Guru-ism And The Decline Of Coaching

Steve Myrland

“The medium is the message.”
(Marshall McLuhan)

Marshall McLuhan got it right, commenting on our collective gullibility. Truth is a relative commodity. For example: the woman next door suggests to you over the fence one day that we all ought to learn to live in peace. You nod, edge away and head back inside wondering how you managed to get saddled with such an oddball for a neighbor. But of course: If she has a Nobel Prize . . . you will be quoting her at every opportunity. “And did I mention we’re neighbors?” you will add with pride.

And consider the thought process of the individual lemming as the entire colony heads toward the cliff and ensuing oblivion: “I guess this must be okay . . . we’re all doing it . . .” Popularity can be a powerful medium, conferring legitimacy on some truly bad thoughts and ideas.

The lemming reference is apropos, here, because lemmings do not, in fact, commit suicide. The reason it is so thoroughly entrenched in our minds that they do is that another rodent (Mickey Mouse) dumped this myth on the culture in a 1958 Disney nature documentary entitled “WILD WILDERNESS.” We’ll let the title’s redundancy pass, for now, and focus instead on how we are prepared to swallow almost anything—if we trust the medium that delivers it unto us.

Sadly, this is the mind-set we often bring to coaching; constructing our philosophies, training sessions, and evaluation criteria based on a less-than-critical examination of the things we have read, heard, and seen. It isn’t important to verify that what our teachers say is true; just important that others around us believe what our teachers say is true. There is safety in numbers.

As a result, we find ourselves awash in training gurus and certification programs. We attend the seminars and presentations and we listen carefully, jotting down the salient points. If we are particularly bold, we may raise a hand and ask a question. Usually, the question is one of amplification. (“Could you explain that part, again?”) Rarely is it a question of essence. (“Where, on earth, did you get that?”)

And it is an ironic effect of learning from gurus that those parts of presentations that are most confusing to us tend to be the parts we question least. We more readily assume our own fallibility than that of the teacher we paid to hear. As a result, we have come to value “weirdness” for its own sake. Who has not been seduced by at least one exercise, piece of training equipment, or grand theoretical pronouncement simply because it seemed so . . . out there . . . that it was bound to impress our athletes, clients, or colleagues when we might have occasion to regurgitate it, later?

The problem, here, is that when the gurus re-create themselves in the form of “information for sale”—whether a text, or a course of study—they also tend to create lots of rigidity in the minds of consumers. Heaven forefend, for example, that our athletes’ knees should ever wander beyond their toes when lunging or squatting; or that the multifidus muscle might choose to pull its oar before the transverse-abdominus (even though both things happen in sport—and in life—all the time).

What I find so unfortunate is not information with which I disagree getting into the coaching dialogue. It's that the promulgators of so much of this information have committed their ideas to the texts they use to bolster their "cult-of-personality" status as "cutting edge" coaching gurus, making it that much harder to dispense with when it proves to be drivel. People are generally trusting of their teachers, and assume that what they read in books is generally true.

 “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him.”
(Zen Parable)

I am hardly a Buddhist scholar; but the idea, here, is that the real Buddha probably doesn’t advertise. That is: the pilgrim you meet on the road will not set out to bring you up on the enlightenment scale if he or she is, in fact, enlightened. The proselytizing Buddha, therefore, is the false Buddha, and may be dispensed with.

It is a nice feeling, being regarded as the expert. And though we should state the limits of our knowledge and understanding, the temptation to “take on airs” (as they used to say) is great, sometimes leading us to wrap ourselves in experiences we don’t actually have. Example: A friend (and otherwise honest fitness instructor) boasts on radio commercials for his gym that he has been training top-level athletes for thirty years. He is forty-one, now. (You do the math.)

We have a right to know how our teachers came by the wisdom they mean to impart; how long they have been on the coaching road; where that road has taken them; and who they have met along the way. Unfortunately, we rarely question message or messenger, and this leads, ineluctably, to the creation of so much confusion. Consider the professional patois we employ. It is replete with terms and phrases that we simply cannot leave alone—any more than most of us can effectively define or use them with anything approaching exactitude:
• Functional
• Core-training
• Aerobic base
• Closed-chain
• Sport-specific
• Power
• Periodization
• Proprioception
• Progression
• Plyometric
• P-N-F
• Integration

These sorts of terms barge into our consciousness and are then used and re-used, often imprecisely, until whatever meaning they may have originally held erodes and they are left as shriveled and bankrupt as the word “LITE” on ice-cream containers and beer bottles. As McLuhan observed: “When a thing is current, it creates currency.” That is: the acceptance of an idea simply because it is stated frequently. And given that we live in a time of instant credibility; of web-sites and book publishing made easy-as-you-please, lots of misinformation gains a foothold as a result. Soon . . . the emperor has no clothes. (Nobody likes to admit they may have bought a pig-in-a-poke.)

Let us remember: The essential preface to all presentations, pronouncements, texts, treatises, discourses and debates on the subject of human performance should be a bold-faced reminder that this is a work-in-progress. It is a journey, as one can easily
deduce by examining the progression of Olympic records over the years. There is no end-point. And this truth suggests that coaching is also a journey—a heuristic process where the more we do, the more we learn. Each of us is the Buddha. So: when
somebody on the training road says: “I’m it! The be-all-end-all! Listen-to-me-and-lookno-further-because-I-have-the-answers!” Well . . . Go for your gun.

Here are some thoughts and questions I find useful in sorting the informational wheat from the chaff. I try to keep these things in mind both, while my mouth is open (when I am in front of the group), and while it is closed (when I am in the back), too:

Why Athletes Should Avoid The Bars (An intemperate look at barbell-centric training)

Perhaps the most persistent blunder athletes and coaches make in training to compete is regularly mistaking “strength” for “athleticism,” so let’s clear this up right away:  Athleticism—the ability to express one’s physical self with optimal speed, agility, strength, balance, suppleness, stamina and grace while avoiding injury—is the goal.  Strength, as you will note by re-reading the sentence, above, is a single element of the collective term:  athleticism.  You cannot be athletic without being strong; but you can be strong without being athletic.

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Steve Myrland

Much has been said and written about the epidemic of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in female athletes. The New York Times has offered several articles relating to this topic in the past year. Link to  NYTimes The Uneven Playing Field and NYTimes New Leaps in Research on Injuries. Initially, explanations for the disparity in the number of these injuries in males and females often centered on a few aspects of female-specific physiology.

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Steve Myrland

If you have ever spent an extended period of time aboard a sailboat, you will have firsthand knowledge of an interesting and telling phenomenon: When, after many hours on the water, you disembark and set your feet on terra-firma once more, you find your inner gyroscope is now a bit . . . off . . . when it comes to standing on something that does not move. Your central nervous system has, in fact, adjusted (beautifully!) to a world in constant (and often unpredictable) motion. You will experience much the same thing if you spend time running on a treadmill. Once you switch the machine off, you face some moments of awkward re-adjustment to a (relatively) stable world.

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Steve Myrland / Vern Gambetta

We do not coach in a vacuum. At the same time we are striving for athletic excellence, we are (always) contending with obstacles resulting from our contemporary (and changing) social order. And while advances in technology may cause the stock market to move, they, generally, have the opposite effect on people.

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Guru-ism And The Decline Of Coaching

Steve Myrland

Marshall McLuhan got it right, commenting on our collective gullibility. Truth is a relative ommodity. For example: the woman next door suggests to you over the fence one day hat we all ought to learn to live in peace. You nod, edge away and head back inside ondering how you managed to get saddled with such an oddball for a neighbor. But of ourse: If she has a Nobel Prize . . . you will be quoting her at every opportunity. “And did I mention we’re neighbors?” you will add with pride.

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A confident, young,Train To Play athlete.


ABC Agility Ladder footwork drills