Making Sense of the Coaching World

Just a quickie video, which says everything about my philosophy to my coaching and teaching.

Fundamental to coaching knowledge is:

  • being able to cut the bullshit
  • focussing on what is important
  • understanding the ‘whys’ of our actions and decision making processes.

The behaviours of many coaches I observe are usually the result of assimilations from their coaching environments and cultures. Copying of other coaches or simply accepting the status-quo never results in coaching excellence.


Endurance Sports Survey for Coaches and Athletes

This is a link to my current research project. It’ll be open until the 20th of July. It would be awesome if you could complete it.

Endurance Sports Survey for Coaches and Athletes

Confidence: The Be All and End All of Coaching?

I Need a Training Plan

I always do my best not to be too critical of other coaches. On talking about coaching mind-sets, Myles Downey suggests that:

– People have huge potential.
– People have different ‘maps of reality’.
– People have good intentions.

These are really important to me, and probably my greatest skill and worst enemy is to see their perspective and give them the benefit of the doubt. However, there’s a type of coach that really annoys me. He, and I say he intentionally, is the super-confident alpha-male with the permatan who states everything with absolute certainty and believes what he says is fact. He’s the autocratic type who expects you do something because he says so. There is one coach I have in mind who elicits such an emotional rant in me that my partner mentions his name just to wind me up. My Buddhist training flies out the window when I hear THAT name.

There’s another type that I struggle with. It’s the type who uses bad science to sell the dream, the ones who endorse products or use methods that emanate from a marketing man’s Mac. I met a coach recently who sold a product that has little basis in fact, claiming performance benefits. I actually liked this guy but I didn’t find him a credible coach because he was one of two things:

a) Guilty of intellectual idolatry or
b) Intentionally scamming his coaching clients to make money.

The video below is good to watch to get the message. Woops, will Gillian McKeith sue me for posting?

I hear lots of moans about remote coaches, who typically only prescribe training, have the odd weekly chat and manage 30-40 clients. However, I don’t mind this type of coach because they are serving a demand in the market, are giving athletes what they want and charging a fair price for the service.

But hey….. The most important thing in life is to be responsible for ones own actions rather than whine about other people. Lets talk about my favourite types of coach instead.

They are overt, think carefully about what they and speak with humility rather than absolute certainty. They have two ears and one mouth and use them proportionately. They also tend to be female coaches! OK, I’m bias but as a rule of thumb I think females make better coaches than males. They only make up about 20% of all coaches and the percentage is far less at the performance end of sport.

However, I think I’m in the minority because my perception is that Coach Permatan, supplement selling man probably makes more money than the type of coach I prefer. Of course, I don’t buy the neoliberal perspective on judging success on the size of someone’s bank account. It’s relative anyway as the majority of coaches, even those at the highest level are paid a pittance.

Reading a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Tenney, Spellman and MacCoun (2008) helped explain my ire. Although it did not report on sex differences or even examine sports coaching, I’ve paraphrased a few quotes from the paper:

– People prefer confidence in others, not ambiguity.
– People rarely independently verify what others tell them, and without that verification they cannot fully assess their sources’ reliability.
– People who are good judges of their own knowledge are rewarded, and those who are overconfident in what they know lose face.
– People are often drawn to highly confident coaches believing this confidence has some basis in reality. However, when they receive evidence to demonstrate this confidence is not matched by ability, then the coach may appear less credible, likeable, and honest.

A few years ago, I was chatting with an Olympic Gold Medallist who had successfully transitioned into being a coach and had supported a multitude of other athletes to podium finishes. He wasn’t the alpha-male type but he did engender confidence in others, maybe because having been an Olympic Champion gives immediate credibility. However, he was found out. One particularly bright and confident young athlete who had won a few world medals wanted to know:

– Why am I doing this training?
– What are the alternatives?
– Why should I listen to you?
– How will you help me go faster?

He said he felt challenged, exposed and ill equipped to answer her questions. The fact that he was sharing this with me showed humility and a desire to be able to answer her questions. His ego was damaged but he retained credibility because he was honest in his responses.

In the world of age-group triathlon coaching, confident and less humble coaches who big up their credentials and/or successes as athletes despite being ‘full of shit’ are often more successful (in financial and performance terms) than a less confident coach who has far more knowledge.

