Coaching the Complicated vs Coaching the Complex

As coaches improve their skillset, they become more adept at pattern-matching and quickly being able to diagnose flaws in someone’s movement or approach to a training session

They also develop more “soft skills” in communication, approaching clients, dealing with emotions, and generally navigating the interpersonal issues surrounding coaching.
We often talk about “best practices” – meaning that there are in, in fact, “best” ways to assess our clients, prescribe a program, and engage in ongoing communication.
However, after reading a bit about Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, I think that the domain of “best practices” is not necessarily appropriate for thinking about coaching.
When a coach is getting start, they must go through the process of learning how to handle “simple” scenarios. 
If clients are rounding their backs on deadlifts, tell them to stop rounding or go lighter. If clients are going out too fast on long workouts, tell them to back off and slow down. If clients are struggling to put their arms over their head, have them foam roll their upper back and do serratus wall slides.
Each of these scenarios can be put into a basic flowchart of decision-making.
However, everyone who has been coaching for awhile recognizes that this kind of simple decision-making is often inadequate and, in some cases, can be counter-productive.
A lot of these scenarios are “complicated” – meaning that there is a right answer somewhere, but it may be difficult to get to and often requires deep knowledge and expertise. 
And, there’s often more than one way to get to a correct answer.
Why can’t someone get their arms over their head. 
Let’s dig into their breathing patterns. Let’s have them do a variety of different scapular motor control exercises. Let’s have them work on repositioning their ribcage. Let’s have them get soft tissue work to release facilitated and inhibited muscles. Let’s have them try both unilateral and bilateral movements.
The underlying issue could be any of these things, none of these things, or some combination of all of them.
An expert is able to conduct a thorough assessment and come up with a plan that will ideally end with the “correct” outcome for the individual.
A lot of movement correction falls into this bucket.
But, as we move up the layers of abstraction into coaching an individual rather than just fixing a specific movement issue, we are now playing with complexity
Rather than thinking of the human body as something like a Ferrari where you have a schematic and you can figure out the “broken” piece and repair it in order to get everything back on track, we are now have a dynamic system with emergence, bidirectional causality and many layers of competing systems.
There is no schematic, every change you make to the system causes multiple different feedback loops to kick in, and there are huge contributions of randomness and chaos to the actual outcome of coaching someone.
So, what is our role as a coach in such a complex system?
How do we help individuals stick to a workout routine and change their behavior surrounding nutrition?
How do we help athletes maximize their potential in sport – especially when the competitive landscape is constantly changing?
How do we navigate the self-sabotage, lack of consistency, deception, and self-deception typical of working with both every day people and high level athletes?
So, coaches need to “probe” through conversation and try out different prescriptions to see what is working and what is creating buy-in, then attempt to execute on that.
Coaches must also enlist clients to do their own probing to figure out what works for them and to more accurately characterize the obstacles that are holding them back – not just from an exercise perspective, but, more importantly, from a behavioral perspective.
And, when we make changes, we must also recognize that inputs into the system change the system itself, and that there is also always the lurking specter of black swan events like injuries, overtraining, and large life events outside of the gym.
So, some coaches live in flow charts:
Don’t round your back when you deadlift.
Eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Push your knees out when you squat.
Some coaches live in nuanced assessments and detailed program design:
Here’s your two week testing period to figure out your relative strengths and weaknesses.
This is a 12 week squatting progression with accessory work meant to strengthen your upper back and improve your front squat relative to your back squat.
These are your macros. Make sure you weigh and measure all of your food, and we will check on that every week.
But, the highest order coaches combine the flow charts with nuanced assessments and detailed designs – and also enlist the clients themselves to probe at what is working and what’s not working so that the real challenges can be uncovered and solved through bottom-up behavior change rather than top-down design.

