Ten basic dichotomies (which explain some the problems in coaching) part 1.

You can compare a dichotomy to a Y-split at which you can go into two different directions of behavior or thinking. So you have to make a choice, which you do consciously or subconsciously, hoping that the choice you make will lead you to better results. Sometimes you make a conscious, deliberate choice, sometimes you did not even know you made that choice until you faced the other option. These choices are almost like political or ideological issues, it’s hardly a matter of hard data, since there is always someone to prove you wrong and prove that the other choice would have been better.  My opinion is that the answer often is somewhere in the middle, trampled on by “extremists” from both sides. We can always find sayings, citations or science that prove each of the sides. I strongly believe it mainly depends on the athletes you are working with and the situation you work in and that any hard standpoint is foolish.  But do not forget that the choice you make in either direction will influence everything that you do from that moment, so your choice has a strong impact on your training philosophy and the way you work on a daily base.


1.     nature vs. nurture or talent vs. training

2.     craftsman vs. manager

3.     generalist vs. expert-specialist

4.     theorist vs. practical

5.     evidence-based vs. empirism (knowledge vs. experience)

6.     early specialization vs. multi-skills (early or late specialization)

7.     training vs. rest

8.     technique vs. conditioning

9.     technology vs. people skills

10.  physical vs. mental



1.      nature vs. nurture or talent vs. training


Fundamental question: is an athlete born or made. If it is true that athletes are born we would not have a job, since there isn’t much to influence or to change. But this is not the real question of course – the real question should be:  to what extent can performance-related factors be changed. People always try to calculate what the contribution of the coach to the performance of the athletes or the team is. Is it 99%, 50%, 75% or 1%? One of my athletes became world champion in 1987 with a difference between gold and silver, between success and failure, of 0.003 seconds or 0.05 %.

So if I contributed 1% of her performance that would explain that difference more than enough. Again the real question is: what 1% did you contribute? Or easier, as a sprint coach: which 0.1 second in the 100 meters? The one from 12.00 to 11.90 seconds or the one from 11.00 to 10.90 seconds.

The Human Genome Project was the main hope for the people who believed that sports performance can or is going to be explained and predicted by genes only. But the more we start to unravel the message of the genes to more the opposite seems to be the fact.

We see that the genes predict hardly anything at all. Most attempts to find a strong relation between specific genes and performance were very disappointing to say the least. Which gives direction to the concept of epigenetics: we will find better ways to optimize the potentials given by the genes.

Yes, it is said: do not overestimate the influence of training, since you can never change a donkey into a Arab thoroughbred racehorse, This is true, but in real life the race is never between donkeys and thoroughbreds anyway, it is between donkeys and donkeys and thoroughbreds and thoroughbreds. And there training might make a tremendous difference.



2.     craftsman vs. manager



Recently I talked to many colleagues about the teams around the athlete or the teams. We now hire specialists for everything: strength and conditioning coaches, physical therapists, chiropractors, doctors, exercise physiologists, recovery specialists, speed coaches, dieticians, sports psychologists, mental coaches, etc.

But what is their place in the team? If we have to “hire” this knowledge does that mean we do not know enough ourselves? Don’t get me wrong: if you have a team of 30 players, I do not expect you to massage every one of them yourself and if you are not a doctor, I do not expect you to perform a medical examination or minor surgery yourself. It is obvious that some skills need to be left into the capable hands of specialists, mainly in the medical field.

But should after one year of working with a team a dietician go to training camp too to tell the athletes what to eat or to make the right choices? Should a sport psychologist come to the major championships, could this be a sign of failure, because he did not supply the athletes or the coaches with the right tools to deal with the stress of competition at high level? And thus created an dependency on his/her presence.

So can we hire any decent manager from a corporation to take over the position of a head coach, since you don’t seem to have to know a lot about the sport, as you hired all these specialists?

This manager should just listen, ask advice from his advisors and pull the necessary strings. In the end coaching at high level isn’t rocket science is it ……..

Or are we as coaches still craftsmen, carefully educating ourselves, gaining knowledge, learning from experience and also need this famous 10.000 hours of deliberate practice like our athletes?  And thus creating one of a kind, unique pieces or art which we call elite performers.



3.      Generalist vs expert/specialist


Should we see the modern coach as a generalist (jack-of-all-trades) who has adequate knowledge about all performance related subjects and issues? Or should he specialize in one field and hire the knowledge of others for other fields – for example should the coach be an expert in biomechanics and rely on others to take care of other fields e.g. nutrition or psychology?

Research shows that experts do not outperform generalists, as far as  predictions are concerned.

Experts in many relevant fields were surprised by the fall of Communism in 1989, the tragedy of 9-11 or the bank crisis. Events with a worldwide negative impact and they did not see it coming and they spend their life and get paid studying this…… Volcanologists with expensive equipment are not better in predicting volcano outbursts than farmers that live nearby. Philip Tetlock wrote a book about this phenomenon and distinguished between the fox and the hedgehog.

Now there are several questions related to be posed

First: what is adequate knowledge and experience. We can argue about this.

Second: why would you specialize?

My idea: Many times I hear: the information coming from all these sciences is way too much to oversee and to act on. But wait a minute, nobody stated that you have to become a molecular biologist or neuroscientist and keep in touch which every little new development in any of these fields. Know that only a very small amount of relevant information is trickling down into sports and often only years later. My opinion is that is possible to keep up in all the relevant information for coaching and training. And yes, you will have to invest in time, effort and information to do this. But nobody said coaching would be an easy job, and if they told you so, they were lying.