By Bob Alejo
Without a doubt, this article was prompted by two recent debates I was involved in on Twitter that went every which way. One was the hotly contested and always good for entertainment debate regarding the functional movement screen. The other was over whether an athlete should skip a meal if the only choice is a donut. Both threads contained the qualities that many people with differences in opinion display when the topic is near and dear to them—dismissiveness, lack of scientific support, abundance of scientific support, emotional responses—and both were much longer than they should’ve been!
We all want our words to persuade other people because, well, we all think we have some substance to share. As if I did not know it before, in the midst of the second “battle” (donuts vs. nada), I realized you could choose, within a matter of characters, the person least likely to be persuaded to believe, understand, or listen to anything other than what they believe. It wasn’t an epiphany, to be sure.We all want our words to persuade other people because we all think we have some substance to share. Click To Tweet
I certainly am not a social media expert. Instead, I’m like a lot of us who are just practitioners talking about training and promoting our own thoughts and personal experiences in an effort to educate. That said, I saw something over the last eight months (when I started to “crank it up” on social media) that was painfully obvious during debates and exchanges: an overwhelming intolerance to different beliefs and facts. I definitely like to “stimulate thought” every now and then, so I want to put into print what I think are some shared thoughts, observations, and personal opinions.
Data Wins Every Time
You’d like to think that data wins an argument, but that’s not always the case. Why? Because, people historically dig in even harder in support of their stance and refuse to back down once they realize: a) they have no data to support their claims; or b) the data they do have is bootleg compared to the opposition. Sometimes, to protect their pride when they feel impending defeat closing in on them, they begin to shape the narrative around the data to something they might be able to justify instead of the original stance they’ve been hammered on.
The Freedom of Speech Act is clearly in effect on social media. That’s good, but it doesn’t mean you must engage with every view you don’t like. However, you know as well as I do that there are some things you won’t let pass you by. Let me rephrase that in my own terms—can’t let pass you by! And I say, if you’re going to debate, opinion is worthless either for or against a stance. You open yourself up to all kinds ridicule, credibility loss, and worse, public defeat. So, don’t come to the fight unequipped. Do your homework on the topic.If you’re going to debate, opinion is worthless either for or against a stance. Click To Tweet
In the good debates I’ve been in or seen, plenty of science and numbers are thrown around: evidence-based support for hypotheses or results. In this type of back and forth, sometimes there is no overwhelming evidence either way, but everyone gains knowledge, including those just observing. It’s typical of intelligent, prepared practitioners: wanting to spread the good word is never a bad thing.
Personal data makes a huge impact. I’ve begun to use the phrase, “This is what I did and this is what happened.” It’s hard to argue against that idea, and let me tell you why. First, the statement is clearly not taking credit for anything, although the supporting information that perhaps can be dealt out later may show otherwise.
For instance, when somebody asks me how well my program worked during the “Moneyball”-era while I was with the Oakland As, my canned answer is “I don’t know.” First, you have to identify what “worked” means, and second, I can’t help but think I contributed in some way, but who knows what it accounted for. What I can do is show you what I did during those years and tell you the results. Whether I accounted for X number of wins is for others to decide. Frankly, with our pitchers (Hudson, Mulder, and Zito), push-ups and sit-ups would have been enough!
It’s tough to say: “Our speed training program led to a championship.” Actually, it’s a pretty dumb thing to say. For sure, “Here is our speed program and our team won a championship” is a true statement. We are strength and conditioning coaches, nothing more and nothing less. When you are debating whether your program is good or not, just stick to that program: jumping higher; running faster; getting stronger; and reducing the risk, incidence, and severity of injury. One argument is inarguable: “Evidence” tends to reduce doubt, hesitation, and skepticism! While not my original phrase (I can’t remember where I found it), it’s true.
Perhaps, likely, maybe, unlikely, doubtful, conceivably, tends to… These are valuable words when posting a conclusion in the athletic performance world. Understand that there are things in the philosophical and methodological aspects of training that are not 100% efficacious. Some are pretty close, but pretty close is not “never” or “always.” Use common sense here. Once you go to “not once” or “at all times,” you are either never going to be wrong or always going to be wrong. For example:
“If you squat heavy in-season in a timely manner, then you will likely lessen your risk of lower-body injury.”
