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?