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Coaching and the Curse of Conventional Wisdom - An introduction

It’s amazing how far the human race has come in such a short time, if we look back just 20 years the World is unrecognisable from the World we live in today. This advancement comes about as new generations learn from the wisdom of previous generations and build upon and grow from that point. Almost to the point where yesterdays genius should be today’s average!

Within the coaching World there seems to have been a sticking point with wisdom and even a step backwards, in the last few years we have seen a lot of top performers and coach’s being described as old school, moving away from the system of coaching created over the last 20 years and the results show they are justified in doing so. The question now is does this mean we can’t advance and improve on the past? I certainly do not think this is the case and to see how we can start moving forward again I think we need to start by looking at what went wrong.

Over the last 20 years science and technology has dominated our evolution in both life and sport. In sport we saw the surge of sports science, the invention and wide spread use of heart rate monitors promising to make training precise and remove any fluff training time and make sure every second counted. This was followed by power meters on the bike, altitude tents for sleeping and altitude and temperature controlled chambers for training, all the tools we could think of and utilise to enhance performance. When we look back though did we actually see the great breakthrough’s promised with this technology or have we actually seen a stall in performance and even taken a step backwards?

Looking back the last 20 years was about measurement, the intention of coaching and sports science was definitely to enhance performance but the reality was a drive to make everything measurable. This was driven by universities and organisations teaching coaching qualifications, by sports organising bodies heavily investing into coaching and individuals to bring about top level success. To justify the funding given to sports the organisations demanded to see measurements of performance and progress. At the very top level, what they were looking for was Olympic success, but has the constant demand for training data and evidence of day to day progress actually prevented developments in the sport and stalled performance?

You can see a clear parallel with this in today’s teaching methods in mainstream schools, the curriculum has moved away from advancement and pushing the envelope of learning to simply making everything as measurable as possible - teachers are now forced to teach pupils how to pass exams not how to learn and advance knowledge. With the advancements and change within the World over the last years its a crime that children should still be following the same curriculum as those 10 and even 20 years before them.

Today’s conventional wisdom is based around a computer model, our conventional wisdom thinks of each athlete as the same system, that we apply an input and get the same result. The reality though is that humans are not computers, we do not input one thing and get the same result from each individual. The beauty of the human race is we are all individuals and we all have slightly different genetic makeup. The result of this is no two individuals are going to respond the same way to the same training stimulus.

We are not machines on the physical front, but when it comes to training and performance psychological factors also play a huge roll. Even if 2 athletes had the exact same genetic makeup and were given the same training they would be separated by what is happening mentally alongside the training, there are just so many elements that need to be taken into account in order to coach an individual to achieve their best performance.

With all our knowledge and all the tools available to athletes today we should be seeing great advancements in performance. There is no question we are starting to see some coaches take advantage of this but on the whole we need to stop and look at what is going on in order to get back to moving our wisdom forward. We do not want to look back in 20 years time and see we have learned nothing and we are using the same training protocols as today.

To do this in sport i think we need to take a step back and look to the past as the old school training methods worked and they worked well, we need to go back and learn what was being done by the top coaches at the time and then using our current technology we can learn why and how to advance them.

A great example of this can be seen with sprinting, Ben Johnson winning the Olympic 100m gold in 1988 saw a huge leap forward in performance but his result has always been put down to his drug abuse. When we look back now all but two of the athletes in that race have been tainted by drugs, if they were all taking drugs then the coaching of Charlie Francis can still be seen as the main factor that gave Ben the edge. We saw a big stagnation in the sport after this point, history shows now the athletes who followed were not clean so drugs were not the sole reason for the stand out performance and the coaching from Francis must have been a key factor - the wisdom on the coaching front was not taken forward for a long time as Francis moved away from athletics coaching to teach his skills in other sports who welcomed his knowledge. While Francis was known to think nobody could compete clean and history shows he was correct in thinking this, his coaching methods provided the best results and have been utilised in other sports such as American football to take performances forward.

Strength training is another area where advancements have stopped and even taken a step back. We can watch the Olympics and see new World records all the time but the fact is heavier lifts have taken place but are no longer classed as World records due to changing classifications within the sport. Leonid Taranenko has the biggest competition lift of all time at 266kg which he set in 1988. We need to go back and learn from the methods and training protocols used by these coaches before they are gone and the knowledge is lost.

When we look at our sport of triathlon conventional wisdom is rampant, look online, read books, go to coaching courses and you will be sure to hear some of the following

  • You have to set a base of easy aerobic training for months before any intensity work

  • Winter miles equals summer smiles

  • All biking must be done at 90+ cadence

  • Swimmers need to reduce strokes per length, slow down the stroke, glide..

The list goes on and on and its time we stopped and questioned what we are doing. Do you really think if you have 4 hours a week to train that doing these all easy for months on end is going to give you the best possible race performance?

Watch videos of Chrissie Wellington winning her first Kona World Championships in 2007, you will see her on the bike riding into the wind grinding away at a low cadence, the commentators telling how she was doing it all wrong and she needs to pick up the cadence to 90+, yet she was flying past and away from her competitors on her way to a historic win.

Watch the swim of an ITU World Cup and you do not see 2 time Olympic Champion Alistair Brownlee swimming with long slow gliding perfect strokes, what you see is a very high stroke rate with no glide, a stroke that gets results in open water.

Winter miles equals summer smiles - what I see happen time and time again is lots of base miles in the winter either equals injury as soon as intensity kicks into a program or athletes who can’t tolerate the pain of racing as they have not experienced it in training!

The question is do we trust the system out there, the system we are taught. Do we trust conventional wisdom when everything we see at the top level is going against the grain?

We are on the cusp of a huge performance increase within sports now as coaches are starting to see the truth, starting to look beyond the books and conventional wisdom and get back to what works and only now are pushing the envelope in training that we should have been doing over the last 20 years.

Science has a big role to play in the future of coaching but we must never forget coaching is an art and the reading and programming of individual athletes is what sets great coaches apart from the crowd.

In this series of articles I am going to be looking at how we can overcome conventional wisdom to accelerate performance gains and take you to the front of the field!

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