What Have We Learned?

Written by: Kevin Cann


I have a bit more time on my hands these days, so I figured I would write a bit more.  This is a nice distraction from the shit show that is the real world right now.  Instead of getting involved in it, except for the occasional sharing of an article with a different perspective than what the masses are sharing on my feed at a given time, I have decided to kind of just sit back and watch it unfold and try to understand the bigger picture.


I am not trying to come up with solutions to the pandemic.  I do have my own opinions, but that is not what this article is going to be about.  Instead I want to discuss human thinking.  This applies to coaching and lifting as well.


As humans we love to look backwards while we are moving forward.  We get some unexpected result.  We look back and analyze the data and find the solution to our problem.  What we tend to be unaware of is our ability to make sense of things that we do not fully understand.  This is known as hindsight bias.


This is when people believe that events that have occurred were more predictable than they really were before the events took place.  Let us look at a powerlifting example here.  We go to a meet and we failed to hit a PR.  We look back through our training and we make some narratives for ourselves.


Perhaps we say that the intensity was not high enough, or our volume was too low in the weeks leading up to the competition.  From there we change those few things and apply them to the next training block.  At that competition we hit those PRs and had an outstanding performance.  We then pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.


This situation can increase our overconfidence in predicting future outcomes.  You see, this whole scenario, the coach or the lifter was looking backwards while believing they were looking forwards.


We are seeing this with the current events unfolding as well.  The coronavirus outbreak started around December.  Now in mid-April we have everyone looking back pinpointing points in time that got us to this current situation.  This includes everyone looking back and second guessing the decisions of policy makers.


The reality of this situation is that decisions needed to be made very quickly with very poor data.  These decisions need to be made in a situation that drives up an emotional response.  This emotional response is not the greatest to human thinking.


The same can be said about looking at the data in our programs after a bad meet.  This too comes with an emotional response.  No matter what we would have done in either of those cases there is still a chance we would be right where we are now.  Again, looking back and creating a narrative in hindsight with the information we have after the fact gives us an overconfidence in our abilities to predict future outcomes.


Emotional thinking is quick thinking.  This is where heuristics and bias come into play.  Thinking requires a lot of energy and effort.  It is slow and progressive, and the thinker needs to be self-aware.  This way of thinking has fewer errors than when we think fast.  However, sometimes life requires us to think fast.  Both ways are necessary.  In fact, thinking fast is what keeps us alive.


Thinking is more about understanding what we don’t know than what we actually know.  Ideally, we want to setup experiments that become repeatable and predictable.  This is more easily said than done in the real world because the number of variables that are present are infinite and our understanding of the complexity of biology is poor.


We need to learn from the past as well.  The current pandemic will come and go, but what will we have learned?  One side will say social distancing worked and another will say it is an overreaction.  Math and science will back up both sides of the argument.  We sees these scenarios in the lifting world all of the time.  Science can backup anything.


I am not saying science should be ignored.  We need to do our best to understand what that science is telling us, but then find a way to practically apply it in the real world.  Knowing the limitations of science here is huge.


So what do we do when the situation arises again?  We use our hindsight bias and make a decision.  Maybe it works better this time and maybe it doesn’t.  This is the same scenario as looking back at our training in hopes of making better decisions.  Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.


Now, this does not mean we just throw experiences out the window and leave everything to chance.  That is a terrible idea and will most likely lead to a world with no progress.  For a future pandemic it is probably most important that we have high levels of testing capabilities to then make the decision that seems most appropriate at that time.  This is one small change that can cause a giant ripple effect in our abilities to handle a crisis like this.


The same needs to be done with our training.  We need to analyze everything.  Perhaps the lifter’s diet and sleep were off, or there was increased stress at certain times throughout training.  Perhaps the lifter was experiencing pain and limited in training.


The coach might just decide to let the lifter heal up or focus on sleep to see how progress changes.  Changing up the one thing that you think will have the biggest impact is the most important.  From there, observe.  Just remember as you are observing to be aware of your blind spots.  Always leave room for uncertainty and keep an accurate journal so that we can avoid some hindsight bias later on.


This is the slow, methodical, and progressive way of thinking that leads to better decisions over the longer term.  Coaching is a process.  Coaching is not a 12 week thing that is identified by volumes and intensities.


Powerlifting is a sport that can get the athlete very emotional.  This can lead to quick thinking and many decisions being driven by bias.  This can also lead to drastic changes in training that start the whole process all over again.


This can lead to sustained frustration and eventually quitting the sport.  Do not drastically change things.  Understand it is a process and change one thing at a time.  Understand that this is all a learning process and be aware of your bias and blind spots.


This includes taking in all other perspectives.  Oftentimes pieces of every perspective are important to making the best decisions.  Also, do not try to be perfect.  A more optimal program gets laid out over time as we learn more and more about ourselves.


Keep this in mind at this current time as well.  There are many blind spots with a novel virus and how it can impact a complex society.  Be wary of looking backwards and finding answers.  Also be wary of looking back at other pandemics and comparing this one to it.  Times are vastly different.


Also keep in mind that, at the end of the day we do not really know shit about anything.  What we think we know now will be laughed at in the future.  We know what we know at this time and we need to use that to drive decisions, but we also need to be aware of what we do not know.

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