When Knowledge Becomes Bondage: How to Help Athletes Achieve the Impossible
In the past, I was convinced that the more knowledge I gained the more effective I would be as a coach, and the more success my athletes would experience as a result. I researched paper after paper, read every book I could find, and attended as many courses as I could.
With some young athletes I saw results, but ultimately my ability to influence outcomes didn’t change much.
A few years into my career, a unique experience I had with an athlete on the verge of retirement, and a quadriplegic experts have described as a ‘medical miracle’ forced me to question my approach.
Through this experience I gained a deeper understanding about what really makes a coach effective, and how expertise or what is ‘known’ can stand in the way of what is possible. Read on if you want to learn how to help athletes achieve impossible results, and become as influential as you are intelligent.
An Untrodden Path
Kelvin Moore might not be as well known as some of the more celebrated athletes he played alongside and against in the Australian Football League. However, for those who know him, what Kel achieved as an athlete is no less remarkable.
In early 2012 after almost a decade of battling arthritic hips, Kel was told his career was over. Multiple operations had left him with very little articular cartilage in the joint and his movement and capacity was severely limited as a result of the pain.
Being a proud person, Kel bristled at the suggestion he should consider retiring. He wanted to go out on his own terms, not because someone told him it might be time.
Kel’s only hope was a drastic procedure in which the surgeon would literally cut his pelvis and re-position it in relation to the head of his femur. The idea was that if the pelvis could be moved into a more favorable position, there would be more articular cartilage available and function could improve without pain.
The catch was, no athlete had ever returned to elite sport following this procedure.
Kel decided to undergo the risky surgery. In his mind, there was no alternative. He could not consider retirement until he knew he had exhausted every option and given it his absolute all. I worked closely with Kel during this time, and the experience was one of the most rewarding and formative of my coaching career.
I know Kel doubted his decision frequently and considered quitting several times during his rehabilitation. Playing football at the elite level must have seemed so far away when the biggest and most arduous tasks for the day were getting out of the car and walking up stairs, or walking unaided by crutches. It took him months to begin to walk normally.
The Athletes Ally & The Teachers Teacher
One day during a particularly tough time in his recovery process, while on my way to work I caught the end of a very interesting interview on the radio with a young guy named Josh Wood. Josh is a quadriplegic with completely severed spinal cord suffered in a snowboarding accident.
I had been flicking through stations and what caught my attention was not anything that was said, but the tone of disbelief and bewilderment expressed by the radio host. Since I had not heard the beginning of the interview it took me a couple of minutes to piece the story together and understand why the host sounded so amazed by Josh’s story.
It turned out that Josh was something of a medical miracle. Despite consensus from all of the experts that he would never regain the use of his legs, Josh not only walked, but ran, water-skied and even jumped his motocross bike over a forty foot gap.
Though I was impressed by Josh’s physical feats, what interested me most was one of his parting comments. In answering a question about what he felt was most important in his recovery, Josh said it was ignoring the advice of the experts and taking his recovery into his own hands.
Realising the parallels between what Josh experienced and what Kel was going through, I managed to contact him and explain Kels story. We then arranged for Kel to meet with him after a training session to discuss what he had learned throughout his recovery.
Josh sat with us for over two hours in the gym as he described his horrific ordeal and detailed every stage of his miraculous recovery. He implored Kel to focus on mastering the small things one at a time and celebrating each and every small win.
During the course of our discussion I asked him to further explain what he had meant when he said he had taken his recovery into his own hands. Josh said that whenever the doctors tried to outline the nature of his injury and the implication it would have on the rest of his life, he simply and flatly refused to be educated.
Josh’s belief was that if he wasn’t made aware of what was not possible, he would have no reason not to continue to attempt to accomplish it. The experts still advised him not to try, not to get his hopes up but he decided he would find out for himself.
For hours on end he simply stared at his big toe, visualizing and willing it with his mind to move just one millimeter. When one day the toe trembled slightly, he was elated. According to Josh, the doctors seemed mildly amused though visibly annoyed that he had ignored their advice to stop trying to regain the use of his legs.
Josh continued to will his toe to move and soon enough he could control it, from there he began to move his foot ever so slightly and still the experts would not support him. When he began to see movement in his legs, the doctors continued to caution him against believing he would ever walk again.
This only spurred Josh on more, he was annoyed that no one seemed to want him to get better. They acted like he was wasting their time with his dream to walk again. Still not knowing (or caring about) the extent of his injury he pressed on anyway and eventually regained use of his legs to the point where he could stand of his own accord.
When the doctors saw him stand up, they flatly refused to believe he would walk. And suddenly they seemed vehemently opposed to any further progress. Josh realised he was making them look stupid since they had no way of explaining what they were seeing.
When he walked out of the hospital aided only by crutches a few months later, the doctors did not appear to be happy for him, but continued to shake their heads in disbelief.
How Ignorance can Improve Performance
Josh’s story and the advice he gave both Kel and myself played a huge part in how we approached the rest of his recovery. The main thing we focused on was cultivating a deep faith that Kel could successfully return to the field and once again compete at the highest level. We also decided to throw away any preconceived notions we had surrounding his rehabilitation.
Initially, being the ‘expert’ I had based my planning off assumptions about what I thought we should and shouldn’t do. These assumptions came from my past experiences and what I thought I knew had worked in the past, and what didn’t.
The problem was, these ‘rules’ were grounded in events and experiences that had nothing to do with the situation Kel actually found himself in, they constrained and limited my thinking and subsequently our approach.
Slowly but surely Kel regained enough function to be able to cope with the loads he would have to accommodate in training. And soon after that he was handling loads which were comparable to that of a game. He returned to play at lower levels and gradually worked his way into the reserves team.
After a few strong showings and injuries to senior players he received his call up. He would achieve his goal.
After my experiences with Josh and Kel, I began to think differently about information, education and expertise. I realised that information can empower or imprison us depending on how we acquire and relate to it. There are no absolutes truths, and treating information and expertise as gospel can seriously limit outcomes.
Cliff young was a 61 year old potato farmer from Victoria who revolutionised the sport of ultra marathon. Cliff smashed the Sydney to Melbourne record by 2 days by running continuously while his competitors slept. Before then, everyone ‘knew’ that the only way to win ultra marathons was run faster than others, no one ‘knew’ you could win by running slow but refusing to sleep.
Before he beat Sonny Liston in 1964, everyone ‘knew’ Cassius Clay (now known as Muhammad Ali) was a joker and no real chance of becoming the champion he claimed to already be. So no one took him seriously, and no one seriously considered that he might live up to his own predictions. Until he proved to the boxing world that everything they knew was wrong.
Performance & The Pygmalion Effect
The Pygmalion effect explains why students teachers expect to do well, often live up to expectations. There are numerous studies supporting the real world impact our beliefs about what a person is capable of, influence theirs. Personally, I have come to feel that managing and manipulating the beliefs of others is 80% of the coaches job. This is why;
Repeated thoughts shape beliefs, beliefs inform actions and actions create results.
John Landy and Rodger Bannister wrestled with the four minute mile for some time before Bannister eventually broke the unbreakable record. Landy conceded months before that he could not achieve the feat, but just forty six days after Bannister, he took 3 seconds off his previous best to become the new world record holder.
Forty six days to improve by three seconds is an astounding achievement at the highest levels in sport. How did Landy improve his performance so dramatically and so rapidly? And if Landy was in the end a better runner, why was Bannister first to break the four minute mile?
Landy was self coached and no doubt an excellent athlete. But he had convinced himself the four minute mile was an impossible feat, until he saw Bannister do it. Only then did he challenge his own beliefs about what might be possible. Bannister was first because his coach Franz Stampfl was convinced he was good enough to do it.
Landy was led by the past, and Bannister was compelled to believe a new reality might be possible.
Athletes look to experts around them to validate their goals. Since their goals are driven by what they believe to be possible, the feedback (both verbal and nonverbal) they get from coaches can dramatically alter these beliefs and change the way they think, feel and act in relation to their goals.
Consider two similar exchanges:
- An athlete says ‘I want to go the the Olympics’, and their coach laughs while saying ‘well we better get to work’ while his eyes dart around and he moves away slightly.
- An athlete says ‘I want to go the the Olympics’ and the coach smiles and nods expectantly replying ‘well we better get to work’, while squeezing the athletes shoulder and looking directly into their eyes.
Which athlete is likely to train with higher levels of passion and purpose?
Which athlete is likely to demonstrate higher levels of commitment and persistence?
Which athlete is more likely to achieve their goal?
The answers to these questions are pretty obvious, but they demonstrate the influence a coaches communication can have on their athletes. What we ‘know’ can help our athletes for sure, but it can also hinder them in ways we are not even aware of.
The key to helping others achieve outstanding results is to consciously communicate at all times.
In the context of sport and coaching; conscious communication requires that experts suspend judgement, remain open to possibility and demonstrate belief, commitment and passion toward the aspirations of athletes.
Coaches who master conscious communication are more influential in helping others achieve their goals simply because they refuse to allow ‘what is known’ about the past to dictate future efforts. This approach empowers athletes, whereas the expert who allows ‘what is known’ to define ‘what is possible’ unknowingly allows knowledge to imprison them.
Conclusions For Coaches
The most effective coaches are those who use information most effectively recognise both its power and its limitations, and understand three timeless truths about information, conventions and communication.
- What everyone knows is usually wrong.
- If you want to change the game you need to throw out the old rule book.
- No one can limit us without our permission.
My experiences with Kel and Josh taught me that the key to using expertise well is to become aware of how knowledge is communicated and conveyed. Only then is knowledge truly power.