“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”
Because Einstein said it, it’s got to be true?
Well, first of all there is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement above. The linkage to the genius whose hair was always uncombed, clothing always disheveled, and who never wore socks occurred long after his death. It is one of many completely unsupported quotes attributed to him.
When one looks for the very influential statements’ real origins it seems like it originated in one of the twelve-step communities. Twelve-step programs are mutual aid organizations for the purpose of recovery from substance addictions, behavioral addictions and compulsions. Being communities who greatly value anonymity adds to the difficulty to identify a specific author to the saying.
Regardless of who first said what, the idea that one can try something and instantly see if it resulted in anything useful or not, is something that we mostly take for granted. From this we, usually without thinking much about it, similarly take for granted that if something did produce positive effects it would do so again if we kept doing it.
When doing so we fail to see that not all change and not all strains within a system are visible on it’s outside or by the parameters we measure it by.
Further it can make us rush on to try new things too soon. To give up when we would need to be patient and let the things we do bring about the change they could, given some time.
Systems can be analyzed in terms of the changes of their states over time. A state is an attempt to characterize, or define, a system by a certain set of variables. When a system changes its state its variables also change as a response to its environment and a completely different behavior might emerge.
This change is called linear if it is directly proportional to time, the system’s current state, or changes in the environment. They are called nonlinear if it is not proportional to either of them. In a nonlinear system very small changes might sometimes give rise to great changes of the system, and vice-versa.
Complex systems are typically non-linear, changing at different rates depending on their states and their environment. They have stable states, called attractor states. These are states that are preferred, and govern system behavior to stay the same even if perturbed. They could also be unstable, at which the systems can be disrupted by a small perturbation.
Examples of complex systems are the ecosystem, the weather, forests, organisms, the human brain, infrastructure, social and economic organizations (like cities) and ultimately the entire universe.
When these attractors are in such unstable states, exposure to what might look like the same environment, or such tiny changes of it that they can hardly be seen, could quickly completely change the entire systems behavior.
This type of change, which characterizes much of nature, is often abrupt and discontinuous. Systems experience periods of turbulence as attractors destabilize and create the potential for phase transitions (sometimes called bifurcations or tipping points). During these transitions, systems reorganize into new patterns of functioning.
A familiar example is the transition from liquid water into gas when boiling water. Under gradually increasing heat, the water remains liquid until the tipping point of 100°C is met and the sudden transition toward the gaseous phase takes place.
If one wanted to boil water but gave up when nothing happened after a minute or two, one would be prematurely looking for other ways to get things cooking.
Samuel Beckett, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and most famous for his play Waiting for Godot. A play that was famously described by Irish critic Vivian Mercier as in which “nothing happens, twice”.
Two dysfunctional men encounter others along the road as they wait forever and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. They fill their idle hours with a series of mundane acts and trivial conversations as the world of the play operates on nothingness.
Surely the author of such a play could offer a counterpoint to the dominating “definition of insanity”? Something more useful to handle the everyday struggle of nothingness without prematurely abandoning or giving up on one’s efforts?
Sure enough, In 1983 Beckett offered a different perspective in his work Worstward Ho:
“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
What Beckett is telling us is that no matter how good the attempt, all actions inevitably fail to be perfect, then one must make another attempt and another, and the effort is in the attempt – not in the product.
In a non-linear world one could be considered mad if one would think that doing the same thing over and over again could not produce a different result. For both the person and the environment where the action is carried out is always different, if only so subtly.
Possibly the hardest thing to do as a trainer is to back off. To realize that while you are very important in some parts of the process of learning, most of the time must be spent simply doing.
I have a friend who is a very accomplished trainer, and who have few superiors when it comes to designing exercises. His skillful eyes see not only unsatisfactory movement outcomes, but also at what point initial flaws that might be causing them arose. On top of that he has great understanding for manipulation of the exercise to open up for better movement patterns, as well as being skilled in communication.
We often teach together and his imagination and sharp eyes never seize to impress me. Then things go wrong. He’ll have the athlete do the exercise a few times, or maybe a week, watching closely. If he sees better outcomes, he goes on to take on the next pattern to be sharpened.
Change takes time.
Much like parents often end up trying to fulfill their dreams through their children, teachers often get too involved in the process. Over-coaching and pushing too quickly can be just detrimental to the development of new and efficient attractor states as the opposite.
In other words, it simply happens. The coach, the midwife of all those new skills, is simply momentarily assisting in the process, but not making it happen.
Practicing and performing require a quiet mind: a mind that is empty of expectations, ideas, and presuppositions, that is open to what happens in the presence of every aspect of a movement.
To be a masters trainer, on top of all your technical wisdom, you need to be patient.
To see possible improvements and manipulate exercise in order for these improvements to arise.
To communicate so that the student understands what constitutes a good rep versus a less good rep.
Stepping away and letting the student find his or her way of increasing the frequency of good reps, until it is something done without thinking. The failed reps in the process is what eventually lets the good reps just happen. (very hard, and often forgotten)
Staying cool and detached yet a little bit longer, remembering that just because some good reps are being done, it does not mean that they just happen, just yet. (requires the patience worthy of Buddha himself)
Coaches momentarily assisting the process I said… But sometimes that moment is long. One week? Four weeks? Months?
It is impossible to tell how long it takes for a new attractor state to emerge, but in my experience it varies not only between individuals, but also with time for the same person. All we have is to stay rooted in the present and to evaluate the fluctuations of the athletes results.
When an attractor is getting more stable there will be less fluctuations in performance. In order to see this we cannot vary the exercises and workouts too much.