Is different than:
“If you squat heavy in-season, you will lessen your risk of lower-body injury.”
The second version is just not true. While the squat is a great lower-body exercise, there are no guarantees that the risk of lower-body injury will automatically decrease. There are many factors that contribute to reduced risk of injury, including the fact that the squat is not the only effective lower-body exercise for health and performance. And, lower-body injury could be a result of more than strength and power loss (fatigue, sleep, hydration levels, collisions).
That said, there is a preponderance of evidence to support that the retention of strength and power levels in-season is linked to healthier athletes and therefore forms a solid hypothesis about timely, higher intensity, lower-body training being advantageous. In addition, “will likely” opens the door to the fact that the person who squats might not reduce their chance for injury given the variables mentioned earlier. So, the first version is a hypothesis—using qualifiers like “timely” and “likely” doesn’t say the squat is the only exercise or the best exercise, or even the only variable in lower-body health. It is, however, a solid statement.
Think about this: When you read a peer-reviewed study or listen to a researcher talk, if you pay attention you will hear those words I mention above (i.e., perhaps, likely, maybe, etc.), along with their hesitation to absolutely confirm most things 100%. If you think about it, even the best studies have limitations and statistical boundaries that just don’t allow for always or never. The saying, “I’m not young enough to know everything” is as obvious as ever to me today. On the other hand, I am old enough to say that for a topic that is so heated and popular, I have yet to read or hear by word-of-mouth one piece of documented evidence that pressing overhead is bad for pitchers or overhead athletes!
Just Because You Read Research Doesn’t Mean You’re a Researcher
If you’re not a researcher, arguing with someone who does research by using research you’ve read is like sucking a piano through a straw (Steve Martin, circa 1970s)! Victory is impossible. Especially if you are arguing, let’s say, with a Ph.D. exercise physiologist/nutritionist about nutrition. You don’t think that they’ve probably already read that same paper you’ve cited while they were writing their own research?! C’mon, of course they have, and they probably have a better understanding of every word in the paper AND the supporting information and citations.
These guys are giant walking, talking sample sizes of information. Take caution before you walk into this snare. I’m not saying you can’t disagree with them, but remember: you are disagreeing with the science that they read and deal with every day, and not them!
Of course, I participate in dogpiles—that’s what really smart friends are for! Enlist the help of folks that can fully support your argument: people who have anecdotal information (personal or otherwise), scientific evidence, or personal peer-reviewed research backing your claim. Better yet, three letters: P-h-D. Get those cats in on the argument when you want to slam the door shut or expose someone.
I don’t feel bad; not one bit. I feel it’s my duty to have actual experts enter an argument, and beneficial to all. I mean, I’m probably spitting back info they have taught me anyway, so why not hear it directly from them? Not to mention that it sounds really cool when they fire off the science, study after study.
‘I Feel,’ ‘I Think,’ or ‘IMO’ as an Explanation
If there is any time in the history of athletic or sports performance to not have to guess at a theory, it’s now. Geez, with the internet, you’re only one “click” away from the answer to any question. So, as mentioned earlier, come prepared with information.
The other issue with this approach arises when you have the data, anecdotal information, or science, yet somehow you are persuaded to posit with “in my opinion.” I say that’s too soft. Look, if you are confident with your stance (you have data, personal accounts, peer-reviewed research), there’s no reason to make what you know is true, “kinda” true. My example is this: Creatine has yet to be proven to cause cramps. It’s not my feeling or my opinion—it’s the facts! In other words, if it is necessary to use “maybe” to corroborate your claim, “maybe” you shouldn’t be in the debate.In 2018, it’s an outdated claim to say you can’t prove it, but you know that it works. Click To Tweet
Likewise, if your stance against data and peer-reviewed work is, “I feel…” then frankly, you lose. “Science is lagging behind what’s happening in the gym” is a lazy argument because you say what you’re doing works, but you can’t prove it. There are rooms full of science that might not be exactly what you are speaking about, but will allow for a pretty damn good theory for what you are doing. By the way, this should include some evidence (assessments of sorts) that what you are doing works. To say you can’t prove it but you know that it works is an outdated claim in 2018. If that’s how you feel, why wouldn’t you want to seek the proof?! As an educator, you should at least want to educate.
