Cognitive Dissonance

It’s safe to say that if you own a twitter account, watch the news, or simply live on the planet earth, you’ve experienced an avalanche of cognitive dissonance in 2017. You’ve experienced this whether you know it or not. And it’s led me to reflect on how this all-too-human trait presents itself in my sport.

What is cognitive dissonance? Simply put, it’s self-deception. More broadly, it is our natural drive to reframe and alter any evidence that challenges any of our deeply held beliefs. We’re incredibly inclined to invent new justifications or causations that will support, rather than dispute, our point of view.  We may even outright ignore the evidence altogether.   We all do it.

As a characteristic, it has its strengths. In moderation, it’s “sticking to your guns.” However, at some point, it goes beyond that. It goes way beyond defending your perspective to outright ignoring irrefutable evidence that is right in front of you. It’s everywhere.

Police and prosecutors unable to admit they wrongfully convicted someone in the face of DNA evidence saying the opposite. Doctors explaining away why a patient had complications or even died. Politicians revising history to protect their records. Me refusing to admit to my wife that I took a wrong turn. Because even when the road ends with a dead end, I obviously did it on purpose because this was the scenic route.

Essentially, cognitive dissonance is our instinct to never admit that we may have been wrong or made a mistake. We protect our self esteem and perfection at all costs.

I’ve started wondering if there is a modicum of cognitive dissonance involved when an athlete is slow to (or refuses to) trust a new coach or system. It happens in every program in the country. I can point to a handful of times I’ve had to overcome it.  It’s a tough situation that almost universally leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Believe the training is wrong for you –> I won’t PR with this training –> Less effort, less confidence, less sacrifice –> Regression –> I told you this training wasn’t going to work.

But what leads to that first assumption; the belief that the new training won’t work. Perhaps there is an element of cognitive dissonance involved with that first step. Maybe the roadblock isn’t an inability to trust the new training system. Rather it is a failure to believe that you can improve in many different systems. That there is no Holy Grail system for you.

By asking athletes to go “all in” with a new program, some may perceive coaches as asking them to admit that what you did in the past was wrong. That what they chose to believe in was incorrect. That they made a poor decision to invest in that old system. And that is a difficult thing to ask anyone to do.  To admit an error.

But that’s not what’s being asked.  The new choice is not a reflection on the past, it’s a reflection on the future.

So, the real first step should be to ensure that athletes understand that it’s not the workouts that make the PR. It’s them, their work, and their drive.  And the promise that if things aren’t going in the right direction, that we’ll try something new.

And that is where we, the coaches, come in in curbing our own cognitive dissonance. Your workouts are not an extension of you.  And so, deciding that a workout may not have been right is not admitting that you are a bad coach. It is imperative to assess your training plans critically and honestly.

Lucky for me, I have a pretty objective sport. If we aren’t PRing, we make changes. Pretty simple. Sometimes it’s the workouts that get adjusted, sometimes not. But it’s never productive for a coach to dig their heels in and defend their training to the death. You don’t have to aggressively stick to your guns here. Don’t tell the athlete “believe in my system because there is not Holy Grail” but then act like you have the Holy Grail of systems. It’s just not a good look.

This is a pretty new train-of-thought for me.  I’d be interested to hear what some of you think.  I’m sure you can find numerous flaws in my logic.  Any thoughts?

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Asking the right question.

Do me a favor. Take a moment and reflect on either the long jump or triple jump. In your opinion, what is the single most important element in the event? In other words, if you had to tell your athlete only one thing to focus on for the event, what would it be?

I’m not kidding. Take a moment and pretend you’re the coach. Maybe you’re talking to an athlete, maybe you’re giving a presentation to other coaches, what would you pick as the #1 focus of the horizontal jumps?

Did you go with posture? How about acceleration mechanics or pushes out of the back? Top speed? Speed at take off? Take off position? Air mechanics? At best, in my opinion, these are all a distant, distant second, like not-even-in-the-rear-view-mirror second place.

My answer is simple. It’s try to jump as far into the sand as possible. That’s it. The only critical element of the horizontal jumps is how far you jump.

Don’t roll your eyes at me. I’m constantly amazed at how many athletes and coaches lose focus on this simple fact as they pursue technical perfection. When looking to improve, too many people ask the question “What do I need to fix (or what’s wrong) with my technique?”

Seems like a harmless question, right? But it steers the conversation. It leads it in one specific direction and eliminates too many other variables that may also address the “only critical element” of the jump – how far you land in the pit. So change the question.

