Over the past week, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with Strength Coaches. It started with Vern Gambetta’s fabulous GAIN conference in Houston which brings a diverse group of coaches, trainers, and educators. Following the fire hose of information shot at you that is GAIN, I got to experience a different kind of education. I headed over to England, to act as an instructor at St. Mary’s University for their Master’s program. Once again, I found myself in the midst of dozens of students who were strength coaches, and two very smart and very respected coaches in Dan Baker and Dan John.
As someone who tends to find himself in the middle of different groups, such as between Sport Scientist and practical coaches, the opportunity to interact with and learn from those who see things from the other side.
Often times, when separated, endurance and speed/power folks often complain of the other side “not getting it.” It’s our tendency to fall into group-think and surround ourselves with individuals who reinforce our beliefs. When we fall into the trap of assuming the other side “doesn’t get it”, learning stops. We quickly retreat into the methods we are used to using, giving little thought to what the other side brings to the table. We shrug off the other side as simply not understanding what our side is truly about.
It’s not that we think strength coaches are evil or that endurance coaches know all, instead it’s our belief system that gets in the way. To enable our minds to handle the complexity of the real world, we tend to develop models of how we expect various aspects of the world to work. Whether that’s in theories of economics, training, or human interaction, we have models that shape our expectations on how the world should work. Everything runs smoothly until we run into information that counters this model.
When we face an idea that contradicts our natural view of the world, our minds tend to view it as a threat. When we encounter an idea or individual that reinforces our beliefs, the ‘reward’ areas in our brain light up. We feel good about it and we further substantiate that we must be right. Just as a crack addict searches for his next hit, our minds tend to search out for information that backs up our model, ignoring or downplaying details that might contradict our views.
When we do encounter contradictory information, instead of feel good reward centers, the areas in the brain linked to distress light up. We feel uncomfortable as we encounter a threat response. Like any good human, when faced with a threat that backs us into a corner, the brain goes into overdrive, attempting to eliminate this nasty feeling of discomfort and unease as quickly as possible (Westen et al. 2006). This explains why, when faced with a threat, we tend to go one of two ways:
- We manipulate the information to reinforce our belief system.
- We blame ourselves (NOT the belief system) and our misinterpretation.
As an example of the first line of thinking, in the classic study by Leon Festinger looking at a group of individuals who were convinced the world was going to end with a catastrophic flood at a certain date. When the date and time passed, and absolutely nothing happened, the believers didn’t interpret that as a sign they were simply wrong. Instead, they saw it as a sign that because of their organization and good behavior, they had in fact saved the world from the catastrophic flood. Yes, they were convinced 15 people sitting in an apartment concerned about a world-ending flood had saved humanity.
On strategy number two, in similar end of the world prophecies that inevitably go wrong, there is often a reinterpretation of the source data afterwards. It wasn’t that the belief was wrong; it was simply that we interpreted it wrong.
Threats and Dating
When a man walks into a bar or club, scoping out the potential prospects to talk to, the inevitable fear of rejection almost always surfaces. We’re worried about attempting to start up a conversation, only to get the cold shoulder or be flat out rejected. This rejection hits at our ego slightly, as this individual is sending the message that we aren’t worthy of their time. Often, men will go back to their buddies and rationalize and justify why this young beauty didn’t talk to them, often putting down the women or blowing it off as someone who has issues.
If we step back and look at it from the women’s point of view, what happens is subtly different. Attractive women who are sought after start from a threat response. Upon parking themselves at a table with their friends, the guard goes up, as those ingrained ancient instincts of scanning the environment for any possible threat kick in. If they are used to the bar scene, they put up a wall, in the hopes of only letting suitable individuals through that wall. Each man who approaches has to work their way through, proving that they are a match and not a threat.
While this aspect of human behavior is probably difficult to study and quantify, there’s some theories that to maximize your chances in successfully breaking through that line of defense, is not to use some creative pickup line, but to disarm the threat. If a man can convince a women he’s not a threat, and looking to blatantly obviously pick them up, then the threat system subsides, and the chances of a successful pick up increase. It’s about disarming the threat response.
While I’ll leave it up to you to test these theories, (or perhaps asking why in the world I know these things?), the point isn’t to give men a leg up and tell them to invoke strategies of showing you aren’t a threat to be more successful at the club. Instead, it’s that when we encounter others who threaten our particular model or belief system, the only way forward is often making sure that we disarm the individual.
