What Actually Matters- Concepts or Details?
As I sat on stage with several world-class performers, ranging from sprint to endurance, I couldn’t help but feel a little out of place. I was speaking at the Canadian National Endurance Conference in front of some very smart coaches and academics. On stage were guys like Dan Pfaff, Derek Evely, and Nic Bideau who had all achieved world class success dating back to before I knew what the sport of track and field was. Throw in my go to physiology guy, Trent Stellingwerf, and the always-intelligent Ricky Soos, and I felt pretty good about my instinct that I was out of place.
What caught my eye though in listening to these 5 speak multiple times over 3 days and presenting on a few topics myself, was how almost no one talked about the details. Overall, with 3 days of talks, only Ricky Soos’ was on the details of training design and his was based on a case study of training his wife. That was it. That was the only presentation where we saw actual workout details.
Yet, having spoken at numerous conferences, those are the most requested topics. As a young coach going to clinics and talks, that’s the information, I wanted. I fell for the trap of desiring to know exactly what X expert did to get his athlete to run some unbelievable time.
Because the details are the sexy stuff. It’s the info that we can immediately go home, plug into our training paradigm and feel good that we got something useful out of this conference that we took time and money to attend.
The nebulous higher level concepts don’t leave us with the feel-goodness when we go home. We actually have to read through our notes to decipher what the heck the speaker was going on about and then take the next step and decide how to translate that information to something usable.
In sitting back and watching the other speakers talk, it’s this higher level work that ultimately matters. Yes, the details are great and important, but they get thrown out the windown when, as Dan Pfaff told us Greg Rutherford could only weight train once every 10 days because of injuries. Then, that glorious plan and workout progression based on the intricate science of stress and adaptation, is almost worthless
The only way to figure out how to solve the problem of only lifting once every week plus, is in understanding the overarching concepts. And that’s what this conference seemed to be about. The coaches who spoke were explaining their thought process behind why they were doing the things they were, from travel to training camps to utilization of science. It was an exploration of why they did the things they did.
Now I’m not here to hype up the Canadian Endurance Coaches Conference. Instead, I think it’s a great demonstration of what actually matters.
Our tendency to get wrapped up in the details, whether to do X or Y workout, often holds us back. We get caught in details level thinking, forgetting why we are doing that workout in the first place.
I’m not saying that we should forget about the details level and live in the nebulous land of philosophy, but instead that we should progress from a global view before getting down to the nitty gritty. When I look at training I like to separate it out to three different levels:
The top level are my overall philosophies for training. Something as simple as “Athlete + Event–> Training Model” is a philosophy. These are the overarching principles that provide a foundation to guide you.
Go down a level and we get the concepts that matter in handling training. At the concept level, the goal is to understand how to take the philosophies and put them into action. If we have an overarching principle of balancing speed and endurance, then at the concepts level we’d look at what the event demands of the event are, the athlete’s characteristics, and what types of work we might need to balance it out. Essentially, we’re working one level closer. We are figuring out the ideas without reaching the messy details. I might decide for this athlete, for example, that in order to reach this balance, he might need to emphasize pure speed to a higher degree.
Only then do we reach the bottom level where the details of the workout reside. The workout details are dependent on the more global levels. The global views guide what the workout is. Then we dive into the messy details on figuring out how to exactly manipulate the workout to reach our desired goals. As an example, for a middle distance athlete developing their aerobic system we might have to decide between really short intervals with short rest (200 reps with 100m jog) or longer repeats that are slower with longer rest (800s with 3min rest). From there, we might have to decide how to progress the workout the next time we perform it.
The point is, that the overarching principles and concepts guide the process. It’s about continually breaking ideas down into simpler and simpler components. When coaches give presentations and talk only about workout specifics, you get workout designs, but you don’t get the reasons behind them. The key isn’t that Joe did 8×400 with 1min rest in 58. It’s why that athlete did that workout, with those components, at that time of the year, surrounded by the runs and workouts that it was.
When we’re first developing as a coach, it’s tempting to reverse the process and let our workouts be the starting point and then come up with a story to explain why we are doing these workouts. It’s easy to give justification for why you are doing something if you are knowledgable enough.
When reflecting on what I learned from participating in this clinic, I think, more than how these coaches accomplished what they did, is the way in which they all try to progress their profession. It’s a search for understanding what actually matters. Only after deciding what their “key performance indicators” are do they worry about the details on how to actually improve them.So next time you go to a coaching conference, while everyone else is scribbling down the exact details of X athletes workouts, pay attention to the explanations. Understand the why’s, and piece together the principles they use to guide their decisions.
I would still appreciate it if the details could at least drive the conversation. I believe the true genius emerges as coaches describe why an athlete did that workout on that day. And even more importantly how the results of that workout dictated the following workouts in a progression. Most books, presentations, etc. love to isolate specific activities and fail to describe the actual process and how it emerges over the course of a particular training cycle.