How do you think? It seems like a silly question to ask. After all, thinking is something we take for granted. It occurs naturally if we simply pause for a moment and let our mind go to work.

What if the question was, what do you do when you encounter a problem in an athletes training? Perhaps he looks flat or tired, or she is just running a little slower than expected. How do you solve that problem? Do you step back and spend 20 minutes in front of a notebook deliberating on solutions? Do you call friends, search the internet, read a textbook? Maybe you run through a checklist of potential problems that you’ve read about, or perhaps you go with your gut instinct and declare that the solution is to X, Y, or Z.

What about when designing training? Are you thorough and deliberate, sketching out training for months in advance to ‘solve’ the problem of getting an athlete better? Or are you intuitive, waiting until the day of to decide what to do?

In his book Intuition Pumps, philosopher Dan Dennett offers a variety of strategies for thinking that attempts to address this issue. If we can improve our thinking, then our decision making and problem-solving will improve as well. Maybe we take another person’s perspective or break the issue down to its simplest components.  Dennett is following the long history of philosophers of creating different thought experiments which help him clarify his thinking. By adding deliberation and intent to the often neglected act of thinking, it allows us to reach beyond our default solutions and to innovative or novel ways to solve problems.

This method of attacking issues is seldom utilized in the sporting world. Instead, we tend to default. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, falling back on what I learned from some coach or in a seminar instead of doing the deep work to look at the problem in another way. Take for example, the warm-up. Why do we all perform a warm-up that looks remarkably similar? A jog, some drills, and some strides, all starting about an hour before our race. It’s an ingrained pattern that’s developed through some combination of history, coaches knowledge, and a dash of scientific rational.

But what happens if we critically evaluate the warm-up? Not just from a scientific perspective, but by utilizing thought experiments. What would we do differently if we were constrained to 30 minutes, or we had a 30-minute break before our event started where we couldn’t move much? Or what if we only had a small field to get ready on? What would we do if we couldn’t jog?

Answering questions that take you outside of your default setting helps get to the root of why we do what we do, and also potentially gives insight new methods of attacking a problem. For example, for a variety of circumstances, we had an athlete who couldn’t jog before his race, so he solved the issue by jumping rope and doing some drills. He ran an indoor PR of 1:51 for the 800m. Was it ideal? Of course not, but it provided a wrinkle in our warm-up routines.

Thought experiments are particularly helpful when it comes to training design. Give yourself a variety of constraints and then ask how you would solve that problem. For example, imagine the following scenarios:

  • How would you train a potential elite level marathoner who couldn’t run over 45 miles per week?
  • How would you train if you couldn’t do tempo runs? How would you get that benefit?
  • What would happen if you based your training on biomechanical or psychological framework instead of an energy system one? How would your training approach change?
  • How would you develop strength if you had no weight room or weights to utilize?
  • Can you simulate the benefit of hills if you don’t have a hill in sight?
  • How would training look if you had only 6 weeks to get an athlete ready for his peak competition?

By asking questions that have constraints on them, it forces you outside of your comfort zone. It makes you escape your default mode of thinking. It flexes your problem solving muscle. And you’ll likely find solutions that apply to your non-constrained situation.

For example, in my own coaching, some of the moments where I learned and grew the most were when such constraints were forced upon me. When I had to figure out how to train a high-school athlete who was coming off Mono and prepare him for a state championship. Mono forced us to limit the intensity and volume of work, and instead utilize small spices of workouts to get adaptations. Or when I had an athlete who couldn’t run more than 3 days per week. How do you decide what workouts to give and how to make up for the lost volume related adaptations? It cemented what’s most important in my training philosophy.

Those are but a few examples, but we can get the same effect without having to be put in that actual scenario. By utilizing thought experiments, we can challenge our thinking and find new ways to solve the training or coaching problems that we face. Every week I take 30 minutes and try to give myself a ‘what if’ question. For the next half hour I scribble notes on how I might handle a constrained situation. It’s a valuable exercise that helps clear the cobwebs, and force me out of my default mode of solving coaching issues.

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Coaches: Make Time to THINK!

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