A master coach who did take this to great lengths was Anatoliy Bondarchuk. A former Olympian himself, he turned to coaching after his career and is widely regarded as the most accomplished hammer throws coach of all times. He developed what can best be described as completely response-based programs. His method largely consisted of repeating the same session over and over again, with no wave loading of training variables and abilities, and no changes in strategic or qualitative elements.
Will there be no variance in such a system? Surely there will be, for in a complex world both the person and the environment is always slightly different.
A program with little variation allows you to see the states of the system over time. When data and form seems stable, then we can also assume that the attractor states are stable. When this happens, but not before, we should be increasing task difficulty in order to force adaptations via yet more phase changes.
One note of warning though – one might be tempted to think that we now know how this athlete responds to training, and would be able to predict the time to adaptation or phase transitions for the athlete. But when a system changes its state, a different behavior will have emerged.
While we now know our process of exercise selection and communication likely functions well for this athlete, we can’t ever relax and be the lazy coach.
“For the young the days go fast and the years go slow; for the old the days go slow and the years go fast.”
Regardless of what specific method one adheres to, for there are many possibly great ones, one thing I see more from the experienced coaches is that they are likely to let things take their time and by doing so allowing for more possible growth of their athletes.
In the first article of this series I explored the risks of assuming that there is something fundamental beneath the surface, which must first be optimized in order to increase performance later on. In the second article I challenged the need to continually increase physical training load, suggesting to focus instead on adaptation of task difficulty to where our athletes are exactly now.
In this last article of the series we will continue to explore methods to stay in the present, and how the use of our language can help but also overthrow our attention to what is really going on and hinder the transfer of the exercises we prescribe.
As we have seen, the promise of the ideal is repeated over and over again but never fulfilled. When technology was invented to measure oxygen consumption, blood lactate concentrations and force it gave rise to new models for training. Now the recent ability to sequence DNA is looking to change the way we measure and prescribe training.
While this way of looking at the internal processes of the body certainly has merits to many sciences, it is still not able to add much to the decision process constructing training programs. Just like with the preceding reductionist approaches comes the same possible pitfalls.
We could also measure the length of fascicles, concentrations or flux of chemicals, energy storage or the efficiency of the electron transport chain and… Well, it’s likely to be a mess to bring all those parts together in a general capacity. The whole is not the sum of its parts, despite how magnified they may be.
The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden not because of their depth, but because of their simplicity and familiarity.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once described the situation as it is as if a man is standing in a room facing a wall on which are painted a number of dummy doors. Wanting to get out, he would fumblingly try to open them, vainly trying them all, one after the other, over and over again. But, of course, it is quite useless. All the time, although he doesn’t realize it, there is a real door in the wall behind his back, and all he has to do is to turn around and open it.
Having explanatory models of how it all works, seems to be helping us to take the right actions. But the problem with the concept creation is that it assumes that by creating concepts, we can lay down in advance what it is we are thinking about. In plain English, there is really not much evidence supporting the theoretical concepts of phase potentiation, but we have a hard time to see this since it is all we know.
To help our man get out of the room all we have to do is make him look in a different direction. To do this we should turn things around, away from the safety of dogma, and look at what is hidden in plain sight.When do our athletes struggle in racing or during competition? Describe those situations without explaining why they happen.
This brings us to the topic of terminology, on how to best communicate with the people we coach.
Concept language is used to describe words or constructs that bundle a lot of actions and interactions under a simple word. To transmit less detail and more fundamental aspects of information faster and easier, mainly by experts of a defined field.
Complementary training, meaning all training carried out away from the field of the game, with the intention of helping successful execution of skills in the game itself (or a more functional life for that matter).
Coaches, specifically us who provide help with complementary training, are usually using the concept language of our field, as opposed to the language of the game itself. We use constructs that are natural in the gym, like “strength”, “strength endurance” and “speed”. We speak a language of “intensity”, “volume”, “sets” and “reps” with the athletes that we train.
When athletes are new to complementary training they usually struggle. They have a hard time to understand our lingo and to perform the training we prescribe with it. When we invite athletes into this world, filled with new mysteries to solve, they will eventually get better and better at speaking our language and doing our type of training.
But this was never the end goal.
It is not enough to show how clever we are by showing how obscure everything is
There is some evidence that memories are stored in the same brain regions as they are perceived. This means that not only what you mean when you phrase your coaching cues matter, but also how the athlete interprets them and in what context the training is carried out for their subsequent retrieval.
The way language seems to provide a gateway into athletes’ motor cortex is quite stunning. Studies show that when participants hear verbs like lick, pick and kick it activates the respective brain regions of the tongue, arms or legs.
By using language so different from the field of play, we might accidentally be creating a rift between the athletes training and the application of it. By using ourconcepts instead of mapping into the common language that is better understood by our trainees we are limiting the transferability of the training they do .
Sports is a practical matter. It is not about words, but rather about actions. Action language, on the contrary from concept language, is the language used to describe only relevant details in a clear, concise and objective way, transferring details without judgement, often with a more direct purpose. It tells what to do in a specific situation of a game.
When we start with what we see, rather than from physiological constructs, we are more likely to be able to create terminology that ties the action language of the sport and concepts of exercise science together. Then we can utilize this terminology in a coaching process that is individualized without becoming abstract.
The athletes will perform their exercises more purposeful and they will intuitively know how to use the skills they are strengthening. And, although they might not be well versed in your world, they often are very knowledgeable of their sport. They know themselves and they will be able to help improve those exercises in a constructive way.
A muscle fiber generates tension through cross-bridges of actin and myosin. Under tension, the muscle can be made to lengthen, shorten, or remain the same. Muscles also have elastic properties where energy can be stored to increase force, but only for a very short time. When a muscle is not tense it is “slack”. To produce movement, that slack has to be removed by pretensioning.