I believe there are a few important reasons for this:
1) When dealing with most athletes, simply getting them training consistently, regardless of methods, is likely to result in better performance.
2) We know that placebo is one of the most effective treatments known to human kind and bullshit coaches use confidence in their own perceived ability to good effect.

Much as it pains me to say it, a crap coach with confidence can help most athletes get faster and make money out of doing so. This may seem unfair but as as Prof. Steve Peters says “It is a fact that life is not fair”. It’s pointless getting upset when Coach PermaTan Placebo is rolling with cash and getting plenty of glory.

The bottom line is that a coach without confidence but plenty of knowledge is as much use as a chocolate teapot. Credibility gained through being a top athlete is typically a bigger commodity than having the coaching skills and intellectual capacity of Einstein. Of course many top coaches such as Brett Sutton and Daz Smith have never been top athletes but they both have the intellect and confidence of a bull elephants. This confidence is what athletes need and expect, especially when the going gets tough. Saying, “hmmmm, I’m not sure…..such a paper suggests but I think we need further research to confirm” just does not cut it.


Most coaches who consistently deliver success at the very top of the sport have the intellectual rigour to support their confidence and credibility. They are normally willing to justify themselves, admit when they’re wrong and say when they don’t know, all with confidence.

“Tell me what you think?” is a great question because it allows them to calibrate their answer, relative to the athlete’s beliefs (or give them thinking time). I’ve learnt the hard way…..even if you think a coach is talking out their bum, only challenge them in a way that allows them to maintain credibility, usually in a one-to-one conversation, not on pool-deck in front of the rest of the group.
However, if you’re Mr Permatan Placebo Coach man reading this, mark my words, you will always be found out. You should have the lesson of Tenney et al in your ears:

“when confidence is not matched by ability, you will appear less credible, likeable, and honest”.

You will have to hope your clients don’t ask you too many difficult questions or know more than you do. When I’m teaching or coaching, I always assume there’s someone listening who knows more than I do, because that’s often the case. I know that’s hard to believe!

In the academic world, fellow academics typically only ask questions, not because they want to know the answer. They already know it and want to clarify you know your stuff! Particularly cruel ones will be looking to shoot you down and if you come across as over confident, even the nice ones will have a pop too!

Although most athletes don’t like to challenge a coach, some do. I like to be prepared for most eventualities and know that every time I open my mouth, my credibility is at stake.

2016-01-22 TrainingPeaks

Periodization: Truth or Myth?


Last week, I picked up an interesting paper on Twitter: Periodization, planning, prediction: And why the future aint what it used to be!  It was written for UK Athletics by John Kiely of the University of Central Lancashire.

For those of you who are involved in training prescription, it’s an essential read. It’s encouraged me to take a few minutes to reiterate my views on Periodization, whilst exploring why it’s important to be a critical thinker and to take real care when accepting information at face value.


Let’s be Challenging

Periodization is simply a systematic way to organise training, most specifically physical training. At university it was the bedrock of all training theory we were taught. When I applied for a job at the Scottish Institute of Sport, there was that word again in the job spec:

“Essential….sound knowledge of Periodization “.

Periodization is like the root of a wart, deeply imbedded, an accepted truth in sports science and coach education throughout the world.

I have my own wart. The boss suggests that I use the word “but” too often and some people find it irritating. He’s right of course, but….I’ve convinced myself that it’s just about justifiable and it comes down to my academic training. During my undergraduate study, Prof. Bill Baltzopoulos delivered many of our biomechanics lectures and tutorials. Most of his teachings laminarily flowed around my slipstreamed head. However, one lesson stuck!

“What’s the mechanism?” he continually asked.

“Where’s your evidence?”

These infernal questions, whilst annoying, are vital for every self-respecting sports scientist and coach. Bill was simply asking how and why things work the way they do. His lesson was never to accept something as a truth unless his questions have been asked and/or can be explained by fundamental principles.

So why does Periodization work? Where is the evidence that it does? Ehhhh…….An inference from Kiely’s paper, which I wholly prescribe to is that there is no convincing evidence to suggest that Periodization is an effective training system.

Bill Baltzopoulos
Bill Baltzopoulos

Why does it not work?

