Placebo training

Picture this:  you are a famous coach with a very good name in sports. Why? Because you are known to always bring out the best of your athletes and you bring the results. Now this thought-experiment: here is your novice assistant, a quiet person that basically nobody knows (yet), who is missing the valuable experience that you have built up throughout the years.

Now split up your group in half:  group A and B, and separate them during training 6 or 12 months.  Then, make a copy of your workout plan and give them to your assistant. Now you keep working with your group A according to your own workout plan. Your assistant will start working all by himself/herself with group B, but exactly according to the same workout plan!

Now here is my question:  after 6 months or 1 year, will there be a measurable difference in performance between group A and B. And what if yes, would that difference be?

Think before you answer!

The options are simple:

  1. group B, that your assistant coached, is doing better than group A that you coached, well…… better not tell your boss, since your salary is probably higher than your assistant’s salary, so your boss might get the idea to finish your contract and hire your assistant instead …
  2. group A and group B are performing equally good, that means still you have no measurable added value over your assistant’s work. Also your assistant shows that you do not need to have a good name or be experienced to bring good results.
  3. group A is doing better than group B, welcome to “placebo training” because since the training programme was exactly the same, the athletes also believed that they would be doing better since it was you, the success coach, that made the success program. While in reality the training load is exactly the same, so the results should have been the same! The biological response to training is modified by psychological factors.

This is the famous/notorious “placebo effect” an expression that is mainly used in pharmacology, to indicate that at least part of the effect is due to the belief that a medication works.

Inert pills are sometimes given to subjects with the message that they contain effective medication and one can measure that indeed simply this belief makes the medication work.

You can imagine that the same effect might be found in coaching and training, where the belief of the athlete that a coach is successful might lead to better performances.

That is why one should not be afraid of sharing training programs with other coaches, since the thing that you can never transfer with it, is your own personality that makes that program work (or not!)  and the belief of the athlete in yourself as a coach.  Apart from the fact that any program, of course, is written for a certain individual over a certain period of time, so the same program might not be optimal for any other individual at that time, or for the same individual at any other period of time.

Now you might think this all sounds good, where is the evidence? Well, here is some, although there is more: in 2007 Alia Crum and Ellen Langer published the research they did on 84 hotel room attendants divided in 2 groups: a control group that just got tested before and after the experiment and an experimental group after the first test got the message that their work could be considered like as being a workout like the training of athletes and tested again after 4 weeks. Now the interesting thing is that the experimental group did not differ from the control group in amount of work done or in exercise done outside of their job, but the testing parameters definitely showed a significant difference, already after 4 weeks!

The experimental group lost 2 pounds in body weight, their blood pressure declined with 10 points and they showed a healthier body fat percentage, BMI and waist-hip ratio, in contrast with the control group in which no significant changes could be measured.

So just the belief that your job is a workout makes it change into that direction. Again:  the power of belief and the power of placebo with regards to training effect are real.        

The placebo effect is quite common in sports performances, like the marketing of sport equipment is often based on this, or why would you buy let’s say, the same brand of spikes that Usain Bolt wears if he would be running the 100 meters in 12 seconds? I bet not! Or take the shoes of soccer player LioneI Messi. Doesn’t wearing the same brand and the same model of shoes he wears make you feel a little bit better soccer player than you were before? One always subconsciously (?) believes that it’s the shoe that makes the difference in the performances of elite athletes and so by wearing that shoe, their performances rub off on you by wearing the same brand and model………. you get the picture.

But we know, it’s not about the shirt, the club, the bat, the spike (or the bike), it’s about the placebo.