From quantified-self to qualified-self. Or: from senseless numbers to useful Knowledge.

This weekend there was an article in the newspaper about the different brands of smart watches, i.e.  the combination of watch, heart rate monitor, stride counter and GPS systems. The movement that started this idea of progress through self-measurements is often called “quantified-self”, with Seth Roberts and Steve Mann as early developers of the concept (1,2). (Read Mann’s book if you think Google Glass is something new or recent).

In another interview people talked about the data-revolution that is happening in running.  Some recreational (?) runners try (in vain, in my opinion) to please us on a daily base with the kilometres, calories, stride numbers, average velocity and heart rate they recorded during yesterday’s workout. I couldn’t care less, nor should they, as this is just an example of useless “data-diarrhoea” .

Nice to know at the very best, but not need to know, since it’s information  without knowledge. Like a photograph of your lunch doesn’t make it taste better and for sure not for the recipient of the picture.


It’s about the illusion that the collection of data might directly contribute to better performances.

Going back to the example of the runners with their heart rate monitor, step counter, GPS, etc.

In this equation, data means just raw numbers: like heart rate, velocity, strides, etc. In this week’s  newspaper we could also enjoy a graph which showed the movement patterns of one of the Dutch soccer players during the match. But still it doesn’t tell us anything about the match, his opponents, his team, the other players or the final result of the match. Or about his efficiency as a player: did he run around like a chicken without a head not even getting close to the ball or did he shoot the ball  to his opponents instead of his team mates? So what does the distance or his location mean…… nothing.

Information is already more useful taking more factors into account, like temperature, wind speed, or other circumstances.

But knowledge consists of all contextual information as well. Like: what is my training program, how does this workout match with it, what do/did I want to accomplish, etc.

And even that knowledge does not allow me to control my training. Yes, of course, knowledge is part of it, but not the whole story, it just tells me where I am or what I did, but not where I am going to or how to get there or, in other words, what I have to do. It’s like you have a thermometer and you have a fever, but what to do now? Take an aspirin, stay home, see a doctor?

If you do the wrong training, too much or too little, too fast or too slow, you just don’t see any progress without really knowing what causes it or what to do about it.

That is where Knowledge with a capital K comes in. This Knowledge is not only about where you came from and where you are, it‘s about how to train or in this context: how to get where you want to go. This is where the need for a guide or a good coach comes in!

It seems that the human being loves simple and partial solutions to complex problems and like H.L. Mencken, one of my favourite writers, once stated: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”.

Often “one-factor-thinking” is seen as a solution for all our problems. I bet you’ve heard them too: “you want to get muscle, eat more proteins”, “you are tried, avoid gluten”, “you want to lose weight, just avoid fat food”.

And in sports we have many of these “simple” solutions to complex problems too.

“You want to get explosive, just lift heavy weights”, you want to know how your endurance is, just do the lactate test”, ”you want to get strong, just do the Olympic lifts”, “you have back problems, here’s a simple solution”. The list is endless, and most of the time it sounds logical, it makes sense in way, and you tend believe it, because you don’t have to think yourself anymore. Just because it is simple and somebody who tried it was successful…..

Or maybe they did not tell the whole, more complex story, maybe they were lucky or maybe they claim success where there was none.

The “one-factor-thinking” shows our inability to oversee and handle complex problems and it even has lead to disastrous social, political and economical problems: “just get rid of this awful dictator and this country will become free, stable and happy”, “nuclear energy will solve the energy problem”, “the free market (or socialism) is the answer to all economical problems”. Easy: we just need one culprit, one scapegoat, one miracle solution, one magic potion, one overall rule.

Probably the result of our cognitive quality, unlike animals,  of magical thinking. Based on hope more than reality: the tooth fairy, father Christmas, Halloween, even our present rational, cognition-based society is full of irrational thinking, that has no basis whatsoever. And so in sports and training, superstition is all around, from magic shirts or shoes, or think about mascots and rituals, which should bring us good luck or victory.

So in the end we like to believe in our own sophistication and knowledge, while basically we are controlled by emotions and irrationality. The layer of rationality is really thin.

Here are my basic messages:

Datacollection can only be just a single first step towards improved performance, but by no means it is the only or most important one.

Quality always beats quantity.

Don’t be impressed by numbers, any phone book is full of them (but as meaningless if you don’t know whom to call).


Roberts, S: Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight. Behav.Brain.Sci. Vol.27, 2004, pg.227-288.


Mann, S; Niedzwiecki, H: Cyborg: Digital destiny and human possibility in the age of wearable computers; Randomhouse Doubleday, 2001.


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