Ten basic dichotomies part 2

4. Theoretical vs practical.

An eternal issue that is easily solved.  A Dutch pedagogue, Langeveld,  once wrote:  “theory without practice is for geniuses, practice without theory is for fools”. The question could be: you can learn to be a coach by reading books, articles and theoretical studying in general sense?

The answer is a clear no: between what you learned, know and write on paper to be executed as the training program at one hand, and the actual execution of it on the sports field at the other hand is YOU and your personality that you bring with you to the track.

That is the reason why I never have a problem sharing my programs with my colleagues. The success of the athletes did not depend on the program only, it depended on the combination of the program and my presence. How important that is, I described in my post about placebo training.


And here is my experience: some of my colleagues say: but Henk, this is all theory, you read all those books and articles, where is the experience? And then sport scientists say: yes, you spend maybe twenty five years on the track, but where is the theoretical underpinning? Who is right, they are both right and both wrong. Yes nothing is more practical than a sound theory, in fact I always considered every workout as a miniature biological experiment. But if I would have waited until the complexity of training was completely unraveled by scientists, I would still be waiting for my first workout. I had and have to do something, proven or not, but based on prior knowledge and the experience of others and myself.

There are many outstanding coaches out there who could be even better if they would take the time and effort to read and study the state of the art knowledge.  There are also brilliant minds who basically know everything in theory, but who do not belong on the track, they do not possess the qualities of transforming their knowledge into practice with the athletes and be able to motivate them over a longer period of time. In  my opinion the right cocktail of theory and practice is a necessity in order to succeed in elite sports: the coach should be a theoretical based practitioner.


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

Oops, the EB word came up. Evidence-based seems the magic word in many fields. Everything should be evidence based. While the development of evidence-based practice was never meant to turn into a defensive concept, it turns out to be that way often.

Is your training evidence-based? Some activities can be based on solid prior experience. But is the prior evidence of others an absolute necessity for success? I  don’t think so, I think that your own personal experience, innovative thinking or plain logic are superior to evidence-based practice. There is no hard evidence that says it is better to jump out of an airplane wearing a parachute. And no, there is no double blind, placebo controlled, golden standard experiment proving that using parachute is statistically significantly safer than not using one; still I advise you to use one.

Evidence-based is also an “innovation-killer”, because you can never try out new, not proven interventions, since they are not based on prior evidence, since there is none yet.

Experience and trial and error are still a large part of our training, as there are many unknown factors about which we can have only assumptions. Besides that, since every athlete is a unique individual (and you are a unique coach too) there can never be much information gained from the average research of the average athlete. In elite sports we are dealing with human exceptions, with the very ends of the Gauss curve, with genetic freaks who do not respond to training like the average athlete.  So how can I speak about the “average” athlete?  Simply because they are the main subjects of sport scientific research, since many elite athletes are not within the reach of scientific research, if only for the reason there are not that many of them around. And the result of their research seems hard to transfer to the average athlete. This is also the reason why one should never ever copy the workout of other athletes.  But relying on experience only has its limitations, certainly when it is only one’s own experience. Take the well-known example  of athletes who from one day to another became coaches armed with only the experience they had, trying to apply their own “success formula” to their athletes. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it fails, especially when athletes are reaching for the highest level.


6.    Early specialization vs. multiskills.

A popular issue in coaching nowadays. The issue became popularized by the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell in which he mentioned the work of psychologist Ericsson who denies the concept of talent. His research states that in order to become elite in any field one has to spend 10.000 hours of deliberate practice. So in order to get to 10.000 hours of deliberate practice one has to a. start at an early age and b. specialize early since 10.000 hours of deliberate practice in tennis do not really prepare for being an elite soccer player or shotputter and c. being very motivated.

This idea is contradicted by the idea that in order to be at the very top in sports, a wide spectrum of activities, exercises and skills is the foundation for success. These multiskills will improve motor learning and increase the motor experience of a young athlete, ensuring a balanced conditioning and an all-round preparation of the movement apparatus. But in sports in which one peaks at an early age like gymnastics, it is hard to spend enough time in multiskills (gymnastics is already a multiskill in itself). One basically has to spend as much time as adequate in practicing the specific skills. Spending too much time on multiskills which are not directly related to the skills demanded in that sport will thus lead to a delay in performance peak.


A few things most people studying this, seem to overlook.

It might be dependent on the kind of sports one is practicing. In some sports the relationship between the amount of practice and the performance might be stronger than in other sports.  It also depends on the age-performance relationship: one sees rather accomplished 12 years old in gymnastics, but seldom can the same relative performance level at that age be reached in sprinting or hammer throwing. There are many different sports with as many different technical, tactical and conditional demands, so it is hard again to generalize here.

Ericsson denies the concept of talent, which in a sense has some positive consequences. For me the consequence is that if talent does not exist or is not important for performance, people will bother me less to point out what a talent they coach or they have seen, only  to notice that 99 out of the 100 “talents” I have seen or read or heard about never made it to the predicted level. One of the best examples of this is the soccer “wonderboy” talent Freddy Adu.

Clearly being considered a talent alone is not enough for reaching the top.

Again call me too moderate if you want too, I honestly believe that talent plays a role, but in the end it is what you do with it. I believe it all depends on the sport, the athlete and the quality of the coach to developed these talents. In some cases practicing multiskills and thus late specialization will indeed form the right foundation for further development. In other cases the development of multiskills will be a waste of time and this athlete will have to spend as much time as adequate to develop the specific skills in sport.


Smith, G.C.S; Pell, J.P:Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials; British Medical Journal, Vol.327. December 20-27, 2003, pg.1459-1461.

Ericsson, K.A; Krampe, R.T; Tesch-Romer, C:  The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance; Psychological Review; Vol. 100. No. 3, 1993, pg.363-406.

Moesch, K; Elbe, A.M; Hauge, L.T; Wikman, J.M: Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports; Scand J Med Sci Sports Vol. 21, 2011, pg.e282–e290