At high speed and high power the demands for contraction velocity, pretensioning and efficiency of storage, and return of energy are greatly increased. As a result there is little positive transfer between different types of muscle contraction. In cycling most muscle actions are shortening contractions.
Cyclists produce higher peak pedal power and rate of force development on a stable cycle, commonly referenced to as an ergometer (like a watt bike, a spinning bike or a trainer) than when riding in a velodrome.
When sprinting on the ergometer, the riders only have to focus on producing maximum power, whereas on a bicycle they also have to control the direction and stability whilst trying to produce maximal power. Also, one of the biggest factor to overcome during cycling in aerodynamic drag which is not easily simulated in a gym.
Because of different demands there is an altered riding position observable as difference in hip, knee and ankle angles.
With the principle of specificity in mind there would seem to be arguments for the the track cyclist to train on the track, or to find other ways to challenge stability if that is not possible.
Cadence, or pedaling rate, is an important factor influencing the economy of motion, power output and the development of fatigue during cycling. In track sprinting the use of fixed gearing makes this a very important consideration at race day, but also to guide training. The inability to select the best gear for specific situations during a race, forces a decision on which gear would be overall most suitable for a rider in all situations. Some factors influencing this are the type of race, the opponent and the rider himself.
Bigger gears give the opportunity for higher maximum speed with less fatigue. If one is able to get up to speed and then to effectively spin it around, that is. With higher inertia comes higher demands of force.
There has been considerable research in what is called optimal cadence, the cadence where peak power is achieved. Given the importance of contraction velocity and efficiency in high speed and high power movement it is thought to provide important insight in the selection of pedaling rate, and therefore appropriate gearing.
Optimal cadence is highly correlated with the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and in a sport where the ability to push bigger gears are so rewarded as it is in track cycling, there is likely not much drawback in continually training to increase their proportion. Given the low risk of gaining mass when doing large volumes of training, there is little reason for the road sprint cyclist to think differently.
As with other constructs there is a catch to letting peak power testing dictate training decisions. Those tests are almost always carried out with very little pre fatigue and from a stand still or low cadence. Following periods of exertion cadence at peak power has been shown to change. Higher velocity provides less time for cross bridges to form, and therefore the demands for the speed of contraction increases. The demands of the athlete shift with each situation and each athlete.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs…?
In a small country like Sweden, with a limited talent pool even in our national sports (football, ice hockey, skiing), we need to adapt our coaching to improve each person in front of us, rather than the other way around.
One would need to look at the specific situations each athlete struggles with to best construct exercises to increase their capacity in those situations.
Sven Westergren is the current Master national champion in Match sprinting. Match sprinting is the discipline where two opponents go head to head for 3 laps, or 750 meters. He is big and strong and able to push bigger gears than his smaller opponents. They however have the upper hand when it comes to quick bursts of acceleration from lower speed.
Tactics comes down to controlling the pace. If Sven is able to keep the base speed high enough to prevent aggressive “jumps” from his opponents they tire quickly, and have little to do when he eventually accelerates to top speed. In order to strengthen his ability to do so, exercises for acceleration and maximum speed can be constructed to involve a build-up beforehand.
With little access to the only Velodrome in Sweden, which is located more than 2 hours drive from where we live, and knowing that the transfer of skill development from ergometers to the track might be low, we do most of our training during winter season on resisted rollers. This is not ideal, but better than other options.
Rollers might provide less physiological overload, because their larger demands for creating stability. Peak force and power are lower than on an ergometer, but quite similar to the track, and we have seen more transfer of improvements on to the track because of this.
We should use our coaches’ eyes when we construct exercises for our athletes, but if we can formulate them with language well understood by our athletes, we are improving both their transferability and the chance for better feedback. A clear goal for our exercises also allows for better judging if the exercise was successfully executed and functional.
A possible way to create a helpful terminology would be to first define a game model based on the broad actions taken in their sport.
For track cyclists we could construct such a model by going through each broad component carried out in a race. A very simple example would be to specify the possible actions to master as the start, the acceleration, maximal speed and speed endurance.
For each of these areas we can assign suitable actions, which would be a good starting point in order to create a more individual and usable “dialect” of a general sports language. Actions however do take place within the boundaries of space and time. If we sat down in a car and all everything that was told to us was to “drive” the action would seem less connected to its environment than if we were also given instructions on how fast and in which direction.
Similarly our cues will also benefit from the inclusion of direction and distance.
Christoffer Eriksson is the Nordic Champion in Keirin. Keirin is an event similar to the match sprint but features between three and seven riders competing in a sprint race of 3 laps after having followed in the slipstream of a pacing motorbike for 3 laps. The motorbike gradually increases in speed before peeling off and letting the sprinters battle it out. The event is fierce, fast and unpredictable, with many split-second decisions about when to hold and when to attack that have to be made under fatigue.
Christoffer has lower top speed than many of his opponents, but on the flipside he is perceptive and he does not tire easily. In competition he cannot just muscle himself to wins but instead has to see how the match unfolds. He wins by finding the opportunity to get a gap early, or to follow the strongest riders when they do so. Using his strength to not get boxed in, and accelerate to fill gaps is an important quality for him.
One exercise to practice this ability could be to build, then simulate staying on a wheel, relaxing to get some distance in order to use the slipstream to get enough speed to go past on the outside. We could call this exercise “hit, fly, hit”.
In order to build the language for this we should consider the actions involved in it. Most important is the verb that should be the main descriptions of the action to take. I’ve often used the word “push”, as it is pushing the pedal away we would like the athlete to do. But considering that pushing is something that could be done slow I prefer “punch”, which I think would be a perfectly fine option. You can push slowly, but you can’t imagine punching slowly.
Knowing about the very specific encoding of memory storage, I would like to use a word less associated with the upper body. I would propose using “stomp”, which would seem as a similar action as punching, but for the lower body, where power is most important for cycling.
