Roughly 3 years ago I made the decision to go back to school to pursue my Masters Degree in Exercise Science/Physiology. Around that time cycling had begun seeping deeper and deeper into my bloodstream. Cycling seems to have a similar impact on just about everyone it encounters.

In my case it changed the trajectory of my career while simultaneously introducing me to some of the coolest and most honorable people in my life. After finishing my degree this month I’ve had a few moments to think back on the top 4 things I learned about coaching as a result of my graduate experience. Here we go…

4. You better do your homework…

The world of academic debate is similar to competitive sport. Battle lines are defined, swords are drawn, and a clash ensues. All are welcome to join in combat but one thing is certain, you better do your homework or you’re going to get “shot off the back”.

Homework consists of being able to back up what you write with reference to quality research. Opinions and conjecture are left to the realm of Internet forums and blog posts (oops). If you can’t provide empirical evidence of what you’re saying, then don’t say anything at all. Coaching could learn a lot from this empirical standard. If you’re going to prescribe specific workouts or tout a certain training methodology you should be able to provide a rationale for your prescription based in science.

3. Don’t trust the Shake Weight…

A core component of my degree was conducting original research and writing a thesis. Perhaps the greatest benefit to the thesis process was an added ability to read and dissect other research.

It’s a skillset that proves valuable in the world of coaching where new trends and training strategies are constantly being touted and sold as “research-based”. How else could one avoid the irresistible marketing of the Shake Weight, touting a 300% increase in muscle activation when compared to a comparable sized dumbbell?

2. Smart exercise physiologists are uncomfortable answering questions in absolute terms…

I came across this realization early in grad school. When you ask an exercise physiologist a simple question, very rarely are they able to respond with a simple answer, unless that answer happen to be “it depends”.

This got me thinking: first, why the aversion to simplistic answers and second, why do coaches and fitness professionals often revel in simplistic explanations? Here are the two conclusions I came to.

  • Exercise physiologists are uncomfortable with simple answers because they have a hard time disconnecting their brain from the complicated and sometimes contradictory nature of research. This makes it all but impossible to respond to questions regarding training with simplistic answers. Exercise physiology isn’t simple; our understanding is complicated and ever evolving. This complexity demands a sense of humility from intelligent physiologists and coaches. While science offers increasing windows into the world of human performance, the success of a coach will always be a combination of science and art, of knowns and unknowns.
  • Many coaches and fitness professionals feel it is their responsibility to confidently proclaim knowledge of the “best” way to train. It’s hard to market the more nuanced training advice of “it depends”. As a coach I hope to stay true to that answer given so many times by professors and researchers much smarter than me. “It depends” is the answer of smart exercise physiologists and coaches who recognize that the world of human performance can rarely be described in absolutes.

1. Being “the best” always involves adaptation…

It is my belief that coaching excellence comes from the art of blending peer-reviewed literature, new technology, and an understanding of old and new training methodologies.

The best researchers and professors don’t simply reminisce about the good old days when they completed their graduate or Ph.D degrees, they stay tightly connected to a community of research that continues to adapt and evolve as science makes it’s slow but steady progression. It’s this constant advancement that makes coaching such an exciting profession, a profession that at it’s best is always adapting.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete