By Carl Valle
Information, be it online, print, or verbal, must be taken with a grain of salt. As more and more education becomes available, you must develop a filter that allows you to know which is the truth and what is merely hype in order to combat misinformation. I have been the victim of misinformation for years and still fight the urge to click on the latest research citation tweeted by popular coaches. Can this new supplement take a tenth off my athlete’s 30m sprint or add 5 centimeters to their vertical jumps? Does this new device enable my athletes to tap into their CNS to prevent overreaching? Is this new expert going to unlock the secrets to sprinting if I follow him or attend his workshop next month? I am no expert on filtering good and bad information, but I have learned the hard way what many online experts do to seduce users. Here are six of the worst tricks to watch out for:
The most recent technique I have seen so far is the inclusion of a few sound bites from various research material, usually cherry picking a few studies to sell or push a concept in training or sports medicine. The goal of many gurus is to do the research for you by summarizing a study and extrapolating it to a product or method. The problem is that reading research and applying the findings are important, provided bias is not present. Coaches want to believe their stuff is working and try to find evidence to support it. It is true that many ideas can be backed up by research, only if you play the devil’s advocate the other way around. Add in a list of citations and some coaches look like authorities, but do your homework. Ask yourself how does this science or study provide the expert with a way to promote their niche? Even good science and good intentions can be wrong, meaning a lot of good coaches and therapists are applying studies that have erroneous conclusions or outcomes. Many coaches drop their guards thinking that if a study has a bunch of footnotes and links to PubMed, then all that’s is accurate and valid. Read the full study and the citations in the full study to explore the truth. Some studies only compare nothing (control) so, of course, doing something has a chance of getting better or different results than nothing. I prefer studies that compare a product or a technique not only to a control but also to an alternate option that is popular or conventional. The aim of science is not to change one’s opinion but to improve the results. Someone who changes one’s mind constantly is like a dog chasing its tail; there is a lot of running around but very little progress.
On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with testimonials, and it’s good to have athletes and coaches attach their names to studies sometimes. On the other hand, testimonials are like endorsements, and some athletes will do anything for a buck. With any athlete testimonial, the most obvious question is, “Did this athlete get better under the tutelage of this expert?” How often does a post-college coach to professional athletes provide evidence of how he or she improved an athlete? We know the limitations of high school and college athlete testimonials because of NCAA restrictions, but elite coaches appear to be elite because of their connections. I have benefited from the athlete lottery of bumping into athletes at the track, and they wanted to train with me because they liked what they saw, but they were already made by the high school and college coaches. Years ago, when I coached high school and college, I realized that most of the work was done in the eight years of scholastic competition, while much of the expertise is perceived to be attained only at the end of a career.Sometimes keeping an athlete healthy and thriving is a major accomplishment, but working and producing great athletes starts with good talent. Most athletes are created with time and the help of patient coaches. The training program that assists one athlete may not help everyone, so the breadth of a coach’s career and the universal lessons from that time period are worth more than the specific workouts of one star athlete.
Lack of Data
Amazingly, in 2014, we have everyone talking about statistics and asking for workouts for athletes, which is like asking for someone’s soul. My workout template is the same as 2004, with the only difference being better attention to detail and higher precision. What is disturbing is the hype about athlete monitoring and the fact that blogs or articles rarely share data. Showing simple changes or doing periodic testing is essential to defending a position based on results, whether claimed or implied. If a guru specializes in speed, he or she should share times and improvement periods. If one is a movement or cueing expert, show us before and after videos. Data can be exchanged with accompanying evidence, and too many claims are being made without the historical records of what was done and the results included. The best example of presenting proper information is the ASCA Gold Medal clinic. That process is the standard of presenting information. Share the workouts, explain why you made the choices you did, summarize the results, and share what you plan to do in the future. For some reason, when a conference or workshop comes, we see more bullets in slides with concepts and philosophies instead of what one does. Anyone wishing to share their expertise should share the workouts or at least share a few weeks or sessions. From the information shared by the expert, one can conclude how they came about with their beliefs, provided they recorded the right measurements such as time, distance, and load.
My favorite exercise in filtering the reality of any advice is to see what is the improvement expected by the claim by doing the math. This is easy in track and field because a 100m dash is a simple number to extrapolate with percentages. One way to see if something is outrageous is to do the calculation of the results shared by the online website and see what that would do your existing athlete’s performances. Most coaches will be thrilled by a 1% improvement, so anyone claiming 20% is out of their mind. Sometimes, the math becomes purposely fuzzy without the results attached to it, such muscle recruitment or rates of recovery. How indirect improvement works with ultimate performance is always speculation; ask what the modality is worth in your world. I have asked countless proponents of Electrical Muscle Stimulation for direct improvements, and I found most of them giving explanations instead of clear figures. Shouldn’t all of the hundreds of athletes the expert has worked with give a ball park figure on how much their athletes have improved using their methods? I find that the best currency or transfer value of any option is maximal speed or something similar to that. Each coach must ask for realistic expectations from a method or piece of equipment.
Getting a commission for endorsing something is not inherently evil, and I support anyone getting proper commissions based on their online traffic and time spent reading or viewing educational materials. The problem is that there are some ethical issues involved in making a large part of their living pushing products, because many great products are timeless. When a distributor starts to slow down, they start pushing new and sometimes subpar products. A classy way of promoting products is having a store and simply listing the resources you like and call it a day. It’s fine to release things via newsletter or update readers on what you are reading, but weekly and sometimes daily reminders tips me off to stay away. Unless the writer of the content is a known resource, new experts coming out of nowhere tend not to be very good providers of education, although I have been wrong on some occasions, as I found obscure writers and coaches providing amazing information. Understandably, with publishing, you can get a mixed bag. Although I prefer traditional books, as a small distribution of manuals may never make it to Amazon and eBooks, and online content is highly pirated and illegally distributed. I suggest sticking with traditional, recorded presentations, physical books, and interactive media.
The old marketing technique of introducing a new phrase or word is still a problem with modern online education and advice. Nobody should find anything wrong with creating a name to explain a murky or new concept for education, but a line must be drawn when the idea is a little far-fetched. For example, we see many terms emerging when coaches create training programs or metrics based on equipment and technologies. Creating a naming convention or term is a necessity, but if one starts pushing a concept too far for business purposes, it’s time to put on your filter when reading online content. Is the blog for informational purposes, or is it purely a marketing vehicle? Promoting a product by sharing case studies and user success stories is an excellent way to explain a service or a piece of equipment. When a concept is diluted by claims that it’s a panacea for everything, that’s when you know that the idea is a marketing term rather than anything else. Most marketing terms are a combination of biological and science fiction terms. The formula is textbook with some of the online information, and nobody knows if the concept is the name of a transformer or a computer virus. The best thing to do is look up the term, and if you don’t see anything outside the website promoting it, it’s likely to be marketing. Marketing is fine when features or concepts are promoted honestly, but make sure the research behind it is as strong as the naming of the terms.
Parting Advice about Online Information
The Internet is an amazing resource and has changed coaching in both good and bad ways because of the sheer volume of information. A good way to look at online content is that it simply is more accessible rather than more prone to problems. Online information follows the same rules as earlier print options and even word of mouth. The best way to test information is to be constantly open to learning and listening, but be skeptical. Ask hard questions and be brutally honest with how any information can be applied realistically to one’s program. The better information tends to stand the test of time, is detailed, and comes with a specific history next to it. So the next time you go reading a blog or online research article, understand that you are lucky to have access to more information than ever before, but have the responsibility to distill to something effective for your own training or the training of your athletes you work with.
Please share so others may benefit.