When describing the exercise, I would use something like “Build up to speed and and then stomp as hard as you can to go faster, closing the distance to a breakaway rider. Then stay as smooth and effortless but without losing cadence, and then again stomp hard to accelerate past”.
In order to sharpen the action cue I prefer to shorten it to a minimum. Keep the action, direction and distance, and end up with “stomp fast forward”, and after the “fly part” again tell Christoffer to “stomp hard past”.
The exercise will be tied to race tactics, and we would be able to get a nice feedback loop going in order to improve future exercise according to the needs and skill level of the rider.
The skeptic could point out that the examples given in this series of articles appear to be quite simple. That all I do is to observe my athletes, and when I think I’ve seen what needs to be improved upon, I have them do that very thing. Yes, with some variation, and sure, carefully considering communication and possible improvements of the exercises – it all appears to be so simple.
They would certainly be right. Even though I would argue that doing the simple thing well, is not easy. Let’s also describe how one could use the same methods to develop something less like what is performed in the sport itself.
When an exercise is very specific, by definition it has a low degree of overload. If we would like to lift the middle of a rug from the floor, we would do best to direct most of our lifting to that point exactly. If we want to maximize how high we could get it, we would also benefit from at the same time lifting at the edges.
In elite sports, you rarely win with the distance of a landslide. More often with the small margins visible in the loser’s sigh. The athlete also needs the marginal gains found in general overload.
You have to appreciate the impact that variation and change has on how an athlete reacts to training across the board
The upper body is involved at a remarkable extent when cycling hard compared to when cycling less hard. The degree of negative relation between upper body asymmetry and maximum cycling power production is quite exceptional.
This should not come as a surprise – in high intensity movement the opposing forces are so great that muscle fibers have to stay close to their optimum length, and as the feet are attached to the pedals, there is less flexibility of positions in the lower body. One can imagine how much this must challenge the trunk and the pelvis when force is applied into the pedals. Studies also indicate that compromised coordinative patterns for the ankle joint correlates with loss of power.
For the cyclist who wishes to win in a sprint this would seem to make an argument for
Core training (oh, those circuits that burn so good)
Ankle strengthening (Calf Raises, for more of that sweet burning sensation!).
While there is nothing wrong with these exercises, I would treat such isolation as things we do at the end of the session, after we’ve done everything else.
In movement, force produced by muscles moves through the body. Patterns between muscles occur with the changing demands of force in order to develop synergies. The whole body efficiently forms a unit capable of more force production than any of its muscles in isolation.
Again, with the principle of specificity in mind, there seems to be an argument for multi-joint compound movements in the gym to maximize transferability of increases of strength.
The need for variation is fulfilled already if we make sure that there is a large extent of overload.
“The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”
In bicycle sprinting you need to subdue very heavy resistance, especially in starts and acceleration. Further, these efforts must not make you so tired that you can continue to turn around those heavy gears the distance required to complete the race. Being strong for the sprinter is very specific.
In some of its disciplines, like in the match sprint and Keirin, a modernization of tactics has raised the need for top speed over acceleration. This has forced the riders into an arms race for the capacity to push bigger and bigger gears.
In earlier posts we have explored the balance between specificity and overload in the gym setting, and isolated the following basic rules
Keep movement somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli
Overload as much as possible while satisfying rule #1. Large load means larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.
Anddo not let the main movement mechanics break down or change during the set
I argued for single leg movements for developing maximal leg strength for sports played on one leg (cycling, team sports, track and field, racket sports, etc) and double leg movements for those that have movements performed symmetrically (powerlifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, etc).
Possibly we could tweak this even further.
Before we go on to explore this I’d like to point out that I do not propose to exclude single joint general movement, despite having less obvious benefit. In fact I have all of my athletes do such movements, like pull-ups and dips, but they do it late in the session, after the more contextual work is done.
The way our muscles in the lower body are structured allows for a unique role in the transformation of rotation in the knee joint into the production of high force. Biarticular muscles are muscles that cross two joints rather than just one, such as the hamstrings which cross both the hip and the knee. Rectus Femoris in our quadriceps and gastrocnemius in our calves also have this property.
These bi-articular characteristics allow for extending the joints one by one in a sequence called the proximal-to-distal sequence more commonly referenced as triple extension. Extension of these joints one by one allows at least one of them to have a favorable translation relationship throughout the full extension.
This sequence allows for the possibility of more net force production, but in order to function properly the extensions should be completed in a certain order.
An ankle collapsing during the pedal push does not translate into movement of the pedal, but still cost energy. To prevent this leakage of force efficient cycling pedaling depends upon the ability to keep the ankle locked into position.
If the push downwards is done with a highly extended or flexed ankle the extension movement becomes rapidly less efficient. It would seem that cycling therefore cannot fully use the benefits of the triple extension.
During the sprint, ankle joint power decreases more rapidly than power at other lower limb joints, while hip extensors and knee flexors sustain their power for a longer time at higher rate.
The hip extensors are also the strongest muscle group in all velocities, followed by knee extensors and hip flexors. The weakest muscle group are the ankle flexors.
This seems to further support that there are differences in the efficiency of the pushing sequence with fast cycling, possibly at least partly as a result of not being able to execute the triple extension in the most efficient sequence.
New inventions in technology to measure performance in endurance training changes the way training is conducted and planned. The way things work in the strength world is no different. Traditionally the measurement was the weight on the bar, but lately bar speed, or power, has been popularized as a way to monitor performance.
More contextual always means less optimal for overload, meaning that athletes will always have lower numbers to show for their efforts. The systemized way of using such constructs could potentially bias us to high performance in these constructs, rather than to look for more contextual performance increases.