The Optimal Blend of Luck and Skill in Competition (And at the 2019 CrossFit Games)

The CrossFit Games just wrapped up, and – with the large numbers of competitors from national champions increasing the field from 40 athletes to ~150 in both the male and female divisions – a series of aggressive cuts were added to the competition this year.
The field was quickly whittled down to 10 athletes with about half of the competitors being cut from the field after the completion of each of the first six events.
This has resulted in some controversy in the CrossFit community, as many perennial podium contenders and fan-favorite Instagram celebs did not make it into the top 10 athletes that completed the majority of the events over the weekend.
While I think that some people are upset about not getting to see their favorite athletes compete, I think that most people who are upset are reacting to the addition of more “luck” into the outcome of the event.
The results of all sports and games are dictated by some blend of luck and skill.
People find games that rely almost entirely on luck to be tedious and unfulfilling (Candy Land). 
[That said, people do seem to love gambling on Super Bowl Squares, which is totally insane to me.]
Within most sports that people watch and compete in, they prefer there to be an outcome that is mostly dictated by the skill of the competitors but that has enough of an element of luck or chance that there is potential for both suspense and surprise relative to the final result.
While everyone loves a Cinderella story, an underdog, and a come-from-behind victory, these narratives are only compelling if there is a framework in which the “better” players usually win by virtue of their skill and their better use of resources.
If there is too much chaos in outcome, it’s difficult to build narrative, and our instincts of meaning-making are flouted.
We want to see stories that make sense. We want to see hard work rewarded. We want to see up-and-comers have surprising performances and “level up.”
If there’s too much luck, the outcomes of the event dissociate from the narratives we build to understand and follow sport, and it becomes less fulfilling and exciting to follow.
However, in “real life,” luck is a huge part of any sort of success. While most podcasts and articles detailing the life stories of business owners, athletes and creatives focus on their upbringing, their work ethic and their moment of surprising insight, we never see the countless businesses that were bit too late or a bit too early, musicians who never got a break, athletes who suffered a debilitating injury early in their career, people passed over for promotions based upon office politics, victims of discriminatory hiring practices, and people born in areas with no economic opportunity. [I ranted about it on the podcast recently, though.]
We don’t want sport to imitate life too much, though.
We like sport to have clear rules, and we like those rules to weight things heavily towards the skill of the competitors in terms of dictating outcomes.
We like the outcomes in sport to be mostly dictated by skill, with just enough luck to keep things interesting.
In the CrossFit Games, luck has historically played a role not just in terms of the happenings on competition day (Did you come down with a virus leading into competition? Did you get a judge holding you to a different standard than the rest of the field? Did your opponent rip their hands on their first rope climb?), but also in terms of the selection of the events.
While athletes understand that they have to be “good at everything” in order to succeed, most athletes could easily draw up a “best case scenario” for themselves and a “worst case scenario” for themselves in terms of programming. 
In order to get better as a CrossFit athlete, your goal is often to train such that the set of “worst case scenario” programs becomes smaller and smaller, since weaknesses are punished harshly based upon the scoring of the sport.
So, I think that many of the people who are upset about the changes are upset about the addition of “more luck” into the programming since now it is not just the events themselves that dictate the outcome, but the order in which they are released.
This changes the dynamic of the scoring even more – weaknesses are already punished more than strengths are rewarded. But, in the past, athletes have been able to mount exciting comebacks from early mistakes or poor performances. Now, however, a bad event sends people home early in the competition.
If you watch the post-Games, press conference, you can see Dave Castro react somewhat aggressively to questions about the cuts
How does Dave think about the role of “luck” in testing?
I would guess that Dave thinks of the test of the CrossFit Games as something more akin to “real life” testing rather than “sport” testing.
Meaning: do you have the capacity to deal with anything that comes your way, whether or not you’ve prepared for it or whether or not you think it’s “fair”?
Based upon this, early cuts, event selection, and other factors are irrelevant – the fittest are those who are able to handle whatever is thrown at them.
And, in fact, an important part of the testing is the ability to respond to the psychological adversity of a changing landscape and unknown events – and still perform at an elite level.
Those who are not up to the task are not just “victims of bad luck,” but have also demonstrated a lack of preparation, a tendency to wilt under pressure, and a propensity for making costly errors in high-stakes situations.
Mat Fraser, Tia-Clair, and CrossFit Mayhem would have probably each won their respective divisions almost no matter how the event was structured – provided it looks anything like what we consider to be “The Sport of Fitness.”
The rest of the podium and the athletes making each of the cuts would have probably changed based upon the order of the events.
So, what is the role of the CrossFit Games? Is it to find the fittest?
What is the optimal balance of luck and skill in terms of dictating the outcome?
Will athletes be willing to devote as much energy and as many resources to training if the outcome of their season is further decoupled from things over which they do have control?
My biggest concern is that – while the fittest will almost certainly figure it out and be fine regardless of the structure of the season, the qualification process, and the cuts at the CrossFit Games – those who are on the margins of different ability levels will become overly frustrated at the lack of clarity surrounding what the sport looks like.
For the long-term health of the sport, we don’t just need to “find the fittest,” we need to also have an ecosystem of athletes, events and sponsors that are all bought in. It seems that the transition to Sanctionals will likely push in that direction. But, there are a lot of “role players” in the competitive CrossFit landscape, in their experiences can’t be discounted. 
While Tia is probably the CrossFit Games champion in just about every imaginable scenario, she needs to have 150 other athletes to compete against who are almost as good as her in order to make the sport compelling. If too many of those athletes throw in the towel because their experience at the highest level is too chaotic and they are treated as second-class citizens, then the sport as a whole loses out on the talent pool necessary to make the competition exciting and develop future talent.