After a few volleys of contrary opinions, there might be a point where the stakes of the conversation rise to a higher level. This is when vetting a combatant not familiar to you is fairly important. Knowing the background of the people in an escalating debate is critical for a few reasons.
As an example, most of us in the field have enough knowledge about endocrinology to either: a) talk with general adequacy about hormonal effects of training, or b) be dangerous. In the event the discussion is about hormones and endocrine glands, it would be good to know if the opposition is an endocrinologist!
Have a good speed program? It’s hard to propose that your program has significantly more merit when the person in the conversation has coached several medalists and you have not. There are a lot of guys out there who are pretty damn smart and experienced, and at the same time have some anonymity. Not everyone puts a resume or their deadlift PR on their home page. On the good side, not everyone has a resume or a deadlift PR.
Exercise some restraint early to test the waters a bit during a difference of opinion. It could go a long way in creating a great discussion and perhaps an ally for future discussions.
‘Who Have You Coached?’ and Other What-Have-You-Done Statements
Maybe because I’m older, I actually don’t mind when someone oversteps the boundaries of respect and practicality. Of course, there has to be a significant difference in experience levels and accomplishments for someone to get away with this. However, all in all, this type of response isn’t the first or second line of defense in a debate, but it does have some merit and validity given the right circumstance.
The key for me is if someone with little experience and associated accomplishments tells me that what I’ve been doing all along is wrong, or a philosophy that I’ve held for some time does not work—then it’s on! Not just “ineffective,” but that my way just does not work and has no benefit at all. If the dissenter also adds, “And, here’s how you do it,” they’ve now piqued my interest, and my ire.
Here’s another angle: If you think the pros aren’t different than college, you’re mistaken; I can personally attest to it. If you think working with a Power 5 team is no different than working with a mid-major athlete, I hope you have the chance to see that it definitely is, as I have. Others may have a different perspective than I do, and I can understand that. What I am saying is, depending on the argument, take caution with the tone of your voice.
Let me add some clarity here: This is not about what job is better or whether you are a better coach if you are at a Division I vs. a Division III. This is about training methodology, psychology of the athlete, environment, etc. My experience has shown me that it’s different. Not me, but “it.”Depending on the argument, take caution with the tone of your voice. Click To Tweet
So, let me ask the question: Should an experienced coach (let’s say 20+ years) have more credibility than an inexperienced coach (let’s say 10 years or less), given that they have coached at the same levels? Yes, no question. If you had a choice, would you want a CPA in business for 22 years doing your taxes or one who’s been in business for nine years? To build your new house, would you choose a master carpenter with 23 years’ experience or a carpenter with eight years in? Your Mercedes needs an engine repair—do you choose the 20-year mechanic or the five-year guy?
I don’t want to hear “Your teams were going to be great anyway—you get the best athletes,” or “Just because you’ve coached for 20 years, it doesn’t mean anything.” People saying that: a) haven’t worked with great athletes, or b) haven’t coached for 20 years! They’re a non-player in a debate if that’s their go-to support mechanism for an argument. I am not saying younger or less-experienced coaches have no credibility. In fact, I ask younger coaches (everyone is younger than me now) for advice every chance I get these days. After all, one has to stay current. But when I need sage advice, I call the guys who have been throwing down for at least 20 years. It’s a trust and credibility issue.
On the other hand, I’d be irresponsible—and dishonest—to proclaim that only coaches at major universities or professional teams that can boast All-Americans and championships are credible. This isn’t a true statement. But the social media arguments aren’t usually over how many winning teams you’ve coached. That’s a math debate and too easy to decide the winner. This is the reason evidence-based data is important: actual training information and output to compare and put up as collateral in a spat.