It will also subconsciously nudge us toward movements with the highest efficiency, regardless if we do not have these options for movement execution on the field. This is often defended with references to higher neural stimuli of these exercises. High effort in more contextual movements will also have equally high neural stimuli, despite lower measurements, as an effect of their lower mechanical efficiency.
Very seldom do we train strength in the gym with our joints in such non-optimal positions. Since muscles do change their optimal length and other properties with exposure, this is the whole point of strength training, and given that the coordination of chains of muscle is no less trainable – maybe we should?
The standing start is no different from seated pedaling. If the knee joint and hip joint creates force by opening up, the ankle must stay fixated in order to translate this force from above into the pedal. If it does not there is a leakage of force.
As we found in an earlier article the split squat is a fine example of an exercise capable of generating a lot of force. Even more so with the added stability of the hands. We can see that the ability to transfer force through the ankle is one limiting factor in the video of the standing start above.
Possibly we could try to combine a dynamic high force output from the hips and the knee joints with a static high force demand of the ankle?
As cadence increases, the time we have to create force shorten.
Disregarding exactly what the optimal pedaling rate for high power sprinting is, it is definitely high enough to not allow for inefficiency. For us to develop efficiency to perform unloaded high intensity movements, we should practice pre-tensioning with the use of co-contracting muscles alone.
This could be done with high power ballistics movements, such as jumps, especially from static positions with the least possible help from pre-loading and counter movements. I see few drawbacks doing some of them from mechanically challenged positions similar to what you would find in bicycling.
The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass.
Theodor W. Adorno
The main reason we still lean so much on these perfect systems of explanation for decision making is that they provide the false safety of the ideal. Numbers are clear and concise, actual situations are messy. But in that mess there is also information that is lost when quantified.
A magnifying glass quantifies and enlarges an image, but the spectator cannot truly construe meaning from what is magnified. Only when we get a “splinter in our eye” we are forced to stop to regard the things that do not fit in. The flaw in vision, becomes a way of seeing better.
To say something about particular situations risks exposing our ignorance. Our challenge then, becomes not to hide from our possible ignorance, but to embrace that risk.
“O Icarus,” he said, “I warn you: fly a middle course. If you’re too low, sea spray may damp your wings; and if you fly too high, the heat is scorching. Keep to the middle then.
Reading and listening to coaching podcasts these last six months one of the questions that the COVID-19 situation have made people to ask and coaches to ponder is the question of how little one can train in order to not revert the adaptation to training. While one can certainly see why that question would seem important in a world of quarantines and temporary lock-down of training facilities, in many ways it is an expression of the doubtful idea that hidden deep within there is something “naturally you” that you can “enlarge with stress”. A “ground zero” that if not continually challenged you fall back upon.
Hans Selye wrote his famous letter to Nature magazine in 1936, describing how rodents exposed to a variety of nocuous or toxic agents (like cold, surgery, forced exercise, adrenaline and various drugs) responded to these diverse stimulus with pathophysiological changes that had some common features (like enlargement of certain organs). If the treatment was continued with relatively small doses, the animals became resistant and their organs returned to their normal state. Later the terms “general alarm reaction” and “general adaptation syndrome” were proposed for the description of these two phases of the response.
This shaped the current understanding of biological adaptation and the associated terminology, like stress, homeostasis, fight or flight to populate the scientific and popular narrative. A narrative implicating that the physiological stress response follows a stereotypical non-specific trajectory of being predominantly caused by physiological challenge and that its consequences are primarily physiological in nature. Based on this model, for a parameter to deviate from its setpoint value, some internal mechanism must be broken.
In order to force adaptation to training, one should add enough – but not too much – mechanical stress and little by little, in a very predictable way, you would be able to expand your capacity. But as the original setpoint would still be where it always was it would mean that if the stress would discontinue you would fall back to a relatively stable equilibrium maintained by those physiological processes. However evidence accumulates that setpoints are not constant. Their variations, rather than signifying error, are apparently designed to reduce error by anticipating and modulating future needs and resource allocation.
The theory of allostasis proposes that the first mediator – the event first triggering the stress response – is not a physiological stressor. The response is rather triggered by the changing emotional state of the individual brought about by personal interpretation of their capacity to cope with the imposed challenge. This would explain why the structurally rigid and perfectly linear training systems are only successful in text-books, and that we should shift our focus to the increasingly apparent effects of non-physical factors like emotional regulation, anticipation and learning in order to design well functioning training protocols.
In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is
The perfect predictable plan might be a beautiful idea, but is as likely to be real as the treasure at the end of the rainbow. In reality adaptation is dependent upon context, constitution, history, and persistently transitioning biological states. Studying successful strength-sport coaches will reveal a common theme: very few exercises, relatively consistent loading (even from cycle to cycle) and a focus on technical mastery challenged by increases in perturbations and contextual interferences.
Coaching legend Dan Pfaff, a proponent of minimalist training plans, notes that generally training regiments are too dense and that the goal of a great coach should be to see how little their athletes can do and still improve and be great. It’s all too easy to create an addiction to work and density of work. When new athletes try harder, they get better but there is a tipping point as they develop where this actually becomes a problem, where trying harder no longer works. The athlete is now a different athlete, and would need differentnot more to improve. More will inevitably lead to injury, and injuriesput a stopeverything.
With this in mind the question posed in light of the pandemic seems to be the result of a flawed and potentially dangerous way of thinking. One does not fall back toward anything, as that thing does not exist any more. The exposure to stimulus, both inside and outside of the training facility, constantly changes who you are, not just biologically but also psychologically, and most important of all in a non-linear fashion.
You always adapt into something that is your bodies best guess at what you will be able to cope with in the current and anticipated circumstances. Thinking you do not respond in this way will potentially lead you to fall into the trap of monotony and over-saturation.