What do I need to change in order to jump farther? That’s it. Simple fix. This is a much more vague, open-ended question. It has so many more potential answers. And to be honest, for both the coach and the athlete, it’s scary as hell. This puts it all on the table. It’s technique-plus. Technique plus effort, focus, sleep, nutrition, lifestyle, character, determination, resilience…

For the athlete, it’s scary because they may have to examine and evaluate deeper aspects of themselves and their role in the process. It’s safe to say that the reason a PR isn’t happening is because of technical flaws. It’s a whole other beast to admit that a rough patch, plateau, or regression stems from choice or disposition. That means it’s controllable. That means that my situation is my own making. Who cares if you talk to a coach and they tell you that you just need to fix your posture to improve? But if you start talking about consistency or effort or focus and it’s an entirely different conversation.

For the coach, it’s equally scary. You better be ready for this. You better know your stuff or know where to get the resources. You better check all judgment at the door and focus on progress. You better have built a relationship where you can say “I believe you can do better.” and your athletes trust and respect your opinion.

Technique is easy. You have to admit that. This is track and field. A high school physics class could break down the technique for each and every track and field event. We’re not trying to put a human on Mars. We’re trying put a human a few centimeters farther into a sand pit.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I talk about technique a lot. You better know it inside and out and be able to teach it if you want to keep your job. But there’s a lot more there too. For me, it’s probably 50/50. The answer to the question “What do I need to change to jump farther?” is technique related 50% of the time. The other 50% it’s entirely something else.

As always, there are costs and benefits to every situation. If you’re only focused on technique, then the cost is that you may be abandoning a huge chunk of potential gains, but the benefit is that you likely don’t have to have many difficult conversations.

On the other hand, everything is fair game. Sure, there are some harder conversations and personal choices, but they’re worth it for those needed centimeters. At least in my opinion.

Kid Icarus

As a coach, which camp do you fall into? Do you prefer to do 100% of 75% or 75% of 100%? It’s an honest debate. And one we should all reflect on at times.

No, this isn’t some word problem where one train leaves New York at 10am traveling at 60mph while a second train leaves Boston at 11am traveling at 75mph, so at what point will America actually build a high-speed rail system where trains go faster than horse and buggies?

It’s simply a question about how you frame your workouts. Do you prefer to ask your athletes to do 100% of a 75% volume workout or do you have them do 75% of a 100% volume workout? Obviously the numbers are meaningless, but the concept is crucial.

Sure, we’d all prefer to do 100% of 100% but that’s just not the reality, so which camp are you? Coaching is an imperfect science (if it’s even a science at all). No workout goes exactly as planned, especially collegiately. Personally, I’ve found it more ideal to have my athlete’s attack with 100% vigor a 75% loaded workout. This is far more productive physically, emotionally, and psychologically than constantly pulling the plug on a workout after it’s 75% completed.

Tommy Riley

Clearly, there is a cost and a benefit in each situation. On the one hand, we have a confident athlete who completed a workout, but maybe got a less than perfect total training effect on the day. On the other hand, we have an athlete who potentially fully maximized their training, but may have a crack forming in their confidence, as they were unable to finish the task at hand.

This is an easy choice for me. And it’s easy because of the word “potentially”. Those gains are far from guaranteed; they’re merely potentially there. Oh, that desire to hit the bull’s eye. To write the prefect workout. To thread the needle and maximize a day’s training. It’s a myth. I stopped chasing it.

In reality, there is no bull’s eye you’re aiming for. It’s not even the eye of a needle you’re hoping to thread. No, you’ve become Icarus trying to fly as close to the sun as possible without your wings melting. There is inevitably a huge cost when you continuously push yourself closer and closer to that sun. And it’s good to be reminded that it won’t be you falling to earth. It’ll be your athlete.

Maybe I’m over cautious. Maybe I’m weak-willed. (I’ve never been called either to my face, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.) But I don’t believe in rolling the dice with my athlete’s wings. There are other ways to make them stronger. I’ll take my 100% confident, healthy, and hungry crew any day of the week.

You’re stressed. Use it.

TEAM – Some don’t think it’s too important in Track & Field. You’re in the circle alone. No one is with you on the runway. And for sure, no one helps you run your race. There are more than a few coaches who feel that you can just suit up a collection of talented athletes and the sum of the parts will be good enough.

Sure, they might be good enough to win a meet. But the irony is that by solely focusing on the individual, by abandoning a team-centric approach, you seriously risk that that the individual ever achieves their full potential. Ironic isn’t it.

And I don’t even mean this from an anecdotal perspective. I mean it from a physiological one. For brevity sake, I’m going to assume that you know that we want to avoid a fight or flight response when we compete or train. Blood moves less than ideally, hormones are out of whack, and is it really sustainable to constantly be fighting for your life.