Flexibility and Disarmament
Bringing this back to the world of endurance and strength training, what I noticed this past weekend was that the models we had created were flexible. These coaches, who were highly successful, did not automatically throw up a “threat” defense when confronted with different sports or different training modalities. Instead, they thrived to understand training from numerous different backgrounds, attempting to see
With only knowing Dan Baker and Dan John through their work and with only minimal conversations beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised when the students came up to me after they’d heard all of our initial talks, and told me that many of the same overarching philosophies were repeated among all three of us. Even though, Dan John came from throwing and then a variety of other sports, and Dan Baker comes from Australian Rugby, the same messages on training philosophy and what matters in coaching were the same.
My particular favorite part was when I presented a video of Percy Cerutty and Herb Elliott lifting weights and running up sand dunes. In the very next presentation and in the informal talks afterwards, both speakers brought up Cerutty independently. There was an appretiation for the strength training, sand dune running, and fartlek that Ceritty had mastered to develop performance in his athletes. There wasn’t a critique of some skinny distance runners lifting with what looks like sub-optimal form. Instead, we all admired the creativity and innovation of bringing these ideas into training at that time period. And it didn’t stop there, Dan Baker was as astute at using the classic Bannister vs. Landy battle with Landy looking over his left shoulder to emphasize a point as he was in utilizing an example from the world of speed and power
When the topic of lifting for female distance runners in a Division 1 university setting, Dan John didn’t throw out a blanket statement to get everyone in the weight room. Instead he mused about how most Division 1 weight rooms are uninviting to a distance runner, and perhaps the answer is simply to start with strength work outside, in a familiar setting. If athletes could perform various exercises out by the track to start, or even if a barbell could be brought outside, perhaps that might be the most effective way to get things done. There wasn’t talk about having to get in the weight room and reach a certain % of their body weight for a squat.
From looking at how science plays a complimentary role in explaining, while coaches tend to innovate to realizing that your coaching people, not simply writing a program, there were many common themes and understanding. While I’ll try to go through some of those in the future, the point to me was a simple one.
Normally, when people of different backgrounds come together, they start off with a threat response. They are no different than the young lady sitting in the corner of the bar, defense systems up, ready to shoot down the next guy who walks over and tries a line on her.
It’s the reason why republicans and democrats can’t talk civilly about a topic, or if they do, when debating, they get pushed further and further to the extreme instead of finding commonalities. Research consistently shows that when we feel our belief systems are threatened, it hardens our resolve and pushes us further towards staunchly defending them.
Instead, what I found in interacting with a variety of strength coaches who “get it”, is that the key isn’t digging down in the trench, ready to defend our systems to the death. The key was having flexible models based on a broad spectrum of understanding.
When you understand a variety of sports, knowing the science, art, and history to a degree, it opens us up to stepping away from our narrow view of the sporting world. We can understand why certain athletes might be scared to lift, or need to run mileage, or on the flip side, what kind of aerobic capacity a rugby or soccer player might need versus how much speed is needed to balance that out.
It was refreshing to go back and forth with numerous individuals across conferences and classrooms, who didn’t take the natural out and label the opposing side as “not getting it,” but instead were able to at least step back for a little bit, and understand where the other side was coming from.
Throughout the weekend, I got asked numerous times how to work with a particular endurance coach who was stuck in his ways and was wary of handing over their athletes to the S&C coach. Each time, I replied with similar advice. The first step is, just as with the woman at the bar, the coach is in threat mode. We need to disarm them, but showing that you are on the same side as them, not an adversary. As a strength coach, you need to step back, and try to understand where that coach is coming from and what he is trying to accomplish. You should go out and watch practice, understand the philosophy that particular coach uses to train his athletes. Then, and only then, can you start to make inroads on demonstrating that you can ADD something of value to their program. For each endurance coach, what you can add will vary widely. But your goal isn’t to wholesale introduce a complete program, but instead to gradually increase components in the gym that assist the athletes out on the track. It’s about attempting to see training through that coaches psychological framework. Only then, can you move forward.
It’s why coaching isn’t about specialization, it’s about generalization. We need to become master generalists who have an area of emphasis, but aren’t so caught up in our area that we can’t zoom out and see the big picture.
Related Books that may be of interest on the topic:
When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger
Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan
The Political Brain by Drew Westen