And after all, if stupidity did not, when seen from within, look so exactly like talent as to be mistaken for it, and if it could not, when seen from the outside, appear as progress, genius, hope, and improvement, doubtless no one would want to be stupid, and there would be no stupidity.
Robert Musil, “The man with no qualities”
Of course, you would say, but is this really an issue? I mean, you would have seen every coach in the world roll their eyes while talking about other coaches who do not understand this simple point. That “too much is too much” (of course it is) and that “more is not better”. And if everyone is saying that they are not guilty of making these mistakes, then no mistakes are made?
And yes, this might be true, but as true as when you are a little drunk, feeling like a million dollars you tend to fall for the tempting thought that if you double the intake of alcohol you’re gonna have twice the fun! And so, by thinking in linear and physiological terms only, and not considering the effect your (tipsy ?) emotional state has on both stress response and behavior, you go for that quick satisfaction rather than to play the long-game.
And often enough the same coaches use the image of a pyramid when describing how training works, hinting that a stable general base must be built to support the specifics. And is not that an expression of the very same oversimplification as the theory of homeostasis taking on the concept that has been successful when working with things and try to use it when working with humans?
Worse still, backed up with (faulty) logic makes it very hard not to go for the same mistake over and over which I think can be seen in a lot of training programs.
The mental image of the simple and predictable physical universe, where what worked before will always work again is so tempting because it reduces confusion and cognitive dissonance by being inherently measurable. And what is more easily measurable than training volume (but also unfortunately all too easily mistaken for functional productivity)?
I believe in the type of program often referred to as “complex” or “concurrent”. It generally includes no general preparation phases where one would do little to no specificity, as well as no specific preparation phases where one would do the opposite. Instead I have my athletes do a little but not too little of everythingall the time, as growth and self-organization in a dynamic complex system can be the result of an amplification of change elsewhere in the system. Who can tell exactly what an athlete needs to be able to take that next step?
Instead of having the long term macro-perspective control what I do day to day I work with relatively little organizational variation between cycles. Then I monitor how the athletes respond (how they move, how they feel) on a daily or weekly basis. Information I use to prescribe exercises with enough contextual challenge to force adaptation and learning (rather than trying to force this with just more reps). Do I not add workload at all? Sure I do, but I do it based on acute factors rather than from mathematical reasoning.
To provide an insight in how this might look in practice: I usually rotate 2-3 very similar weeks, or blocks if you want to think of it like that. The next rotation does not have changes in loading per se, but novelty is induced by slightly changing how exercises are performed within a fairly general and simple theme.
This example is for our sprint cyclists (who all follow similar outline with some personal adjustments) but I do not structure the complementary training much differently for other cyclists or endurance athletes.
The general idea of force production as a contextual skill is similar for the CrossFit, racket sports or team sports athletes I train, but as their sports are so much more complex (than cycling, running, skiing) the outlines i write for them differ quite a bit. I will follow up with more specific examples of how the training blocks I write for open sports look in a later post.
Some benefits to this type of training is that it makes it easy to adapt to with actual performance goals in mind. Programs that empathize large variations in between phases will make it hard to see what is actually driving the trend. The smaller, simpler program allow for scalability and for data collection of the most important variables all season long.
Other benefits are that one constantly addresses the systems long-term behavior, producing a stable state of performance. While one might not always be on the absolute top, we’re always damn close to it without any drastic changes either in volume or intensity. By doing so we are reducing the risk of injury from either over or under-training.
Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.
When we are making judgments we like to think that we are objective, logical and capable of taking in and evaluate the information available to us with equal weight. But in order to make sense of the world with relative speed we are prone to simplify it to the extent that we embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject information that contradicts it. Presented with someone else’s argument we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses, but we are equally blind to spot the weaknesses of our own. This is what is normally called a ‘cognitive bias’.
In the sixties Thomas Kuhns book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” changed the way we think about scientific progress. His theory sort of embraced the idea of biases, disagreeing with the idea of science as a steady, cumulative “progress”. Instead he structures science into a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases. In the paradigm of ‘normal science’ the scientists share definitions and concepts, and engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Since they share a common language they all work in the same direction, making great advances within that theory.
We define rational belief as one which is arrived at by the methods which we now consider reliable
While finding confidence in people who are using the same tools as you is important for the progress of those tools, in order to see the flaws of the tool such an exchange is not enough. Because those peers, if they approve us, are part of the same network, holds the same definitions, viewpoints and biases as ourselves. For that we need to look further away however uncomfortable that may be. The moment we get caught up in our own greatness, we kill our ability to reach our potential.
But – and this is important – even the education of the revolutionary or the prophet should begin with acculturation and conformity. One should know his history before trying change it, if not only because that all that is revolutionary is parasitic on what is actually in function now and at least somewhat proven to have worked before. To attempt abnormal discourse without being able to recognize it’s abnormality is madness in it’s most literal sense. Learn first why a tool is used, before you discard it: it’s good protection against the constant onslaught of gimmicks and fads.
There seems to somewhat of a gap between science and best practice in how training principles and methods are applied, which could be explained by that on the field the specific situation at hand is seen more clearly than “in the lab” where the eyes are set on the general. And while the general is well enough for developing a tool, in order for it to also serve a purpose, have external validity, one should have knowledge on the demands of the environment where it’s to be used.
Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people…or find a different room.
Once I attended an Eleiko course in Amsterdam that was taught by Anna Swisher and Mike Gattone (both now with USA Weightlifting). When the audience presented itself I remember thinking that if I would be teaching now I would be terrified because among the attendees was several doctors of exercise science, coaches for PSV Eindhoven, the dutch national track cycling coach, the Japanese national speed-skating coach and the list went on and on!