So what’s the alternative?  What are our other options?  Well the body has a lot more at it’s disposal than simply fight or fight.  We’ve evolved.  We can respond to stressful situations in a number of different ways.

First up is the challenge response.  And yes, I’ll admit that it’s possible for an individual to turn his or her stress mindset into a challenge response. This can hook you up with the increased focus without the fear. The increased confidence, the increased power, they’re there too. But the biggest difference is in the hormones. Your ratios are a lot more conducive to a quicker recovery and growth/learning from the experience. And isn’t that what coaching/training is all about…work-recover-learn. Rinse and repeat.

But where the “collection of individuals” approach to developing great athletes fails the individual is by forfeiting the tend-and-befriend response to a stressor. Coaches, tell me if this is something that you’d like to see in your athletes during your championship meets.

“[This] response makes you social, brave, and smart. It provides both the courage and hope we need to propel us into action and the awareness to act skillfully.”

“In times of stress, both men and women have been shown to become more trusting, generous, and willing to risk their own well-being to protect others.”

“When we care for others, it changes our biochemistry, activating systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage.”

The Upside of Stress – Kelly McGonigal

Act skillfully. Hope. Courage. Brave. Trust. Generous. Willing to risk. Seems pretty good.

This is where team-first mindsets take the individual to a whole other level. Because you only activate this stress response when you have bigger-than-self goals, by supporting others, and viewing stress as a shared experience. In other words…TEAM.

Stress will always be a part of the athlete’s life.  And we want it to be.  It’s the proverbial “shot in the arm” that give us the juice to produce.  Imagine what your LJ PR would be if you could go into “lift the bus off the baby” mode whenever you wanted.  We want stress.  As coaches, we need to teach our athletes how to work with it, how to harness it – not how to eliminate it or bury it.

Who are you with two fouls on the board?

Way back in 2006, I was a young, scrappy, green, interim head coach. I was blessed with an incredibly talented, hard-working team. And on it, we had a very talented pentathlete. So here I am, at the 1st event at my 1st championship meet as a head coach and our #1 seed opens up with Foul, Foul in the long jump.

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We talked. We made adjustments. But as he walked to the back of the runway waiting for his 3rd jump, I found myself thinking about myself. What does this mean about me as a coach? Am I a good coach? What does this mean about my future? Do I need this jump to keep this job? And so, as he tore down the runway on his third attempt, my heart jumped into my throat.

Fast forward to 2017, I was a less young, scrappy, little less green head coach. I was blessed with an incredibly talented, hard-working team. And on it, we had a very talented jumper (who was a less talented pentathlete). So here I am at my 34th National Championship as a head coach and our jumper opens up with two sub-par jumps. Nothing that will make finals.

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We talked. We made adjustments. But as she walked to the back of the runway waiting for her 3rd jump, I found myself thinking of her. How much she wants this jump? How much she’s capable of this jump? How much she’s earned this jump? How can I get her to trust that it’s there? And so, as she tore down the runway on her third attempt, my heart jumped into my throat.

Good push – Check.

Coach’s mark – Check.

Full board – Check.

PR – Check.

Begin breathing again – Check.

2006, 2017 – Same result, different me. I was the only major change. And I don’t know if anyone could palpably tell. I work to keep this hurricane raging below the surface and keep it all locked down. But does it trickle out? It can’t not, right. No one can keep it all bottled up. It has to affect who you are.

If a coach is worried about their livelihood…if they’re worried about keeping their health insurance…if they’re worried about their family while at the runway then what does that mean? Is the coach there to guide the athletes?  Or are the athletes there to protect the coach?

These days, I’m happy with who I am when life backs me up against a wall.  I feel I’m able to stay true and be who others need me to be.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what 2027 will bring?

On to outdoor track.

Ok, so that was exhausting. Without a doubt, I haven’t been that tired at a track meet since NESCACs in 2006. And back then I had just finished the Penn Relays turn-around going straight into the NESCAC Championships. This was just your standard 2-day track meet. Well, maybe not “standard” per se, but I didn’t expect to be that wiped afterwards.

But it was one of those exhaustions that you feel after a PR. Where you might not be able to stand, but you’re curled up on the ground with a huge ass smile on your face. I remember, literally, being slumped over a hurdle on the warm-up track after the women’s HJ finished. Luckily, I had a good 30 minutes to gather myself before Peter’s 3k.

Looking back, it should have been easy to foresee the mental rollercoaster ride that it was. Each event is its own slow build where you mutter to yourself “Alright, here we go with [insert event here].” Alright, here we go with the mile. Alright, here we go with the LJ. Alright, here we go with the DMRs. Each of these mutterings vocalizes the slow click, click, click of the rollercoaster as it notches its way to that first plunge.

