Sunday, 22 April 2018

Very Stable Idiot Week 16: April 16-22 2018


“We learn not in the school, but in life.” - Seneca


Most people are time-wasters. 

This is a fact. 

Whether it is wasted playing video games, perusing social media channels, watching TV, or otherwise, most of us spend far too much time on things that neither make our lives better, nor contribute positively to the rest of humanity. 

I count myself as a member of this group. 

But perhaps because of how I grew up, or where I grew up, or when I grew up, I have generally not fallen slave to some of the more typical trappings. I’ve never been a TV guy, and can count the times I’ve played a video game on one hand, for instance. 

I don’t own a television, and I do my best to stay away from the daily news cycle. Frankly, I find it exhausting. 

Essentially, I try my best to make good use of my time. 

(Although I am certain many would argue that searching for, buying, and playing a few thousand records for three decades may not be the best use of someone’s time)

That being said, as the world becomes more digital, we are beginning to see a pendulum swing towards more acoustic forms. Vinyl has been making a comeback for a decade or so, for example. And more and more people seem to be engaging in the millennial version of “turn on, tune in, drop out”

“Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time.” - Winifred Gallagher

This article on the distinction between expiring knowledge and long-term knowledge offers a unique perspective on our current situation:

Expiring knowledge catches more attention than it should, for two reasons. One, there’s a lot of it, eager to buzz our short attention spans. Two, we chase it down, anxious to squeeze out insight before it loses relevance.

Long-term knowledge is harder to notice because it’s buried in books rather than blasted in headlines. But its benefit is huge. It’s not just that long-term knowledge rarely expires, letting you accumulate it over time. It’s that compounds over time. Expiring knowledge tells you what happened; long-term knowledge tells you why something happened and is likely to happen again. That “why” can translate and interact with stuff you know about other topics, which is where the compounding comes in.

I read newspapers and books every day. I can not recall one damn thing I read in a newspaper from, say, 2011. But I can tell you details about a few great books I read in 2011 and how they changed how I think. I’ll remember them forever. I’ll keep reading newspapers. But if I read more books I’d probably develop better filters and frameworks that would help me make better sense of the news.

The point, then, isn’t that you should watch less CNBC and read more Ben Graham. It’s that if you read more Ben Graham you’ll have an easier time understanding what you should or shouldn’t pay attention to on CNBC. This applies to most fields.

I try to ask when I’m reading: Will I care about this a year from now? Ten years from now? Eighty years from now?

It’s fine if the answer is “no,” even a lot of the time. But if you’re honest with yourself you may begin to steer toward the enduring bits of knowledge. 


Take-home: limit your time spent on stuff that doesn’t really matter; stuff that you will have long forgotten in a couple of years. Instead, spend more time with good books. Books that have stood the test of time, or will stand the test of time. 

But understand also that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional wasting of time. Just remember that - like dessert - it’s a slippery slope. 

“The desire for self-fulfillment is the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” - Abraham Maslow


The deeper you go, the murkier the water. 
If you hold a strong opinion on something perhaps you need to dig deeper 

If you are doing something that no one else is doing you are either the smartest person or the dumbest person in the room

A version of the ‘paradox of intention’: You can have goals. But your happiness cannot be tied to the accomplishment of these goals - Roland Schoeman

I get asked a lot how one judges a coach - how do we tell if a coach is good or not?

My standard answer has been something along the lines of:

“Has the coach had success with a number of athletes, over a number of years, in a variety of different situations?  If so, that’s a good coach.”

To be honest, though - I’m not sure that this is enough.  

First - what is success?  How we define it will determine the answers to those questions.  

For example - what about the NCAA?  There are a ton of coaches at small schools or in lower divisions that are no doubt excellent - but traditional markers of ‘success’ may be lacking because they don’t get access to the cream of the crop out of high school.  Conversely, just because a school / coach does a great job of recruiting the top high school stars each year, does this mean that they are an excellent coach, or that the school has an excellent program?

Even in the professional ranks - the merry-go-round that is the coaching fraternity in, for example, the English Premier League, is retarding the opportunity and development of some no-doubt excellent young coaches in favor of the familiar (safe?) old names, who in many cases have proved over and over again that they cannot coach.  Yet still, they command multi-million-pound salaries.

So to get back to the initial question: I guess how we ‘judge’ a coach depends on what the objective of coaching at that level is: the objective of coaching at the high school level should be significantly different from coaching at the college level, and the professional level.  Perhaps the objective is even different within groups:  e.g. in track & field, coaching success at Oregon, for example, is going to be judged differently than coaching success at Stanford.  