I will say, though, that coaches who have worked with champions have had special experiences. Championship athletes and teams have a special makeup and the coach that works with them should be seen as having a unique exposure to a sometimes-rare environment. I, for one, am fortunate enough to say, it is different.
Before you start doubting someone’s career achievements, the sure-bet response is to stick to the topic. Stay with personal accounts and science-based responses. I’ll talk about emotional response later, but for sure when you get to the “What have you done?!” level, the fireworks will happen.
Emotional Investment in Conclusions
It’s great to be passionate about our profession. The need to teach others to improve on the field of play, and to watch athletes you have trained succeed in athletic endeavors, is honorable and selfless. Also, it is important to understand the science or contribution of methods to performance because it may turn out that eventually that contribution might (or might not) affect your athletes. However, to truly be passionate in a selfless way is to disassociate yourself from personal bias, removing an emotional attachment defying science and data, to do what’s best for the athlete.To be passionate in a selfless way, detach from personal bias to do what’s best for the athlete. Click To Tweet
For sure, I’ve had things I liked or things I did that got good results. To stick with those things after receiving information that other methods or variations worked better, or that what I was doing just wasn’t valuable, wouldn’t honor those I work with. I’m not saying it’s easy to find out that the path you’re on isn’t the best path, but it is certainly better than having more knowledge and doing nothing with it. This shows up in a few forms:
Continually wearing out a point that’s already been agreed upon or an entirely different point than the discussion.
Let’s say there are a few talking points about a method or philosophy. It’s exhausting to have a conversation when folks keep talking about something that has been agreed upon in the debate and they won’t move off it! It tells me that they aren’t versed enough on the main thread, they’ve come out against the topic and can’t really defend themselves, or that they’re so “married” to their point that they can’t get out of their own way.
For example, if the argument is whether the bench press is sport-specific for football, I think we can all agree that bench-pressing 400lbs doesn’t guarantee that you will be a good blocker or the age-old wisdom that you don’t play the game on your back. Really?! Re-hashing those two points looks foolish, considering the measurable effect the bench press has on upper body pressing strength, contributing to shoulder health or adding much-needed muscle in the pec/shoulder/tricep area. These are all fairly valuable to a football player; ergo, sport-specific to football. Regardless, the topic is not whether the game is played on your back!
“______ is useless!”
Virtually nothing is useless. Even a bad example is helpful in some way. In our world, it’s typically not about something working. As Bob Ward, the longtime strength and conditioning coach of the Dallas Cowboys, said to me, “Everything works.” The question should be about what works best. In other words, if I took two cans of green beans and did lateral shoulder raises, there is going to be an effect—it works. But there certainly won’t be as much strength gain as if I used DBs for the same exercise for five to eight reps at the appropriate weight over a period of time—this works best!Nearly nothing is useless: The question is typically not about what works, but what works best. Click To Tweet
I understand the need to drive home a point, but using terms like “useless” in a debate (I can’t say I haven’t been guilty of this) is, without a doubt, an emotional response and not helpful in discourse. My experience is that it’s usually a swipe at a company or person associated with the method, product, or theory. And it’s not helpful.
Dismissing the science.
Not paying attention to good research—stacks of it, in some cases—is a waste of everyone’s time. Really, it’s professionally irresponsible. I understand that one study does not make great evidence and is not the gold standard, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it entirely.
High-protein diets are not harmful to the kidneys, and it is not true that they are solely calories in/calories out (where those calories come from is significant). That’s the science—you can’t disagree. I don’t know how else to say it other than it drives me nuts when I hear someone say, “I disagree” in those instances. You can’t make up your own science! It reveals the level of knowledge of the practitioner, and it’s not good.
“Nothing I’ve read says that” is another sad answer. I have only one response to that: You haven’t read enough! Again, start with the internet!
Don’t Maintain a Position of Ignorance
I stand by this statement I’ve said many times before: I am not a scientist, but what I do is based on science. We don’t have the luxury of not keeping current with the latest studies. Nor do we have the option of not choosing, when applicable and possible, a better method or thought when presented with one.