10 September 2019

Be wary of the “Educated” Coach: Gurus aren’t the only problem

by Lyndon Purcell 0

Sometime ago I wrote an article titled; Be wary of the Enlightened Coach. In this piece (which you can find here) I discussed the lack of regulation in the fitness industry and how the system was being rort by charlatans and particular “enlightened” individuals. I depicted an enlightened individual as someone who had a strong…

Sometime ago I wrote an article titled; Be wary of the Enlightened Coach.

In this piece (which you can find here) I discussed the lack of regulation in the fitness industry and how the system was being rort by charlatans and particular “enlightened” individuals. I depicted an enlightened individual as someone who had a strong grasp on science, yet this strong grasp was used to contort the perception and application of science, creating mystery and the illusion of, well, magic. Ultimately all for the purpose of then trying to sell it to the naïve in the industry. This is obviously an undesirable situation, but it is far from being the only issue that is present in the industry at this point. In more recent times, with the popularity of “evidence based fitness” ever increasing, another pathological personality type has surfaced – the educated coach.

What is the issue here? Well, you best read on…

Let me begin with a question: How many times in your life do you recall being wrong?

My guess is you could probably count it on one hand. Not because you’ve made so few mistakes, you’ve probably made in excess of thousands – and I’m no different – it’s simply a product of how our minds work.

The major culprit here is confirmation-bias, which is the tendency to lend greater weight to evidence that supports our beliefs, and discards evidence that challenges them. While confirmation-bias certainly isn’t the most ideal cognitive set-up for trying to weight evidence appropriately, it is nonetheless extremely useful for smoothing over the rough edges of cognitive dissonance(the discomfort of holding mutually incompatible beliefs). Confirmation-bias, and the resultant reduction in cognitive dissonance, lets us maintain our functionality in the world without becoming paralysed by our innumerable conflicting beliefs, values and desires. This proved to be very adaptive throughout our evolutionary past.

While adaptive in times-gone-by, we need to be careful with how these psychological modules present themselves in modern-day life.

Once we understand the human tendency for confirmatory thinking, we quickly realise that a lot of what we think of as rational-thought, actually more closely resembles post-hoc rationalising. This presents us with an intriguing kind of chicken-or-the-egg scenario:

Do we have an opinion, because we think it is right? Or do we think we are right, because it is our opinion?

Most likely it’s a mix of both. Each one perpetuating the other, solidifying what we think is true and making us combative towards that which challenges what we hold dearly. Once a belief is sown into the psychological framework that determines our worldview, it tends to be a better use of resources to defend a rotten-belief than to rip it out and potentially destroy the coherence of our mental narrative.

This is one of the key lessons that I want you take away from reading this article today. Our beliefs are sacred to us, the help us function and survive – right or wrong, we protect them and make them work.

Are humans inherently irrational?

Ridiculing a certain subgroup for their stance on a divisive topic is pretty much a daily activity for the likes of advanced primates such as us.

In the 21stcentury we have powder-keg subject matter such as; climate change, religion, gun control, vaccines, terrorism, gender-issues, the shape of the earth, how to raise children and the ungodly controversy of carbohydrates!

Everyone thinks they are correct, and ‘individuals’ find themselves within a certain camp for no other reason than their opinion – which they may or may not have come to based on nothing more than chance (i.e. where you were born, how you were raised, genetic factors and a penumbra of other influences that you didn’t determine).

Then, once you become surrounded by those who hold the same fundamental view as you, the conversation progresses to how illogical the opposition are, how biased their take on the evidence is or to a more existential degree; how flawed humans are in general and that they are inherently irrational creatures (with the inference being that your particular group is inoculated from such fallibility).

And thus, the echo chamber is complete.

The notion that humans are inherently biased, irrational and flawed is a straw-man argument however. While there is no doubt that humans fall well below the ideals of Bayesian Rationalism (the mathematically ‘perfect’ way to reason based on probability-theory), this does not mean we are incapable of making ANY good judgements. By mere virtue of humans inventing the likes of logic, mathematical-proofs and Bayesian Rationalism, we can postulate quite confidently that our strong tendency to make flawed calculations is tempered by an almost equally sizable desire to overcome such a tendency.

The scientific method and empirical-validation aren’t omnitemporal concepts – there was a time they didn’t exist, but now they do. We are making progress. We have recognised some of our flaws and have put fail-safes in place.

Keep all this in mind however as we broach the pinnacle topic of this post.

The Educated Coach

This is the kind of practitioner who is educated(ish), and you’ll know this because they’ll have ‘evidence-based’ or their academic credentials in their Instagram bio. They’re extremely pro-science and anything that falls outside of what they heard the evidence-based pedagogues say is true, is dismissed as bro-science.