For me - these four metrics remain consistent throughout:

  1. health
  2. consistency
  3. improvement
  4. outcome

If you generally have a healthy team, have shown results on a consistent basis - both within a season, and from season to season, the athletes you coach improve over the course of their time with you, and the ultimate outcome is positive - then you’re a good coach.  


- Davids & Araujo


In this paper, we propose that the term skill acquisition, as commonly used in traditional psychology, and the philosophy, education, movement science and performance development literatures, has been biased by an organismic asymmetry. In cognitive and experimental psychology, for example, it refers to the establishment of an internal state or representation of an act which is believed to be acquired as a result of learning and task experience. Here we elucidate an ecological perspective which suggests that the term skill acquisition may not refer to an entity but rather to the emergence of an adaptive, functional relationship between an organism and its environment, thus avoiding an inherent organismic asymmetry in theorizing. In this respect, the terms 'skill adaptation' or 'skill attunement' might be more suitable to describe this process.



I’m generally not one to shy away from telling someone how I feel about them.  

I have probably got a little better at not being so ‘brutally’ honest over the years, but I still feel it is important to be open and honest with everyone.  It is especially important for a coach to be so with the athletes they work with.  Even when the feedback is negative, it is essential to not shy away from offering it.  

The timing of this feedback is also critical.  

I had three athletes compete this weekend at the Mt Sac Relays.  

One did OK.  One did fairly well.  And one did poorly.  

In the post-race debrief, I tried to get this across to each of these athletes.  

The most important debrief is with the athlete who competed poorly.  

In my experience, too many coaches give the athlete an excuse; they provide an out for them. 

I’m not sure if it is because they feel sorry for the athlete or lack the confidence to be critical in a difficult time, but giving them an excuse serves no purpose.  

Instead - we must communicate immediately that we feel the performance was not acceptable; and what was not acceptable about it.  

Sympathy serves no one.  

The following article on negative feedback and radical candor was a timely read for me this week.  Substitute the word ‘athlete’ for the word ‘employee’, and it communicates my thoughts on this pretty well:

Radical candor, performance appraisals and more — each has its place when you need to deliver criticism
Arlene S. Hirsch

"Radical candor is the ability to challenge directly and show you care personally at the same time," said Scott, an executive coach in Silicon Valley and author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (St. Martin's Press, 2017). "Radical candor just means saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you're saying it to." 

New Ways of Thinking About Feedback

If you really want to improve an employee's performance, feedback is usually more effective when it is delivered in real time, along with guidance and recommendations about how to improve performance.

"The time for developmental feedback is always, whether in a coaching session or in a corridor," Richardson said. "Developmental feedback empowers because it helps people identify obstacles they face and reinforces their role in removing the obstacles each day." 

"If your goal is to get the most out of people," Habelow said, "then you have to be willing to give direct, difficult feedback. It's not a bad thing. You're doing them a service."

Habelow provided the following suggestions for those who want to get better at delivering direct feedback: 

  • Begin by clarifying your objectives. What do you want to accomplish in this conversation?
  • Script out the beginning and the end of the conversation.
  • Try to anticipate how the information will be received along with your own reaction to any response.
  • Negative feedback should be specifically focused on recognizable behaviors that can be changed rather than on personality traits or vague generalizations. 


On Coaching Communication:

*Movement Skill or Game Scenario*

Step 1 Instruct & Discuss - mins before movement
Step 2 Summarise & Cue - secs before movement 
Step 3 Observe or Rhythm Cue - during movement
Step 4 Feedback - Athlete 1st/Coach 2nd - secs to mins after movement

- Nick Winkelman


Couple highlights from Chris Cushion’s excellent Modeling the Complexity of the Coaching Process

“Saury and Durand argue that coaching can be characterised as complex, uncertain, dynamic, singular, and with conflicting values. Indeed, Saury and Durand suggested that the “actions of coaches were full of context based, opportunist improvisations and extensive management of uncertainty and contradictions” 

Coaching practice can, therefore, be understood as ‘structured improvisation’ which means that reducing coaching to generic rules and processes becomes, at best, hugely problematic. 

Structured improvisation, or the interaction of order and chaos, suggests that continuity in coaching comes not from stability but from adaptability. The ever-changing nature of coaching practice means we must focus on the totality of that practice and the practitioner, rather than simply on ‘episodes’ that occur in the process. 

Coaching being understood as a relational, dynamic social microcosm that is contingent and ever-changing has the implication that to think of coaching and the coaching process, one should think relationally or dialectically. The ever-changing nature of coaching practice means that the coaching process has to be thought of differently to a ‘system’, since systems postulate common function, internal cohesion, and self-regulation.”

The athlete is a complex system.
Speed is a complex ability.
Coaching is a complex activity.

The interaction of the three borders on chaos. 

The coach’s responsibility is to dance on the edge of this chaos - without actually falling in. 

This is not easy. 

The dexterity required to perform this dance requires years of experience, and the technical know-how required to fully understand the demands of each individual system, ability, and activity, as well as the interaction between them.  

"It is extremely useful to represent the phenomenology of your experience as a domain of chaos and order ... You are in the domain of order when your actions produce the result you desire. You're in the domain of chaos when they don't. Your task is to straddle the border between those two domains because you don't always want to be where everything you are doing is working because you don't learn anything. And you don't want to be where nothing you are doing is working, because it is overwhelming. You want to be stable and dynamic at the same time ... The point of maximum proper being is right at the center of the border of chaos and order" - Jordan Peterson

Dr. Jeremy Sheppard wrote an excellent short piece on complexity as it relates to coaching within an organization.  He was nice enough to allow me to share it here in its entirety:

Complex Adaptive Systems

The term Complex Adaptive System refers to a zone, within a spectrum, that varies from high certainty and agreement, to low. 

Leadership research finds that a Complex Adaptive System allows for superior Innovation, collaboration, and high engagement, and is the field of play for exceptional teams. Teams with high levels of innovation, collaboration, and engagement promote a myriad of exceptional outcomes for the team, and its members. 

Although high certainty and agreement can be a part of specific aspects of exceptional teams, this is usually only for very straightforward tasks where objectives are entirely predictable. In an exceptional organization, specific objectives and protocols can be entirely predictable and have no nuance, or variation to their application. For example, a credit card acquittal process, or a protocol in performing a highly specific task that has no nuance (e.g. you have specific procedures when you perform phlebotomy). These aspects of the business are considered a zone of ‘operational excellence’, where objectives and processes are perfectly known, application to the team is a straightforward process, and can be applied with minimal complication (high certainty), nor objection (hence high agreement component). Essentially in a functional team, these are areas where there are specific rules, and no team member, nor the organization, has a need, or interest in varying or adapting away from these rules.  

Extremely low certainty and agreement is considered the zone of chaos. However, many challenges within an organization, or even the entire operations of entire organizations, can be in this zone. Through effective interpersonal leadership, chaotic aspects can be managed towards a complex adaptive system by simply working incrementally by building agreement and certainty on the topic or operational aspect that is in chaos. A key aspect to allow for this is to have a culture where those in the team can recognize chaos, then objectively and with appropriate emotions work together to building some higher certainty and agreement. 

A key working here is Complex Adaptive System. 

Adaptability is a key aspect of exceptional teams, through engaging appropriate peoples that are tied to success, promoting collaboration to achieve better outcomes amongst people and groups (e.g. more win-win scenarios, better products and better service), and fostering innovation within and across organizations. The Complex Adaptive System culture requires team members to be ‘comfortable in complexity’ (and in fact comfortable in chaos aspects and leading them back to complexity). This requires working with heuristics; essentially rules of thumb, rather than non-negotiable rules that suggest that the rule is perfect and no situation has the advantage to entertain nuance. Rules of thumb can guide a team in such a manner that they are clear on outcomes but adaptable. 

The majority and highly definitive aspects of an exceptional team are operated in a Complex Adaptive System. 

“A complex system, contrary to what people believe, does not require complicated systems and regulations and intricate policies. The simpler, the better. Complications lead to multiplicative chains of unanticipated effects. Because of opacity, an intervention leads to unforeseen consequences, followed by apologies about the unforeseen aspect of the consequences, followed by apologies for the ‘unforeseen’ aspect of the consequences, then to another intervention to correct the secondary effects, leading to an explosive series of branching unforeseen responses, each one worse than the proceeding one. 

Yet simplicity has been difficult to implement in modern life because it is against the spirit of a certain brand of people who seek sophistication so they can justify their profession. 

Heuristics are simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement. But their main advantage is that the user knows that they are not perfect, just expedient, and is, therefore, less fooled by their powers. They become dangerous when we forget that.” - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from Anti-Fragile: Things that Gain from Disorder


The process is important.  

And after a poor performance, it is often good to revisit it; the competition debrief should include coach-athlete agreement around a mutual understanding of what the process is, whether both are still committed to it, and what is required to move forward.  

