Performance: Is it just the change?

As Tupac wrote. ‘…things will never be the same’

This blog has been writing itself in my head over the past 4-6 weeks after listening to Derek Evely on the HMMR media podcast. The episode titled ‘Changes’ discusses the use of change as the stimulus in training to elicit the desired outcome. Change is the process by which something transforms or becomes different to before.  As coaches, this is general what we desire. We want positive changes from our athletes, which deliver improved performance outcomes on the field, court or track.

Derek is one of the world’s most experienced track and field coaches having been mentored by Dr Anatoliy Bondarchuk. Without going too deep into Dr B’s training system, it is based upon stimulus, adaptation and then change (systematic in this instance); along with a specific exercise classification (which is another good blog to be written). Derek was discussing the process of when athletes change coach and immediately see an improved performance outcome; and people celebrate the achievement and expertise of the coach as the answer and reason the outcome was achieved. Simplistically, yes it is. However, as he went on to theorise, that perhaps it is just down to the change of stimulus; rather than the coaching. I tend to agree.

As the Einstein quote details about Insanity (doing the same thing and expecting different results…), change is necessary to push the boundaries in all fields. Specific to performance, the level of change or stimulus required to force an adaptation will be dependent on the years spent training (not level of athlete – elite athletes who are new to the sport will not require huge changes to see performance outcomes). Athletes who have been honing their craft across the better part of the decade will need a new stimulus to see improved performance outcomes; and herein lies the issue… determining what and how much to change. Referring back to earlier, I would theorise that a chaotic change would be required for elite level talent with many training years under their belt. For those who are in the infancy of their career(s), systematic change is all that is required.

Although coaches may be bias to a particular philosophy or principle of training, often a little change of structure, session content or approach to performance may be all that is required to steer the ship back on course. Change needs to sit right next to more commonly used training principles: frequency, intensity, duration, overload and accommodation. Performance coaches need to be creative with how to manipulate the change in the overall scheme of the sport structure of season.

So do not get too carried away when there is a performance spike when an athlete is using a new system. The body has been stressed in a way never experienced previously; and aside from the acute stress response, it has disrupted homeostasis enough to elicit performance gains. In a sense, the process of allostasis is in effect. Whereby, stability in the system has been achieved by way of the physiological stress applied.

The human body is a dynamic system however and will rapidly adapt to the stressors placed upon it; see the SAID principle. But staying with change, a chaotic change will cause much stress to all systems and possibly muscle and connective tissue trauma. A systematic change will be more moderate in comparison but should still be within reach of current capabilities.

So I urge you to make changes… just do not make too many, as then, you will not know the cause of the effect!

Confirmation Bias: Performance Training Kryptonite

Selective thinking could be another way to describe the phenomenon of Confirmation Bias. Whereby, people begin to look for or confirm their own beliefs and ignore or undervalue information which may contradict their views or beliefs.

Essentially, people would rather avoid the possibility that there may be alternate views on a topic, think religion or politics, and therefore look for any and all information, which supports their view. Some will search and search until they find a glimmer of hope that confirms their view.

People do not want to be wrong. Or, alternatively be told they are wrong.

In a training sense, confirmation bias can be performance kryptonite.

From an athlete perspective, Athlete X achieved a high level performance using “???” system and training with “???” coach, therefore Athlete Y believes if they perform the same workouts with the same coach etc they can expect the same results. From a coaching perspective, the coach may use a short to long approach with their sprinters, yet many are injured or just not performing well. However, one athlete is continually performing well and setting PR’s in training and competition. The coach ignores the other 10 athletes whose performance has nose-dived. The ONE athlete with a high-level performance has confirmed that the short to long approach to training is the way forward. It’s bullshit training with rose-coloured glasses on.

Selectively searching for the answers to confirm what you want to find is foolish. As James ‘the thinker’ Smith frequently reiterates; experience does not trump knowledge. There is no doubt that experience is the guiding light in many facets of coaching and training. However, without using or accessing all forms of knowledge available, instead neglecting that which is in direct opposition, is once again foolish.

When athletes change coach or move to a different club/team/training squad, there can quite often be a spike in performance from the previous season, or a resurgence in form. I do not necessarily believe this has anything to do with the coaching (it may well do however). As the saying goes, a change is as good as a holiday. Often the change in training/structure/environment is enough of a stimulus to elicit a higher performance than the previous season. The athlete may well hold a confirmation bias on the setting they have moved to; they WANT IT to work. And so it does (for a while anyway).

The human body is a dynamic ecological system with many subsystems contributing to the ultimate performance output. Suggesting System A + System B = System C is too simplistic. The body is too complex. There are too many variables, which will ultimately disallow this from occurring. Gold dust in the river does not mean the gold rush is back. It just means there is gold dust in the river. There are no absolutes in training. Training interventions will suit some athletes and be a detriment to others. Searching for case studies with small sample sizes to confirm your system is working is asking for trouble. Undervaluing less common or alternate training interventions also shows a lack of understanding.

Programmes are good. Systems are better. Principles are the key.

If the training principles are well implemented and adapted upon reaction(s) from the athlete then a level of performance should be evident.

Confirm your views with knowledge of the whole context. Don’t cherry pick a performance to make yourself feel good. Avoid the Kryptonite.