Prestige and Why it’s Beneficial to Blindly Copy Successful People

Humans do a lot of things that really drive me nuts – like just totally copying the behaviors of people whom they admire, regardless of whether or not they make any sense.
At The Granite Games a few weeks ago, for example, there was an athlete who was almost a carbon copy of Dani Speegle. It kind of creeped me out, especially when they were talking within a few yards of each other as athletes moved in and out of the warm-up area.
I was like, “What are you thinking? Do you feel shame when you are within a few feet of the person that you’re copying? Or joy? What’s up with this”
Within fitness, athletes will often copy all aspects of an athlete’s training who they admire – and plenty of elite athletes make decent money by simply posting their own programming online behind a paywall. However, the training of the elite rarely makes sense for the weekend warrior with a full-time, stressful job and a history of back injuries.
This rampant, filterless copying extends from a person of prestige to just about anything they touch – regardless of whether or not it’s related to their field of expertise – which is why athletes are great for endorsing not just shoes, but cars, watches, and, of course, underwear.
This copying is present in the entrepreneurial space as well, and was the impetus for my recent podcast on survivorship bias which I recorded when I just couldn’t take another person claiming that the secret to their success is their morning journaling routine.
The book focuses on the process of cultural evolution that has shaped human behavior.
One of the most salient points has to do with the emergence of complicated processes in hunter gatherer tribes for detoxification of edible plants, choosing where to hung in order to maximize the likelihood of encountering prey, and prevention of toxicity in pregnant women.
Individuals in the cultures that have these processes and rituals cannot explain the reasoning for them in a sense that we would consider “scientific,” but many of these superstitions, while seemingly arbitrary, do actually impact outcomes.
For example, if any of the stages of cassava preparation are skipped in preparation of the “bitter” version of the root, people who eat it will slowly develop cyanide poisoning over years.
Based upon this, it is beneficial for humans to copy their traditions from elders and more prestigious members of their society rather than tinkering with them on their own.
While an individual may think that a ritual “doesn’t make sense” or is “inefficient,” they take significant risk by breaking from that tradition since it likely came from a complicated, emergent process of tinkering and iteration.
In various game theoretical models, it is actually more beneficial on average for people to simply copy the strategies of the most successful individuals rather than attempting to understand or modify what they are doing.
I have much more empathy for the tendency of people to blindly copy “success” without really understanding what’s going on than I used to.
I also better understand the phenomenon of people being “famous for being famous” – or, as is more common in a lot of industries, famous for some stroke of luck or insight and then unreasonably elevated to expert status despite the relatively low quality of their actual knowledge or recommendations.
Once you hit a tipping point where enough people are paying attention to you, you’ve reached an entrenched status as an “expert” even if you’re incompetent.
And, from a big picture perspective, most people are probably better served by blindly copying successful people rather than trying to become experts themselves and understand all the intricacies of what advice matters and what doesn’t.
There are also theoretically market forces at play that can lend further weight to advice offered by prestigious individuals.
If people are more successful following a given “influencer’s” advice, that influencer will potentially gain more traction – whereas people offering unhelpful advice will largely lose their influence over time.
However, I don’t see this play out in real life most of the time. It seems that appealing to people’s built-in faulty cognitive strategies of conspiracy theory and magical thinking is much more effective for creating influence than actually offering helpful information.
We can probably split the market into people who actually want to take action on things like starting a fitness program, becoming a better athlete, or growing their business – and those who want to pretend that they might someday like to do one of those things.
The influencer market for the latter is much larger, and that market is much more susceptible to fuzzy thinking and bad advice.
So, for a lot of prestigious individuals, their platform is based upon some initial success through combination of luck and skill (although even many skilled and knowledgeable people are unable to articulate what they are actually doing in their field), then maintaining their position of status through aspirational people continuing to pay attention to them. Many of those people are not actually serious about changing their lives through fitness or entrepreneurship, so they pay more attention to lame hacks and advice that panders to magical thinking – and can even judge people harshly for explaining the actual nitty gritty details of their real fitness routine, their real nutrition program or the actual trade-offs they have to make to operate a successful business. 
And that’s why we got a bunch of moronic memes about morning journaling.