Another calling card of the Educated Coach is labelling someone with an incomplete view of the science as a “guru” or a “quack” – as if it even were possible to have a COMPLETE view of any scientific topic, let alone field. This is an extremely common behaviour for the Educated Coach.

If there is anything that the Enlightened Coaches are good at doing, it’s generating interest and people talking about them, so when the Educated Coach does their regular Q&A (as any want-to-be evidence-based rockstar does), it is inevitable that one, or many questions, will be related to the Enlightened-practitioner of the moment.

“Hey, what do you think about…”

What the Educated Coach often fails to do in this situation is do anything other than slander the ‘opposition’. Dismissing so-and-so because they’re a keto-zealot, or they believe in the ‘Insulin Fairy’ doesn’t educate anyone and typically commits a conjunction of straw-man and ad homimemlogical fallacies.

You can tell people that something is wrong, and besmirch the person that said it until you’re blue in the face, but until they find out whyit is wrong, it will not perturb their actions or alter their beliefs at all.

Quick example of this:

I grew up on a farm and I was a pretty dumb/arrogant kid. Obviously not much has changed.

Growing up on a farm, its pretty much tradition that as a kid, you’re told not to touch the electric fence because it will zap you. But what’s the first thing you do once you manage to escape your parents attention for long enough? You go and touch it with a stick, and then maybe some grass and start flirting with the danger more and more until you’re sitting on your bum, crying, in complete shock having no understanding of the voltage that just went through your body.

The same process happened many times. I didn’t seem to listen much.

“Don’t get too close to the river or you’ll fall in, the grass is slippery”. Didn’t learn until I’d got myself soaked on a frosty winters day.

“Don’t kick the football near the windows”. My brother and I didn’t learn until Mum had broken many a wooden spoon on our behinds.

“Don’t go near the bin-tipper, it’s dangerous”. I only had to learn that one once; a trip to the emergency room with a split open thumb was an effective teacher.

The list goes on.

I’m sure any parent reading this, can understand that saying “Don’t do X” is not enough. Until someone understands the why, they have no comprehension of why a particular behaviour should be avoided.

Which brings me back to the actual point at hand.

The rise of “evidence based fitness” is a good thing. In the last decade, the value placed in science for informing training and nutrition decisions has risen immensely. Coaches and trainers have learned to become more sceptical leading to fad-diets and training programs being detected and publically flagged more readily.

However, with this culture shift, “Educated Coaches” are becoming a dime a dozen. People take great pleasure is busting obvious myths, but have no ability to determine the truth-value of more dubious claims, or even successfully change someone else’s mind and helping them avoid a pervasive fad.

Chastising those who believe something, is not actually helping if it doesn’t reduce the amount of people that are falling victim to whatever thing it is that seems so obvious to you.

Remember: Tell someone that something is wrong – you’ll have little luck.
Explain why something is wrong and your chances of success go up.

In reality, sometimes clients and others have to learn for themselves. You can’t save everyone and sometimes people have to have their heart broken and realise that the “Fad Diet no. 325” isn’t going to magically fix all their issues, before they begin to listen to less fantastical claims.

However, as practitioners I think we need to begin to start taking some of the responsibility for this. If we don’t provide the sufficient explanation of why something is wrong, and instead spend all our time playing childish name-games with those who disagree with us, then things aren’t going to change.

And before I close, know that I’ve made this mistake many, many times in the past. I’ve often thought that a client would simply take me on my word that something was wrong, inefficient or ineffective, simply because I said so – how arrogant of me.

Unfortunately, these types of instances tended to happen because I didn’t really know why something was wrong myself, or how to adequately explain it. I was simply regurgitating what I had heard other Educated Coaches and members of the evidence-based community say.

Even if I was pretty damn sure that something was really a fad – I didn’t understand the mechanism or the details.

This occurred with one of my clients when the “Blood Type Diet” was popular (again).  Straight away I knew it was a fad, but I didn’t know why, so when clients asked me about it, I wouldn’t engage any further after telling them it was a fad and to just “trust me”.

How many times as a coach have you said to a client “it’s really complicated, but trust me”?

Why should they trust you?

Can you provide any evidence?

If not, it might be time to consider how evidence-based you really are…

I know that I at least had to learn this the hard way. You have to do your research and know WHY if you want to have any hope of persuading clients or the general public for the better. Yeah sure, you can front as an evidence based trainer, but if your entire evidence-base is founded on saying that Genetic Testing for nutrition doesn’t work because Martin McDonald said so. Or that sugar doesn’t cause obesity because Alan Aragon said so – then you’ve got a thing or two to learn.

Not to besmirch Martin or Alan either, they are both fantastic content providers. But if the extent of your knowledge is avoiding things because theysaid to avoid them, then they have become your guru.



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