Sport though - is tough.  

Because at the end of the day - outcome matters.

Mauricio Pochettino is a man after my own heart.  After yesterday's FA Cup semi-final loss to Manchester United, the Tottenham Hotspur manager offered this week’s last word: 

“We try to learn always but at some points, it is difficult … It is not always about learning, sometimes it is just about beating your opponent.”

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Very Stable Idiot Week 15: April 9-15 2018


“Interest in local news, world news, politics, and media of any sort is a waste of a human life

Never in the history of civilization has man had more opportunities to squander his existence

Whatever news you hear, you will always default to your default state” (of needing more)

Kapil Gupta

Most of Gupta's writings are super-annoying.  His pseudo-profound BS reminds me of Deepak Chopra; but his fluff somehow ends up on my Twitter timeline, and I connect with the above.  

He writes a lot on 'the Truth'; I will offer my thoughts on this in upcoming weeks - especially how it relates to a talk given at ALTIS this week by 3-time Olympic medalists, and former world-record holder, South African swimmer Roland Schoeman. 

“My sincerity and desire to live a sweet spot of a life, is to the absolute point of desperation. I do not want a single moment of a day to go by, that I do not truly feel immersed.” - Kapil Gupta

sorry ... I call bollocks to that


The Morning Shakeout
- Mario Fraioli

Last week I wrote a little about my journey; and how in my opinion, young coaches are too impatient these days; in too much of a rush to make money, they don’t experience a long enough apprenticeship - and then once you’re in a paying gig, the increased pressures on getting results means it’s more difficult to continue learning / experimenting / collaborating 

This week, Mario Fraioli posted an interview with my friend Danny Mackey on his blog. 

Danny is an awesome coach - doing some fantastic things with the Brooks Beasts for comparatively small budgets (relative to the major players in the sport, anyway).  He’s super-curious, works hard, and is not afraid to try new things.  

Danny talks about his own coaching journey - and if you ask him, there are no regrets.  

Even though he sent out 209 (!!!) resumes, receiving not a single offer, he has risen to be one of the top coaches on the planet. 

The journey made him.

It makes all of us.

Take a shortcut if you like - but you’ll be worse off for it. 

Danny from the interview:

“I remember being at the office. Jesse Williams [head of sports marketing at Brooks] texted me and he’s like, “Hey, you got a second?” I thought he was going to ask me something about Katie or what she’s going to do racing-wise in the fall. He goes, “I think I have the budget approved for setting up a pro group. Would you be interested in being the head coach?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” He was like, “No I’m serious. I just want to know because I don’t need to interview anybody else if you want this job.” I said yes before I even asked how much it paid. I was like, “Yeah I’ll definitely do it.” And then I was like, “Wait, this is paid right?” I think I made like $200 total in my coaching career in eight years at this point. He goes, “Yes, it’s paid.” 

“If no one’s going to hire you and you know you’re going to be good at what you do, just do it yourself. And then wait, and maybe somebody will come along and pay you for it. If not, you can still coach and still feel fulfilled on that side.”

“The one thing that was the key thing—that I like about coaching—is that it’s so hard and there’s so much on the line. It kind of scratches an itch that keeps me a little bit settled. Coaching helps me because there’s so much going on all the time. It’s intense, and humans are really unpredictable. We could do the same workout, the same time of year, three years in a row and then the fourth year it doesn’t get a response. Then you’ve got to figure out why. What caused it to be different? I love that. I love that there’s stuff on the line.”

Heuristics & Anti-fragility

When dealing with complex systems, it is by definition almost impossible to accurately predict cause and effect.  The complexity of coaching speed (the athlete, the coach, the skill, and the interaction between them and the environment), makes decision-making a difficult undertaking.  

Coaching decisions are often based on subjective, intuitive (often sub-conscious) feelings; a standardized comprehension of a few well-chosen heuristics can assist the coach in consistently making more robust decisions.  

As detailed by Gigerenzer, one advantage of heuristics is that they are less prone to calculation and estimation errors; and, as discussed by Taleb, while heuristics do not try to be perfectly accurate, they guide our decision in the right direction - minimizing the chances of getting it spectacularly wrong - maximizing ‘anti-fragility’. 

