By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
I came across a graphic this week that really stuck with me, particularly because it does a great job of quantifying the issues of trust and beliefs in coaching and athletic performance. Trust is essential in a coach-athlete relationship, so the question becomes: What do you do when your beliefs don’t match your coach’s?
The placebo effect is well known, in that when you anticipate a medication’s positive effect, your condition may improve despite the absence of an active ingredient. In a coaching context it’s better to think of this as a “belief effect”, because unlike giving a patient a sugar pill, we’re talking about prescribing training or nutrition methods that work, but may or may not have buy-in from the athlete.
Increasingly, there seems to be a widening divide between what coaches and sports scientists believe based on scientific evidence and years of experience, and what some athletes believe based on internet searches, word of mouth, and limited experience. That’s not to say sports scientists and coaches are always right or that athletes are always misguided, but it does lead to conflicts when coaches and athletes have fundamentally different viewpoints.
Dr. David Martin, Director of Performance Research and Development at the Philadelphia 76ers, included the graphic below in an article for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, and it describes the relationships between the strength of sports science evidence and how much an athlete believes in that science, and as a result whether and how a coach should apply that science to the athlete’s training.
Scientific Support Low, Belief Effect Low
This scenario is a pretty easy one to deal with, but it sometimes leads to problems if it means you start diverging from established traditions within your sport. An example from my racing days was the European pro cycling tradition of never using air conditioning. No one could really explain a good reason for the practice, but according to the old Euro directors, turning on the AC in a car or hotel room would probably kill you.
There was no science behind the AC ban, and as American athletes coming into the European peloton we didn’t believe in the tradition, so we used the AC (in the rare occasion it was available). These days we know sleep quality, and hence recovery, improves by cooling the sleeping environment.
The lesson for athletes, and for coaches, is that it’s OK to question any practice that falls under the heading of “we’ve always done it that way”. Some traditions have roots in real science – and were scientifically correct long before the science was figured out – but some are just plain myths no one bothered to look into.
Scientific Support High, Belief Effect Low
Sometimes as a coach, you have sports science and proven experience on your side, but the training or nutrition changes you want to implement run directly counter to an athlete’s beliefs.
There are a number of ways athletes can effectively fuel training, and they incorporate evidence-based principles we know work: consume adequate total energy, use carbohydrate to fuel high-intensity efforts, eat mostly whole foods, and stay hydrated. When starting to work with an athlete who swears sugar is poison, there’s going to be a problem.
Patience and open communication are the best remedies for this scenario. If I tell an athlete it’s my way or the highway, I might get obedience but not buy-in. A more effective method is to create opportunities for proof of concept, like designating a ride or rides where an athlete will try eating carbohydrate instead of their current strategy. Then we can look at the data and discuss how they felt during those sessions.
If you’re working with a coach who advocates a training method or nutritional strategy that’s very different to what you’ve done before, I’d encourage you to have an open mind and open conversation. Don’t feel pressured to acquiesce just because he or she says so, but be willing to have the conversation and give it a try.
Scientific Support Low, Belief Effect High
The hardest scenario for a coach is when an athlete holds a strong belief in a training method that has little or no scientific support. If the athlete is not successful, then it can be relatively easy to convince them to implement changes you know will work. However, if the athlete has been successful despite a training or nutrition strategy that has no basis in science, it can be more difficult to change their behaviors.
For me, this falls into two categories: harmless superstitions and harmful behaviors. Putting your left shoe on first isn’t scientifically significant, but if it makes you feel more confident, then go for it. On the other hand, going on long summer rides with no water because you believe in dehydration training… then, we need to talk.
A less extreme and more common example is an athlete who has very rigid sports nutrition routines. Some athletes become convinced that only specific foods, at precise times, and in precise amounts, will allow them to perform at their best. The scientific support for rigid nutrition strategies is low, but some athletes are dogmatic in their beliefs. The reality is that the most successful athletes learn to be flexible so they can adapt to changing conditions.
Again, the keys are patience, open communication, and in this case some opportunism. Sometimes, letting the athlete’s dogmatic beliefs lead them to failure is the catalyst that creates the opportunity to try something new.
Scientific Support High, Belief Effect High
This is the best of all worlds, and the scenario coaches and athletes strive to reach. When you have science on your side and an athlete who believes in the science and in you as a coach, life is good for everyone.
One thing I tell all my coaches is that once you reach this position it is important not to get complacent. Just because what you’ve been doing has worked and is supported by your athlete doesn’t mean it’s going to be the right method six months or a year from now.
As an athlete, you shouldn’t be afraid of change – even if your training or nutrition strategy has been working. At the same time, neither a coach nor athlete should make changes just for the sake of making changes. Your coach should be able to give you a sound and thoughtful rationale for anything they’re prescribing for you.
Overall, think critically, examine the evidence, have open and honest conversations, and keep your changes small and deliberate. And whether you’re the coach or the athlete, make the best choices you can with the information available, and then trust yourself and have confidence in your decisions.