But then you say something like “Alright, here we go with the SP, hept PV, and TJ simultaneously” and your rollercoaster analogy gets tossed out the window. Or else you’re on one of the nuttiest rides you can imagine.   Admittedly, even with the three concurrent events, I was still fine at this point in the meet. (This was actually when I reflected on how lucky I was to have such a great coaching staff.) I was able to turn my focus on the women’s TJ knowing that the PV and SP were under control.

I think it was the high jumpers that did me in. It was the last two heights, when all three were still jumping in the final 11. And Emma, Summer, and Helene were almost back-to-back-to-back in the order. It was a constant little spike in adrenaline each attempt. And it was my job to block it all out and stay steady amidst the storm.

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I think I did ok. They crushed it and I kept my composure. But then came the hept 1000. Tobias was a bit down on the day. It was a “nothing to lose” kind of moment where you set yourself up for an epic PR and hope you hold on. In our case, we weren’t even sure if it would be enough.

He took it out hard, about 2-3 seconds harder than we planned. I think this hit him 600m in when he looked like he was fading. The chase pack caught up to him and started to pass him with 400m to go. But then something clicked and he got a second wind. After a gritty final 2 laps, Tobias had PR’d by nearly 9 seconds and grabbed the final All American spot. Funny, I was totally composed when the women went 2-4-6 in the HJ moments before, but I threw my hands up and screamed when Tob grabbed the 8 spot.

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10 minutes later I’d be slumped over that hurdle like the sad Energizer Bunny.

And 20 minutes after that, I’d be screaming for Peter Hale as he closed down a national title in the 3k.

It’s almost as if there weren’t any lines at the park and I just kept riding the rides with no wait.  And the craziest part of this whole thing…I don’t even like rollercoasters.

Reshifting priorities

Priorities. By now, I hope you realize that life is never about “I only have time for X, but not for Y” but rather it is “I choose to prioritize X over Y.” That is nothing groundbreaking, but it was a huge step for me personally about a decade ago. It’s never that you don’t have time to exercise, it’s that you choose to prioritize other things over exercise. (That’s usually my big one.)

But this post isn’t about that. This post is about times in our lives when we don’t actually get to be the one’s who set our priorities.   In other words…jobs. When you’re on the job, your supervisor sets your priorities.  And sadly, your personal priorities may not always line up with that of your boss.

I love to coach. I think I’m halfway decent at it too. I love talking with someone figuring out how to overcome an obstacle or cross off a goal. I absolutely love sitting down with an athlete for a cup of coffee and discussing their life – past, present, and future. I love when there is a trust and respect that allows us to go far beyond the superficial. And we start to work on the foundational aspects that can truly make them a more comfortable, confident, consistent, and considerate citizen.

That’s why I got into coaching. And it was something I got to do on the regular when I was an assistant. It’s what drives me and motivates me. It’s what sends me home to my family feeling like a made a difference. But I kept chipping my way up the ladder and I eventually became a head coach. I became responsible for the entire forest, not just a few trees.

I became responsible for an entire program. It wasn’t just my event group any more. It was every athlete, the assistants, the schedule, the travel, the budget, the equipment, the recruits, the alumni, the parents – my plate got a lot fuller. And it all pulled me away from those quiet conversations with the athletes.

And as I made each decision, I asked myself “How does this make the team better?” That’s something I ask of every coach and athlete on my team, myself included. And sadly, it became more and more apparent that in order for me to make the TEAM better, I had to coach less.

My role evolved into a fundraiser, a scheduler, and a supervisor. It was what the program needed and so I became that person. My priorities had been shifted and dictated to me. Sadly, it moved what I loved too far down the list. But I did it, and the program got a little better. But it got a lot more infrequent that I went home to my family feeling like I really made a difference.

If you’re not doing everything you can to affect positive change, then you forfeit the right to complain.  ~ Me (circa So year of HS)

So I created the only change I was capable of at the time. I couldn’t change the job so I changed me. And now, as I rush through this blog post because I have a 10:00 cup of coffee with a first-year distance runner, I am excited that I get to do what I love again.  And it feels right.

What’s the take-away here? Personally, I think it’s that you need to know why you’re doing a thing. You need to know who you are and what you value. Without that, you’re simply crossing your fingers that you’ll get what you need from life. If you’re a young assistant coach, don’t go jumping at the next job just because it’s there. Make sure you know it’s taking you in the direction you really want to be going.

Here endeth the ramble.