Not much later, when i did start to teach that very course, it dawned on me that it’s not a situation to be terrified of, but instead to seek out. To be held accountable by coaches way more experienced than yourself, to discuss and learn from them as well as learning to take responsibility for what you say in order to be able to hold your own when presenting. I cherish every such opportunity that comes my way.
Other heroic coaches actively contribute to the meetings between people that are not exactly ‘peers’ but ‘more than peers’ differing in experience, methodology and viewpoints.
People like Anders Lindsjö the Swedish weightlifting coach, who competed in the Olympics in 1992 and in addition to his successful coaching career still help to organize meetings between coaches with great ambition, where one are expected to present their coaching philosophies.
Or take Dutch Henk Kraaijenhof, coach of such world class athletes as Nelli Cooman, Merlene Ottey and Mary Pierce. With a career that it would be hard even to dream of, but still organize “Helping the best get better”, a small invite only seminar in Holland. With international speakers of excellent quality and offering a place to meet and to learn from other coaches who know more, possess unique skills and experiences.
I turn 45 this year and have coached sports for 25+ years, but the superior experience and possibility for growth that I can find in places like that is nothing short of fantastic. Precisely because those places are full of people who you did not choose and does not necessarily share your language and can spot the weaknesses of our thinking and for that I am deeply thankful.
When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you have an answer, when these passages makes sense then you might find that more central passages, ones you previously understood, have changed their meaning
The common advice in coaching literature of “finding a mentor” is good, but not enough. You have to look further than that. To be better as a scientist, one better do time in the field, and to be the better coach one should keep an eye on the frontline of science.
My wife, who is very wise, sometimes says that “you don’t know what you have said until you get a response”. And while speaking to the already converted is important and will get you going, in order to increase your options outside of what you already know, outside of what is normal, you need to challenge yourself more and different.
Coach tip #3: Understand your roots. Get challenged by your superiors. Make an effort in understanding the opposing views, if not anything else it might make you understand your own ways better.
One is often lured into thinking that starting point of making day to day decisions in coaching is the long term plan. But it probably ought to be something else than just whatever performance goals that you have for the coming year of training (or 4 years as in an Olympic cycle). Rather than having the metrics outcomes shape our purpose, should it not be the other way around? That our basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes form and shape those day-to-day decisions?
Knowing our purpose and having a vision help us make our decisions on that daily basis and holds us responsible for taking actions that truly will translate into success on the larger scale. It serves to protect us from falling for trends and fads that might lead us astray from what we would like to be. It makes us less likely to just mindlessly repeat what others are doing or what we were given when we were athletes ourselves.
One could imagine this as a way of being able to create rules (training programs) but still be able to think outside of them and to break them when necessary. In order for such an intentional breaking of the “bounds of sense” to be a constructive and creative act, rather than as an act of disobedience, nonsense or madness, it should have the potential to be judged by others as a wise choice. And for this to happen it should conform with a viable system of concepts.
It is like when you say to your children that it is wrong to break windows. But in reality it is not always wrong: what if there’s a fire? In order to be able to set rules we need principles, otherwise we would always end up with endless “what if’s”, never being able to do anything because there is always more situations to think of where that rule would not work.
And even if we could go through all the “what if’s” they still only would apply to what we already know. The discovery of the first black swan illustrates our severe limitations when it comes to predict the future from history alone. One single observation invalidated a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. Outliers by definition lie outside the realm of what normally happens, so the past might not reveal to us the possibly of their existence at all.
Good coaches are better equipped to both learn from history without getting held hostage by it, to see clearly what’s in front of him or her and to take action because they have a coachingphilosophy. And that concept makes the futile attempt at rigid pre-determined plans less important (…”everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”) instead offering us the freedom to ”roll with the punches” on a daily basis.
”I would say that honestly I wouldn’t be half the coach I am if it wasn’t for the challenges presented to me by working with Annie. Whether it’s the experiences like coaching at the Games, designing training programs, refining movement or simply answering her questions about why we are doing what we are doing, there are countless lessons I’ve learned.”
Jami Tikkanen is one of the most highly regarded coaches in CrossFit. He should be, having coached Annie Thorisdottir to two titles and Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson onto the podium. He is also one of my favorite coaches in the CrossFit world since he has a philosophy that goes well with my own, not only putting himself in the position to change and shape his athletes but also realizing that for long term development the athlete also has to be able to change the coach to some extent.
For Jami it seems to be not only about the medals won, but also about the journey and the change that this journey will impose on the people taking part of it. He does not speak like he has all the answers, instead takes a pragmatic approach that might allow him to work with and help many different types of athletes.
Let’s compare this with quotes on coaching philosophy from legendary football coach Louis Van Gaal, who managed Ajax to win three league titles and the Champions league and Ben Bergeron who trains some of the world’s fittest athletes like CrossFit-superstar Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir who has won the Games twice.
“The problem of scouting for Ajax is the club’s unique mode of play, which means that you have to assess whether a player’s qualities will match a position within the system”
“What does he look like? This is my first priority. Based exclusively on appearance. Yes, even his hairstyle”
“Not everyone fits into the system. This has been proved often enough. To the regret of Ajax and also, of course, to the regret of the players involved”
Louis van Gaal
“Most importantly, a great coach can get inside their athletes’ heads. They know what motivates them, what pushes them, when they typically rest, their strengths and weaknesses. Do they respond better to whispering or yelling? When they are dragging their feet in through the door, do you need to give them a little push to get going, or do they really need to take a rest day?“
Bergeron goes on to say that building athletes “starts with building better people” and that “behind every champion, regardless of sport or discipline – better people make better athletes”.
He seem to share with Van Gaal a knowledge of a “best way” or “best system” and one can imagine that with them it’s more of a one way street when it comes to be their athletes. Either you fit into this particular system and “bring home the bacon” or they are not the coach for you. Different principles guiding the process, apparently all able produce Champions.