Periodization involves the training of one of the most complex systems known to humanity….the human body. We may have a basic understand the fundamental principles that explain how singular systems of the body work i.e. the cardiovascular system. However, how do all systems interact together? Kiely analogises Periodization with chaos theory, the (mathematical) study of dynamic systems in relation to their environment. Chaos theory is a deterministic one which can predict the future state of a system. However, I’m sure any of us who have coached a performance athlete will know that:

“The chaotic, highly sensitive, nature of the biological system will ensure that the progress of physical fitness will not be an orderly, uniformly incremental, and predictable process. The adaptive responses to any given training ‘inputs’ will not result in readily predictable fitness ‘outputs’”.

Periodization is a deterministic conceptual framework which fails to account for the important scientific principle of ‘Shit Happens’. Take for example Jodie Stimpson’s wee accident in the ITU triathlon in Yokohama. She tripped in T2, sliced her foot with her chain-ring, which in turn affected her race result and subsequent training. This accident was avoidable but certainly not predictable. If Coach Daz had spent 2 days carefully designing a pretty periodised annual plan for Jodie, he’d be pretty pissed at having to start again!

Jodie Stimpson
Jodie Stimpson

Because I’m a bit of a thinker, I like to look beyond contemporary science to the humanities when exploring complex questions. That’s because I feel they enrich our understanding of humanity in a way not possible with science alone.  Take Plato for example, the man who 2500 years ago laid the foundations for modern philosophy and science. He understood that the body, mind and soul are distinct but not separate entities.

This understanding is fundamental to contemporary training theory in which the aim is to promote adaptation so the athlete functions optimally. Let’s move beyond concept and apply Plato’s work to endurance sport.

Something that is relatively predictable is that with around a 1/3rd of a race to go, regardless of its distance, the mind will tell the body to slow down. Scott Jurek, the ultra-marathon runner, talks about the domain “between exhaustion and breaking” that I’m sure most of us understand. I will call this the Domain!  Operating in this Domain requires an athlete to consciously control the urge to quit. The very best athletes can operate in the Domain consistently. Great endurance coaches such as Shane Sutton, Brett Sutton and Darren Smith understand that, with the right raw talent, athletes can be conditioned to operate within the Domain and subsequently excel at world level. This requires a training environment that is challenging by design.

Of course, every athlete has their breaking point and sometimes it’s important to go beyond this point to identify it in the first place. However, psychological factors and how to periodize them only gets a few pages in Tudor O. Bompa’s Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, a book that is required reading for most sports science and coaching students.

My conclusions are that:

  1. I accept that Plato’s writings on exercising the mind, body and soul together as a fundemental truth, specifically within the context of endurance training.
  2. Jodie Stimpson’s wee accident, proves that training cannot be planned effectively using a determinist model.
  3. Periodization is simply a conceptual theory that simply confuses coaches and practitioners because it bears little resemblance to what works in real life.
  4. If Periodization worked, then so would accurately predicting performance. Bookies would go bust!
  5. Plato would have rightly dismissed periodisation as nonsense.

Me after exiting THE DOMAIN

What’s the Alternative?

Sometimes, athletes will perform optimally without too much structure but they rarely do so consistently. Rather, success in endurance sport usually happens by design, rather than by accident. But what is that design?

I believe that designing training programmes is an iterative (trial and error) process which can be informed on by a broad knowledge and experiential learning.  Sports science certainly has a place, in which it provides knowledge to minimise coaching errors. Other factors to consider include:

  • Having a dream of what can be achieved. Goal’s and goal-setting are also accepted truths in training theory. However, goals have limits! Dreams do not; they enable athletes to achieve what may not be considered by others to be achievable!
  • Systematically developing an understanding of all the demands of the sport. Then prioritise training towards developing strengths and minimising weaknesses relative to these demands.  Most athletes find it mentally challenging to continually work on weaknesses so priority should be given to strengths.

Considering these factors does not discount medium- and long-term planning or dismiss having specific training focuses within defined periods. Such planning is most certainly essential for elite athletes supported by extended programmes which require a degree of predictability to allocate resources.

Closing Words

As a coach, sports scientist or an athlete who wishes to excel, having a hunger to find out how and why things work is vital. Doing so enables us attempt to solve complex problems, to challenge accepted truths and to avoid dogma. One Olympic coach confided in me that he found a particular athlete very challenging. She always wanted to know why! She challenged his ego but also encouraged him to consider his own coaching knowledge and practice at every level. This is coming from a coach that has helped win more medals than many countries have won!

If more of us challenged dogma, it would be less likely that things like periodisation were accepted as truth when in fact the null hypothesis is far more appropriate.