook
Anything you can find on Igloi’s training methods
This is a really insightful post Steve. I think like with evolution (by natural selection) and science in general, coaching running should be subject to pressures which improve outcomes overtime. 1) There needs to be a clear metric of success; evolution=survival of a species, science=repeatability of results, and running=race times. 2) You need a clear recording of how: evolution=genes, science=peer journals, running=?.
So it seems to me that when good records are kept and shared about what one is doing (such as you do), running (and coaching of it) are well positioned for continued improvement.
This is great Steve. Its a concept that I am really struggling with as well. I am teaching a research methods class to some undergraduates and while my predisposition is towards the science I realize that theirs is more as the coach or athletic trainer or PT or someone interested in what I am calling "informal" research. It's not wrong but just has a different goal. Their "variable" is a lot wider scope and the approach is counter to the reductionist approach that is necessary for the scientist in the lab to take. Being able to convey those differences while still teaching the students to think like scientists is the real goal of the course at the moment. I may have to bring up this as an illustrative example.