What has changed?

An interesting question that came up last week. Well, working in the field of elite sports performance for almost 40 years, one can see changes from then till now.
So what are the major differences between working with elite athletes at that time and now?
I am not looking at natural improvement of performances or the increased use of technology.

1. 40 Years ago coaching was mainly a one-man’s job .The coach had a close relationship with his athlete or athletes. Nowadays athletes are supported by teams of advisors or specialists, in which the coach has the role of manager or coordinator with less focus on coaching, but more on adequate delegation of specific tasks to the other team members.

2. One cannot deny the role of the internet as a dominant source of information for coaches. 40 Years ago one relied on books, articles, seminars or personal contact with colleagues. My personal opinion is that the quality of information is replaced by quantity of information. Often young coaches ask me: “but isn’t writing on the internet the same as writing a book or article, what is the difference?” My answer is: just try to write a book or article instead of a Facebook post and you’ll know. On the internet every “brainfart” is fired into the internet within a minute, without any filter, reflexion or self-criticism. I said it before and I’ll say it again: the internet is the biggest garbage can that exists. I’ll give you an example: last week I gave presentation about running technique and put a picture of Mo Farah in there. I wanted to know his height and weight and some more about his running. So I googled different sources. Wikipedia gave me 1.71 m and 60 kg, and somebody stated that he supposedly had a leg length difference of 1 inch. Purely by coincidence I ran into Mo Farah here in Amsterdam two days later and decided to ask him personally. His height is 1.68, his weight 55 kg and no, he has no leg length difference! So far for the reliability of information on the internet. For speed, cost and quantity, yes, for quality, and reliability, no.

3. Information sources, e.g. about training, came from within the sport with a slow influx of information from sport-related sources. Nowadays a large part of information, ideas and concepts comes from:

• the fitness industry, not at all aimed at increasing elite performance, but mainly to look good, feel good and create general overall fitness and get average people to the gym and keeping them happy.

• rehabilitation and therapies, again, not aimed at increasing high performance, but at bringing injured, weak and elderly people back to a normal average level of fitness, not to win a gold medal at the Olympics.

• marketing of products, technical or nutritional: one can find and app or a pill that helps for everything one can imagine. It might take a few weeks or months before reality slaps you in the face, but in the end you will discover that 99.9% of the claims are exaggerations, based on sloppy science or good marketing, on hope or naivety only.

4. coaches were more independent and (self-critical) thinkers, showed creativity, and weren’t overly concerned with status, their likes on Facebook or job titles like high-performance coach or speed specialist.

5. At that time coaches were real students of their sport, they knew the history, knew the milestones of the past and knew the „greats“ in their field. The time horizon of the modern coach seems to be more limited in these aspects. They sometimes have no clue about anything that happened in their sport more than 5 years ago. But also their view of the future seems to be limited to the short-term, next competition, next month or next year. Just ask them where they and their athletes will be in 5 or 10 years from now.

So you might ask: “were things better in those days?”. No, definitely not, most things were much worse as matter of fact. Think about the sports materials, the foot wear, the equipment, the facilities, or the technology. But in scarcity or in limitations are the opportunities. One had to use one’s own brain and find creative solutions for problems that now no longer exist. These days many young coaches think they can solve a complex problem by simply downloading an app.



  1. Darren

    Okay, I’m going to disagree with you about the quality of the information available to you when regarding the internet. Ultimately it’s a tool and a very useful one at that. How one uses that tool is up to them. For me I research a particular area of interest and try to read as much as I can about the subject matter from differing sources that I then cross reference with my own knowledge and experiences. I’ll take on bored or discard both anecdotal experiences or empirical evidence, or even try out any methodologies for my self to see if I deem them worthy of keeping in my training or to omit them altogether.

    In other words I think it prudent to use what is available to my advantage, but to take nothing I read as being gospel. This also includes some of the articles of your own that I have read, and whilst I do quite often agree with some of your thoughts and opinions, I do feel that you can sometimes be quite dismissive about the contributions made by other parts of the strength and conditioning, and fitness industries.

    I personally came from a back ground starting out in track and field as an athlete before going to college and reading sports science. I also undertook a course in sports therapy and strength and conditioning, and very quickly became very dismissive myself of the people who came from different back grounds into the fitness industry. This was a mistake. I found that I could learn from all areas including general fitness, power lifting, Olympic lifting and even from those people who undertook bodybuilding. I learned that they’re are numerous training strategies that can be adapted and employed to the success of the individual. I also realised that my initial attitude to these particular fields and their proponents was quite egotistical and wrong.

    As for your anecdote with regards to Mo Farah, his weight will of course fluctuate depending on numerous variables, so I feel it unfair to hold your source responsible for getting it wrong. As for his height, again, it’s not that surprising that any other source other than that from the horse mouth, would be less than accurate. Hardly reason to justifying the internet as a whole as being completely rubbish.

    1. Hello Darren,

      Thanks for your contribution and forget about the typo’s, your message is clear. I agree with you on quite a few points here. Of course, I am generalizing, and my comments only apply to the majority of coaches, not to all of them. Even though the internet is convenient as a source of information, it is still a dump where everybody can put his/her brainfarts without any substantiation. People ask me: what is the difference between reading an internet-source e.g. website or blog, and reading a book? Well, it’s simple: try writing a book, and you will find out! Of course there are terrible books as well, but at least there is some effort and time for reflection, writing a book and a filter from editors and proof readers, who will hopefully find the weak spots in your writing and give critical comments.

      Now I have no idea who you coach, at what level, or how long, so don’t take things personally, that is not my intention in the first place. The problem is that if I adapt a crazy or counterproductive idea, coaching a 15 second 100 meter sprinter or a 30 kgs benchpresser, the damage is limited and nobody will know, no even myself or the athlete.
      If I apply a concept based on faulty thinking with an elite athlete, let’s say a 9.80 sprinter, I will find out, the athlete will and a zillion other people will watch or read about the performance decline, the missing of a medal at the Olympics, or the failure. Olympic medals are won and lost at hundreths of seconds and even less, so there is less room for error, or application of let me say, less adequate ideas. I really dismiss most (but not all) ideas coming from people without experience in a field at that level. Call it arrogance, but in reality it is selfprotection.

      The better your athlete gets, the more experts will show up at your doorstep. Strange they seldom show up with great ideas of how your 15 second sprinter can run faster. Most fitness experts or specialists nowadays had a two day seminar or maybe have read all books and articles that exist, still it is meaningless, if you want to coach the elite. I don’t trust the advice of a vegetarian claiming to be a meat specialist, or dating tips from a priest.

      Yes, I encounter a lot of overinflated ego’s, overrated “specialists”, gadget-geeks, who think that having more apps is the key to become fit and perform better. That is to say that I did not learn anything from other fields, as you might have read from this blog, I try to learn from more fields than many, being a generalist, not a specialist.

      But I do not believe in a direct transfer of ideas or concepts from one field to another, considering the different contexts and targets. The aim of my posts is to try to make people reflect and think critically, not necessarily according to my own limited experiences, giving them at least food for thought. I am always open to new, or better said, better ideas that have proven their worth in real life, because I realize all knowledge has an expiry date.

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