“This workout is going to make a difference. Start with 100 meters, lengthen out the rep distance by 10 meters, increase the speed by…” Joe Vigil was in full workout mode.
A master of his craft, a man who was always pushing to learn more, Joe Vigil is the epitome of a lifelong coach. I’d heard the stories and read his book, but it wasn’t until I ventured to a conference, did I understand what Vigil was all about.
“Every morning I wake up and read research related to running,” he explained to the clinic.
After his talk, everyone gave praise, but there was also a distinct undercurrent; “Vigil is great, but he’s too scientific. There’s too much going on.” How could something as simple as running need that much complexity?
It was a subtle critique. Vigil knew too much.
The Curse of Knowledge
Growing up in the world of athletics, I’ve always been struck by this notion. We’re told that if you learn too much, you’ll lose your feel for the game. If you become too scientific, your ability to coach will deteriorate. You’ll be mindlessly lost in the details as if we have no control over the depths at which we consider workouts or ideas. Too much knowledge is dangerous.
In his book Curious, author Ian Leslie details out a theory of how knowledge, curiosity, and intrigue develop.
“Great ideas don’t just spring from the moment of the mental effort involved in trying to come up with one. Their roots extend back months, years, decades into their author’s life; they are products of long formed habits of mind as much as they are of flashes of brilliance….new knowledge is assimilated better, and has more creative possibilities the bigger the store of existing knowledge it is joining. Knowledge loves knowledge.”
We need the “boring” stuff, the foundational pieces that allow us to understand and speak the language of our craft. Tempo runs, Intervals, mileage, aerobic, anaerobic. Once we understand the basics, it’s time for exploration. We branch out to different subjects, connecting ideas back to our foundational base. During this phase, perhaps we turn to swimming, taking note of the ways they develop their lactate thresholds using intervals, instead of the traditional runner’s tempo run.
The deeper our knowledge runs, the more potential we have to connect ideas back to our foundation.
As Leslie points out, “People who know more about a subject have a kind of x-ray vision, they can zero in on a problem’s underlying fundamentals, rather than using up their brain’s processing power on getting to grips with the information in which the problem comes wrapped.”
In other words, expertise does not lead to an obsession with the details, but, instead, an ability to quickly sort what is relevant and what is not. When Tom Tellez watches a runner, he doesn’t take 30 minutes to calculate precise shin angles, the angular momentum of the lower leg, or any other nonsense.
He already knows it. No, not precisely. He has heuristics in his head for what it should look like and how the whole system interacts. That knowledge is there because he understands biomechanics at a deep level, and has enough experience to process it and apply it incredibly quickly. In other words, knowledge, both scientific and practical, intertwine to allow him to find the solution.
It’s a science. And an art.
When I first started going to coaching conferences or interacting with coaches, the idea of a scientific versus an artistic approach to coaching was always present. In one corner you had the coaches who would spew VO2max and related info, and in the other, coaches who would speak about “strength, speed, and toughness.” Do you rely on science or are you intuitive?
As someone with a deep interest in the science, I was quickly labeled. And with that label comes an assumption. Joe Vigil is one of the most successful coaches on the planet, having had success at every level, yet, not even he can escape a label.
Yet, when we ask whether you utilize a scientific or artistic approach, we are asking the wrong question. It shouldn’t be science or art that dominates, it’s not an either/or answer we are after.
Instead, we need to ask why we care about such labels? In portraying the question as science versus art, we are actually after another question, how do you make decisions?
Do you rely on a deep understanding of the scientific process or, perhaps, an intuitive style honed from years of trial and error?
Often, in the sport and athletics world, we put down the quest for knowledge. Our ancient jock roots pull us toward an appreciation for the intuitive, the old school. We fall back on how we were taught or how we played the game. Our sayings and lessons sound mightily similar to those our own coach once yelled at us. In a strange way, too much knowledge is often frowned upon.
With the rise of the internet and the sharing economy, this idea has slowly faded, but it still exists. Spend too much time dissecting mitochondrial biogenesis or hemoglobin development, and you get labeled as a “science” person, incapable of understanding the artistic mastery of dealing with real live people.
The problem lies in our conceptualization of this science vs. art debate. We’ve decided that these two concepts are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
When we pit ideas against each other, we force an artificial choice. Science or Art. Knowledge or Application. Street Smarts or School Smarts. In so doing, we’ve created artificial constraints that handicap our growth.
Instead of seeing science and art on a straight line continuum, maybe it’s time to take a note from the authors Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen, when they explored the dichotomy of specialist versus generalist. Traditionally, we’ve seen these two concepts on opposite ends of the spectrum, but Martin and Mikkelsen argue that we do a disservice by plotting them in such a way. Instead, as they outline in their book, it should look more like an infinite loop. As the authors state “As the context shifts, so does the individual. We experience hyperlinked, disjointed travels on the continuum. Sometimes we specialize, sometimes we generalize, regardless of where our preferences lie.”
So when a person obtains knowledge, we say things like “He knows a lot, but he can’t apply it.” As if knowing and applying are mutually exclusive. We’ve fallen into the trap of conceptualizing on a straight line. The reality though is that “art” of coaching is science, and science is art. They fold back on one another, and where we go and what we use, depends on what we need in the moment. But it’s much better to be able to have the understanding, knowledge, and tools at our disposal than to naively think that we must choose to be an artist or a scientist.