Management Fluff for an Eager Market

Seth Godin recently posted a podcast that caused me to mildly flip out in the first thirty seconds. Check it out here: “Of course they cheated”
 
“Management is done with power and authority – compelling others to do what we need them to do when we need them to do it. Leadership, on the other hand, always involves voluntary compliance. It always involves people eagerly following the leader.”
 
I’m a huge Seth fan, but this is the type of thing that I can see entrepreneurs mis-interpreting far and wide. A lot of people start their own business based upon their discomfort with the conventional structure of their industry, a frustration with how they see their bosses running their company, and a desire for autonomy and self-direction.
 
These types of people will often improperly map their own experiences with bad managers onto how they run their organizations. I should know since I did the same thing for the first several years of owning South Loop Strength & Conditioning.
 
They remember having their ideas squashed, they remember their leaders behaving badly and destroying the culture of their organization, and they remember having their projects micro-managed into oblivion by a short-sighted boss who is all trees – no forest.
 
So, Seth’s message railing against management as a coercive discipline based upon power, oppression and hierarchy tends to land with a market eager to hear it: entrepreneurs escaping the daily grind and striking out on their own.
 
These people love the idea of “leadership” rather than “management.” These people love the idea of “build it and they will come” rather than “sales funnels.” A lot of them are artisans, and they want to think about the big picture way in which their ideas are going to transform their industry, and they also love getting lost in the craft of doing their work.
 
But, what happens when they do actually have other people who they have to lead? What happens when they need to know their numbers in order to make strategic decisions?
 
Big picture inspirational blue sky ideation doesn’t help. Being really good at your specific craft (coaching, graphic design, copywriting) doesn’t help.
 
What does help? Knowing that management is a skill at which you can improve, and building a systematic way in which you run your organization and build relationships with your people – something like having regular one-on-ones with all employees, giving them consistent, non-emotional feedback on their performance (both positive and negative), and understanding how to organize the tasks of your business such that other people (besides yourself) can do them.
 
I think what Seth is really getting at here is the difference between “role power and relationship power.” Every hierarchical relationship has some sort of implicit threat associated with it. If you don’t do your job, you get fired. If you don’t pay your taxes, you go to jail.
 
However, relying on this threat to get things done is often only successful in very short-term scenarios (like call centers where employee churn is extremely high). Instead, good managers work on building relationships and offering consistent, high-quality feedback to improve performance. Through these relationships, they can create a space for employees to excel, since most people really do want to do a good job.
 
While this may be what Seth means by “leadership,” I don’t think that’s what most of the people who are listening think he means. They think he means “starting with why” and mission, vision and values statements.
 
What they really need to do, though, is just have consistent one-on-ones with their employees.