Ten dichotomies part 3

7.  Training vs. rest

One of the most basic and most often answered questions for any coach is: should we train and how often and how much?

There seems to be an easy answer: yes, as often as possible and as much as possible.  I think I already counteracted this point of view  in previous posts.

I am not an occupational therapist and I bet you aren’t either. Still many of us train as if they are. Filling the hours, keeping the athletes busy, because the schedule or program says so. A day rested is a day lost.

The approach should rather be: what and how little is necessary to accomplish our goals, instead of how much can we do.

When an athlete comes to train with me and asks how much he/she should train to reach their goal, I  always answer: wrong question. The question should be: how little should I train in order to reach my goal.

Do the statistics and see how many elite athlete’s careers were stopped, shortened, limited, or did  not fulfill the promise, due to chronic fatigue (being flat), overtraining, chronic injuries of acute injuries?  We are only talking about overload injuries here, because in my vision underload injuries do not exist, at least not for an athlete who trains 4 times a week or more.  (Example of undertraining; should I start sprinting today, my hamstrings are not prepared to do that anymore – so in other words my hamstrings are undertrained).

If the majority of the problems arise from overload, why then do we keep pushing our athletes over the edge all the time?

An example: one of my female athletes who won three medals in World Championships in Athletics, trained 5 days a week, with two days off. One day she wanted to have one more training day, in order improve even more. And believe me, she was already doing  very well at that time. The reason was: why not, it is only 20% more training, 6 days instead of 5 days, and yes, she was right about that, but she forgot one thing. The recovery time will be 50% less, and that is where things always go wrong. Like in normal life: it is not the 5 hours of sleep instead of 8 hours that will harm you in the long term, it is the 3 hours more of thinking or working.

In an early stage of the athlete’s career they have to learn how to train or train to train. In the next stage they train to compete and in the last stage they train to win.  But this does not mean they have to train more all the time.

A lot of older athletes make the mistake by training more than when they were younger, because they think they have to compensate for their age somehow. In my experience this is wrong. When you age your recovery takes longer. You can train as much and as intense as before, and even perform at the same level, but you just need more rest, which comes down to a decrease in training load over time. Also because you probably have seen and done it all and have experience that you were lacking before, you should know what is good for you and what you shouldn’t do.

Often athletes thrive when you give them more time to rest and recover. Yes, the muscles and the heart recover real fast, but bones, ligaments, joints and nervous systems recover at a much slower pace and that is something which is harder to monitor. We often assume the athlete is fully recovered, mainly because they feel so and will tell you so.



8.  Technique vs. conditioning.

This is probably the most simple dichotomy, obviously you don’t go far without any of the two components. Conditioning without getting the technique up to the same level is like putting a stronger engine into a car while the front wheels are in a 90 degrees angle towards each other.

Improving technique without adequate conditioning is like putting more spoilers and aerodynamic features on your car without increasing the engine and the fuel tank.

Still in many sports you can find coaches focusing on biomechanics, skills, and technique, whereas others pay more attention to physical conditioning.  The decisive factors are probably the demands of the sport (technical aspect), the talent of the athlete (the skills that are already present when entering the sport, and the ability to learn and refine the relevant skills) and the limitations of the athlete (e.g. lack in conditioning or not).

And most of the time technique and conditioning  go hand in hand or depend on each other. Also there is a ceiling to what one can improve, in many sports technical or even tactical skills are dependent on conditioning. How can you have a tactical concept of ball possessing when you players are not fast enough to get the ball.

In elite athletes one also needs to pay attention to:

1.    stabilizing technical skills under all circumstances (material, surface, weather, fatigue, stress, etc.) or

2.    one can focus on flexibility, having an appropriate adaptive answer to any challenge  (e.g. tactical challenge from the opponent). 



9.  Technology vs. people skills

This dichotomy is getting more important as technology seems to influence and invade our lives at a rapid pace. From IT-based technologies to measuring, testing and monitoring equipment.

Video, GPS, apps, heart rate monitor, accelerometer, you name it, even the recreational athlete has them.

Yes, I consider technology important, but technology itself is stupid!

Technology can turn good coaches into better coaches, but mediocre coaches in confused coaches. This because it is mainly about collecting, processing and selection data. Too often coaches use testing equipment to collect data but do not change their concepts or training program according to these data. So they are just collecting lots of useless data. And now the new gimmick, some coaches say is “big data”. Well, if you are working for Google maybe, but for coaches the focus should be on “small data” which means relevant and significant data.

Tools do not make coaches. Living not too far from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch”, it is a good place to realize that even the best brushes, the best canvas and best paints and pigments will not turn me into a Rembrandt and that from my hands never a ‘Nightwatch” will appear. Even if I see before my eyes the same thing Rembrandt saw, if I studied the “Nightwatch”, if I  know the technicalities of the brushstrokes, or if I know the chemical composition of the paints and pigments. It is not going to happen. 

Two rules here:

1.    you just measure what you do not know. (looking outside I do not need to call the weather service to ask what the weather is like here outside my office) and

2.    adjust you training according to the data or don’t measure or test at all


Without trying to become a Neanderthal, technology does not always equal progress. Look at many recent developments, like communication devices, from letter to telex to fax, to email, or from phone to mobile phone to Smartphone. How could our parents and grandparents ever live without these gadgets? The answer is:  pretty well!  They did not need a heart rate monitor to tell them they are tired.

In those days man controlled technology, we have almost reached the point where technology is controlling us. The main problem is that we can build technology from scratch, while our brain, the main interface with these technologies, is built on top of very old structures in the brain that cannot be erased or ignored, but still guide a lot of our behaviour.

The more digital capabilities we get, the more analogue problems we will have.

The problems of our ancient brain trying to cope with modern technologies are already showing in education, in psychology and in psychiatry.

People skills will be more important than ever before, since they will become scarce.


10.  Physical vs. mental.

The most puzzling dichotomy; it is still a subject of the research of many scientists.

Since René Descartes, we separate body and mind, while we realize that they are connected very strongly, and almost inseparable. Instead of asking is it mental or physical, we could ask:  in how far is mental physical and physical mental?  While a surgeon often does not worry too much about the mental impact of his surgery and the outcome and a psychologist seldom observes or works with the body.

In sports, separating  body and mind opened the door for sport psychologists and mental coaches, who seem to be experts of the human mind that is to say: the head (this is where the expression “head case” comes from). So if somebody trains the mental part, that leaves me with the physical part of performance.

I strongly believe that every “physical’ workout is a mental workout, any attempt to separate body and mind is a mistake.

A good coach has a great knowledge of the functioning of the body, the mind and their interaction.

He realizes that his words and their emotional load can trigger performance enhancing or performance limiting physiological changes. Sounds like magic, doesn’t it?

The coach is a tightrope walker, continuously balancing between most of the dichotomies described. Since we are all different, coming from different backgrounds, cultures, environments, upbringing, education and ideologies, it’s no surprise that we all differ a little bit in focus within the spectrum of each of these dichotomies. Indeed, many ways lead to Rome, the question is: do you take one of those roads, or do you take the road that leads to the Middle of Nowhere.

And are you willing to turn around and go back to the road to Rome?

In the end, time will always tell the truth.