(ones that came up in conversation this week)

  • In a 100m, the athlete that’s fastest between 60 and 90 will generally win the race
  • In a 200, the athlete that covers 90-120 the fastest will generally win the race 
  • We have a finite amount of energy available to us for the task at hand
  • Our job is to maximize the efficiency of how we use that finite amount of energy
  • 'Efficiency' is athlete-dependant; some need to work the front-end of the race - while others will need to work the back-end; what is efficient for one sprinter  will not necessarily be efficient for another
  • The shorter the distance of a training input, the more maximal the required intensity must be for adaptation to occur
  • A system cannot be understood by the sum of its parts; our complex biological system requires an iterative approach to therapy; the dynamic oscillation between movement and input (active or passive) leads to a relatively more efficient movement solution

“Complex systems demand an iterative understanding, as opposed to instantly and completely figuring out the biochemistry. They don’t operate under a misguided assumption that a system can always be understood and engineered into submission.” - Samuel Arbesman, The Human Body Is Too Complex for Easy Fixes (You don’t need to be hacked)

Michael Pollan heuristic:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” 

Dr Michael Joyner heuristic (which doubles as a haiku):

“Run a lot of miles 
Some faster than your race pace 
Rest once in a while.”

Who’s game to come up with a sprinting heuristic haiku?

From chaos to obvious

Coaches should look into Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework.  It provides good insight into decision-making concepts - differentiating between obvious, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains. 

According to Snowden, these domains give us a “sense of place” from which to analyze behavior, and make decisions; the framework discriminates between ordered, unordered, and disordered.  As knowledge expands, we can move from chaotic (no understanding of cause and effect) to complex (cause and effect only seen in hindsight) to obvious.  

It is important to understand, through, that simply trying to philosophize our way from chaotic to obvious will not work - we are governed by the current rate of knowledge construction; the drift from unknown unknowns (chaos) to known knowns (obvious) does not readily lend itself to complex systems - that are, by definition, complex, and cannot be reduced. 

Sometimes, we simply do not have the knowledge; we must admit to this, and do our best to make decisions based on the best-available evidence, with an understanding of the iterative nature of this process.


- TED Radio Hour

(Actually from September 27, 2013)

Speaking of complexity, the TED Radio Hour pod replayed a show from 2013 this week, which discussed three really interesting TEDTalks:

Monbiot briefly discussed the Gaia hypothesis - the theory, put forward by James Lovelock (1972), "that living matter on the earth collectively defines and regulates the material conditions necessary for the continuance of life. The planet, or rather the biosphere, is thus likened to a vast self-regulating organism.” 

Turns out Lovelock has a webpage, which included this update on the original paper.

This led me to this review by Andrei Lapenis, which discusses older work by four Russian scientists on the interrelated hypothesis of the coevolution of life and the environment. I thought both of these were pretty interesting.  I don’t yet know if-how this will color my coaching thoughts - but I’m intrigued enough to do some more digging.  Stay tuned on this one. 

"The more humble we are in the face of our experience with the natural world ... the more we're going to find a healthy coexistence with it." — Bernie Krause, bioacoustician

The FEYNMAN technique of learning:

STEP 1 - Pick and study a topic
STEP 2 - Explain the topic to someone, like a child, who is unfamiliar with the topic
STEP 3 - Identify any gaps in your understanding 
STEP 4 - Review and Simplify 



“training is like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. 

Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.” 

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree” - Elon Musk

We should be sure to understand fundamental principles - THE ROOTS of a tree - before moving on to the details: the trunk, the branches, and the leaves.  

Everyone loves the leaves.  They’re the prettiest.  They are what we look at first.  

But we cannot have a deep understanding of them without knowing the root.

This is a continuing challenge for me.  

I often dive deep into a subject without clearly understanding the root of it.  

I get there eventually - but the process is slower. 

Or maybe by starting at the end, this gives me a better road-map from which to base my journey on?


I like to begin at the end. 

 “In everything, one must consider the end.” 
French poet Jean de La Fontaine

Others like to write and react; there is something to just getting started, and allowing your progress to dictate where you go.  Plenty of successful folks don't sit down and build a road map - many just start. And perhaps that is where the main determinant to success lies - starting. 

American novelist John Irving takes years to write a novel; planning and researching can take over five years before he even sits down to begin. 

Interestingly, Irving writes the final paragraph last - giving himself a destination from which to work towards. 

Conversely, British writer Lee Child (the Jack Reacher series) begins writing each October 1st without the first clue of even an outline of what he will write about. 

Both are extremely popular, well-respected writers - each with entirely different means to writing their books. But each has a consistent philosophy that they return to each time they begin. One builds a road-map; the other reacts to what is in front of him. 

What’s best?

Whatever our philosophy, perhaps the key is simple:



“Our real discoveries come from chaos, from going to the place that looks wrong and stupid and foolish.”