Thin Slices and Locked Doors

I'm possibly the slowest reader in the world with the memory of a goldfish! I still read as much as I can though. The latest book that I'm working through was given to me a couple of months ago by a strength and conditioning intern that I mentored whilst working at the English Institute of Sport. The book is called Blink and is written by Malcolm Gladwell who also wrote The Tipping Point (another great read).

I'm zipping through this one as it is a great read (a real page turner! - anyone that is a fan of comedian Michael McIntyre will understand why that is a funny thing to say about a book). Anyway, the reason for this post is that one thing I tend to point out during talks that I give is that whilst research is fine and can be very useful it is usually playing catch up with what is happening out in the real world. As Alwyn Cosgrove likes to sum it up 'researchers are historians!'

One story that I recount is that when I started off working with the British Gymnastics team as a young graduate I thought I knew everything there was about sport science! I couldn't work out why the coaches that I watched didn't appear to monitor the gymnasts training more closely.

I monitored and evaluated every training session to 'check' that the coaches were working the gymnasts appropriately (reps, sets, volumes, intensity, work rest ratios, the lot). At the end of a month long research period my findings concluded that the coaches were spot on. They didn't use heart rate monitors, they didn't capture hours of footage on video, they didn't use a stopwatch, they just knew. This was the 'art' of coaching. In that month I learnt a lot about coaching in the real world! These coaches were able to “thin slice”. Through years of coaching they were able read deeply into the narrowest of slivers of experience. They didn't need to have facts and figures, they just knew. Fantastic.

Back to blink. In one of the opening chapters of the book there are a couple of pages took me back 10 years to my work with gymnastics. Here are some of the key sentences.

'Our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way'

When I spoke to the coaches they were not always able to articulate why they performed a certain type of training. My scientific mind then had alarm bells ringing. If they can't explain why, then how do they know it is working. I had to try to find out why, it simply wasn't enough for them to refer to instict or gut feel!

For me, like many others it was a lot easier to listen to the scientists, after all, as Malcolm Gladwell points out

'...because the scientists could provide pages and pages of documentation supporting their conclusions.'

What I learnt back in 1998 has stood me in good stead during my coaching career. Working in sport is not an exact science. Yes we should always strive to understand why we are training in a certain way but we must also acknowledge the 'art' of coaching. Sometimes we just have a hunch, an instinct, a gut feel that what we are doing or seeing is the way to go.

'We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept, that, sometimes we're better off that way.'


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