What should be avoided at all cost is to have principles that you don’t let guide your coaching decisions. In his excellent book on coaching Brett Bartholomew makes the point of authenticity being the linchpin for all great coaches and gives the metaphor that morale on the battlefield comes from unity more than anything else, and that the rise and fall of that unity is always felt by the ranks. If words are spoken and actions are taken, one should mean them, and that this goes a long way towards maintaining a sense of unity with those around us. “Excellence is self-evident, and so is bullshit” Brett goes on to say.
If Brett is right (and I think he is) it might do you well to, every now and again, think about why you coach and what you want you legacy to be (Medals? Money? Fame? Relationships? A System with capitol S?).
And maybe, in order to try to keep authentic, instead of only measure the reduced qualities of the athletes (like the back squat or the vertical jump) also look in the other direction, past even the macro-level of the training plan, and try to measure our own adherence to our philosophy? Would not that also include the specifics of the athletic performance as parts of the whole?
The metric I use I have stolen from one of my favorite coaches, Anna Swisher, who I had the pleasure to work with during a couple of years when she worked for Eleiko Educations before moving on to the role of Coaching Education Manager for USA Weightlifting. The first time I attended a seminar she taught she told me about the “wedding test”. That she, as having a coaching philosophy being largely about relations with her athletes, found that the greatest win for her as a coach was if she got invited to her athletes weddings – if they regarded her as family of sorts. Not a casual buddy of course, as this would compromise the work to be done and the decisions that has to be made. If you cannot also deliver performance then you’re likely not “wedding material”. More like being relatable, as in having a good relationship.
I would like to extend this metric onto other anniversaries as well, like birthdays (because I do like parties) but apart from that shortcoming I found the thought-experiment very usable!
Coach tip #2: Measure what is more likely to keep you authentic, rather than the adherence to rules.
”For dogma is expressed in the form of assertion, and is unshakeable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be said to harmonize with it”
In many educational contexts teachers are identified as communicators of values, skills, and knowledge from a certain community. They are regarded as instructors or drill sergeants rather than coaches and their students are identified as recipients in a practice and of being initiated into an acceptance of the givenness of that knowledge and those values and skills. We feel tempted to say to these students that they must do as we conceive ourselves doing.
This view of teaching seems problematic as it presupposes that we can know in advance what it means for the students to go on the way we expect them to. And if they do not accept this givenness of our knowledge is then that dissonance located only in the student?
Regardless of which a teacher must let his students understand themselves and their actions in order to apply them to new, always different situations. And then it does not suffice with conformity, to always following instructions. That does not create the necessary agreement, the attunement, between environment, body and teacher.
This is difficult, because just as for the craftsman that only have a hammer and for whom everything looks like nails, so often we mistake the rules we are following as working even when they are not.
”As a coach, adopting a top-down approach is bound to fail. You do not want silent and ignorant athletes that just follows orders. Knowledgeable athletes become partners and improve the training process”
This is how maybe my greatest coach inspiration Dan Pfaff answers a question in the fantastic new book “Training talk – conversations with a dozen master coaches”. He likens the coaching process with a company that is constantly at risk of failure if management cannot listen to and adapt its processes to a constantly changing world. And believes that the management does well to listen to the “worker on the floor”, since he is usually the one who both first sees new problems as well as finds new solutions to them.
And all the while there are certain foundational pillars of a movement or a task that needs to be stable, to always happen, for a movement to even be of that type. In the beginning of learning, or when re-learning something, we are forcing behavior into something that is not currently natural and those common building blocks are sometimes not known to the student at all. Then the guiding towards a discovery and stabilization of those “general rules” might certainly include instructions and commands, but always with an eye open for what follows them, for what they meant in this situation with this student.
Real teaching can never be a one-way road – it is also education of the teacher. And the good coach is the one who listens as actively to his students as he wants the students to listen actively to him or her.
But being a good listener is not only something that we should aim for only for our students, but also for ourselves as well. Only expressing our own opinion, or being so distracted by technology or our own thoughts makes us isolated, misinformed and intolerant. To be a good listener one has to play down one’s own ego, one’s own thoughts. It’s all too easy to fall into behavior that closes the discussion more than we would like, like the tendency to interrupt leading to half-finished sentences and an inability to absorb what is truly said.
Kate Murphy, who has written a book about being a good listener, says that something she has noticed in all the really excellent listeners she interviewed was that they all had a very calm demeanor. This expresses an openness, that while it could be unnerving, also forces the talker to weight their words more carefully. Because to someone who actually listens one has to take responsibility for what is said. Maybe that means that the archetypical “no nonsense” American football coach often portrayed in TV series is not producing a fruitful climate for either conversation or learning?
Usually the beginning coach greatly overestimates their own knowledge or competence, and is thus less likely to view a situation with eyes open to what sets it apart from other situations he or she has been exposed to, while the wiser and more experienced coach would be more likely to ask questions and to explore different viewpoints before deciding on a plan. This is not only to please the student, but because the student, or other peers, actually can contribute to a more constructive plan.
My friend, who is a well-regarded and highly experienced Sommelier in the Michelin guide-domain of fine dining, once said to me that nowadays, as opposed to earlier in his career, he always asks his guests what type of wine they prefer and then simply just gives them that wine all night. Obviously he also has to know when and how he should break this general rule, and it is in this knowledge his brilliance in his craft is to be found. Making the effort and having the wisdom to to read the situation at hand is what separates the novice from the master.
But as well as it might be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I think good intentions is quite often a predisposition for keeping on one’s toes, taking the risk of being corrected, in the coaching role. And hence I will give this advice in order to be a coach rather than a drill sergeant: