MATT FITZGERALD – Runner’s Tribe

Matt Fitzgerald is an acclaimed endurance sports coach, nutritionist, and author. His many books include The Endurance Diet80/20 Running, and How Bad Do You Want It? 

“These other young coaches have their science blah blah but they are not as successful.” —Coach Hailye, Out of Thin Air

There’s an endurance coach I follow on Twitter who tweets a lot. We’ll call him Dick Smart. I find him quite impressive on one level. A real numbers guy, he knows more about using data to regulate fitness development than I could ever hope to. But something else about him turns me off. For a while now I’ve been vaguely repelled by his public communications without knowing exactly why. Until I did.

The decisive clue lay in the tone of Dick Smart’s tweets, which never varies. They have a hectoring know-it-all quality that coveys the impression that their main purpose is not to edify but to demonstrate a kind of superiority. A consistent subtext lurks beneath the semantic surface of Dick Smart’s social media posts. While each tweet is superficially distinct from the rest, they all share the same hidden message. What Dick Smart is really trying to say to his followers, every single time he sits the Tweet button, is this: “As you can see, I have it all figured out, and you probably don’t.”

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I don’t mean to be overly harsh. Dick Smart really knows his stuff, and I have no doubt that he helps a lot of athletes. But seeing what I see in him, I would never want him as my coach, nor would I ever refer an athlete to him. The better coaches, in my view, have humility, and I don’t see a lot of humility in Dick Smart. I don’t see him really listening to his athletes or letting them have much of a say in their training, or reacting well should they dare to question something he’s given them. I see him reflexively blaming the athlete anytime something goes wrong.

The better coaches, in my view, believe Vern Gambetta—himself a better coach—was right in writing, “The goal in coaching is to develop self-sufficient, adaptable athletes prepared to thrive in the competitive cauldron. Give your athletes the mental and physical skills. Get them to the point where they trust in their preparation and let them go.” I don’t see Dick Smart aiming to cultivate self-sufficiency in his athletes. I might be wrong, but I suspect Dick Smart wants his athletes to feel utterly dependent on him.

Distance coach Colm O’Connell observes a local cross-country race in Kenya (Jürg Wirz) © Copyright

Enough about Dick Smart. He doesn’t really concern me. What does concern me is the ongoing scientification of endurance coaching that I’m witnessing. There’s a new guard of coaches (all men, by the way) who see endurance training as a science and themselves as essentially scientists. From where I sit, this movement is both good and bad—good in that it is bringing about a needed standardization of training practices, bad in that it ignores and at times deprecates the human side of coaching. The attitude of these young Turks is encapsulated in something University of Oregon coach Rob Johnson said in an October 2021 interview with Oregonian writer Ken Goe: “Track is nothing but numbers. A good mathematician probably could be a good track coach.”

One senses that Rob Johnson and Dick Smart and their ilk regard their athletes as numbers—or at the very most, as subjects. Leaving aside the sheer ugliness of this attitude, it’s just plain wrong. The human element in coaching is hugely important. A mathematician lacking in emotional intelligence cannot be a good track coach. Heck, at the time Rob Johnson gave the interview I just quoted from, he was being accused by former athletes of damaging them emotionally with his relentless focus on numbers!

The best coaches care more about their athletes as human beings than as performers. They make an effort to get to know their athletes deeply—their likes and dislikes, their dreams and fears, their strengths and foibles. They know how to motivate and inspire them, are thoughtful and intentional about how they communicate with them, and are as interested in cultivating their mental fitness as their physical fitness. The best coaches are loved, not merely respected, by their athletes. And when I say “best,” I don’t just mean less likely to be accused of inflicting psychic damage. Studies have shown that athletes improve more when they have a strong emotional bond with their coach. That’s right: Science says that all-science-no-art coaches aren’t as effective!

Steve Prefontaine with coach Bill Bowerman

In truth, the title of this article is misleading. Coaches don’t have to choose between art and science in developing a coaching style. Every endurance coach should have some level of literacy in relevant science. But all the scientific erudition in the world doesn’t do much good unless the coach who possesses it also has a modicum of fluency in the human aspect of coaching, and I see increasing numbers of coaches (I’m looking at you, Dick Smart!) who behave as if this aspect doesn’t even exist

What troubles me is that many athletes don’t perceive the stench emanating from Dick Smart’s tweets. They’re too distracted by his show of condescending omniscience, which convinces them he’s a terrific coach, perhaps the coach they need. My message to these athletes is this: Think twice!

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