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.

The Lost Art of Thinking for Yourself

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

Without a ton of lifting going on, I have been able to experience and observe other aspects of life.  I get to observe other aspects of life while going through a pandemic.  A worldwide trauma that rattles our sense of control and peaks our fears.  This pandemic brings with it a whole lot of uncertainty too.

 

It is not just a virus that we are scared of.  Many of us are scared of the economic fallout.  Others may be worried about substance abuse relapses or mental health issues.  Every aspect of our lives is being challenged.  Under these conditions people are going to have opinions.

 

I have seen a lot of posts that mock those with opinions.  For example, “Every strength coach is now a virologist and epidemiologist…”. I made that up, but it is usually something to that effect with a lot more words. Usually ends with, “I will listen to the experts.”

 

I am not going to say that we should ignore the experts, but at the same time following them blindly seems like a bad idea as well.  I think our education system sets us up for this mentality.  I did not have a real discussion in school until grad school.

 

Education is usually a bunch of students sitting in desks being quiet while a teacher talks to them.  We just believe every word that the teacher says because we have to, because it will be on the test.

 

Science exists so that we can ask questions.  Pierre-Marc Gaston, duc de Levis stated, “It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”  I love this quote, and I find it to be very true.  I seek out people that have more questions than answers.  Those are the ones I enjoy talking to the most.

 

Philip Tetlock performed a study from 1984 to 2004 tracking political experts’ abilities to predict world events.  He found that these experts were not very good at predicting these events.  There was a subset of experts that did perform better.

 

They performed better due to their way of thinking.  They rejected the idea that any single variable determines an outcome.  They used multiple sources and tools and combined differing perspectives.  They embraced the uncertainty so to speak.

 

He called this subset of experts foxes.  The majority he referred to as hedgehogs.  Foxes were what Tetlock called agile thinkers, where hedgehogs just dug into their beliefs.  I find this very important.  The ones that took in all perspectives were less wrong.

 

It is also important to note that many experts performed worse than chance in their predictions.  This means that the random person on Facebook is as likely to be as accurate in their predictions.

 

That random person on Facebook might be coming from a different walk of life.  They bring to the table a different perspective.  This may be a perspective that you have not even considered yet.  This perspective can be important for decision making.

 

I am also surprised by the size of the echo chamber.  No one thinks for themselves anymore or has any original thoughts.  We just find a media article that resonates with our beliefs, share it, and yell at those that disagree.

 

I have seen people posting good questions about the current situation and then being trashed for asking questions in the comments.  This included name calling.  When did it become a bad thing to ask questions?

 

If we just always follow what the “experts” say without questioning, we will never progress as a society.  Every hypothesis has been disproven wrong at some point.  The extreme confidence shown by many experts is a major chink in their armor since the world we live in is uncertain.

 

We have not even begun to scratch the surface of understanding the complexities of biology.  This does not mean that the experts do not know anything.  They definitely have good information that we need to take into account, but we need to understand the limitations of that information.

 

There was a time that science convinced experts to use leeches for medical treatments.  A hundred years from now science will look back upon our current time and laugh at what we believed to be true.  This is how progress happens, but progress does not happen unless we ask good questions.

 

Even the perceived “smarter” members of the echo chamber are misguided.  This is the citing science with every thought and the “My science is better than your science” crowd.  If you care enough, you can find evidence that supports any stance you want to take.  Then the argument becomes “My science is of higher quality.”  Yeah, ok.  Sure it is.

 

Yes, some science is better than other science, but how well it actually works out in the real world is unknown.  Ioannidis published an article in 2005 titled “Why Most Published Research Findings are False.”  In this paper he is quoted as saying “There is increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or the vast majority of published research claims.”

 

We tend to be overconfident in what we think we know and underestimate what we don’t actually know.  Most experts are experts in a given field.  They are biased towards their research findings.  They also only view issues from the lens of their perspective fields.  These research findings that we put a lot of weight behind in our arguments, may not be as right as we think.  We tend to choose to be blind to the things in which we do not know.  We sure up those blind spots with overconfidence in the elements that we believe to be true.  Then we yell louder than our neighbors, so they believe us.

 

Asking good questions can help people to see the blind spots in their thinking.  Also, listening to different perspectives can also allow us to see the blind spots in our own thinking.  We should never get angry at someone for asking a question or sharing their perspective.  We should instead thank them for the question and think about it.  This is how we formulate our best guesses.

 

Now, not every perspective is one we need to consider.  We might find that the information presented to us is not worth it, or we have enough information that allows us to move past that train of thought and onto another one.

 

This also does not mean that we ignore all science.  We need to utilize the information we have, with our current understanding of things, and find a way to best practically apply it.  This is why experience is important.  Those with more experience tend to have been wrong more times and have learned from those mistakes.

 

Hopefully they keep an open mind and continue to ask questions and view their thoughts from various perspectives.  Once learning stops, progress stops happening.  I hope I am not the same coach in 2020 as I was in 2015.  I hope even in 2021 I am a different coach than in 2020.  The second that process stops is when I will quit.

 

This also does not mean we need to agree.  It seems like everyone enters these “discussions” to prove the other person incorrect.  No one is having a conversation.  Every person wants each conversation to end with the other person agreeing with them.  This does not need to happen.  We can absolutely disagree.

 

In fact, disagreement is good because we increase our perspective.  If we take that increased perspective into consideration, we should be able to formulate better decisions.  Maybe decisions that end up falling more on the middle ground of an argument than at each extreme end.

 

We shouldn’t just follow blindly with what “experts” say.  Most times experts even disagree with one another.  We need to apply critical thinking skills a lot more in life.  We need to always ask good questions and look for an increase in perspective.  We need to be aware of our limitations as well.  In the end, you are only as strong as your weakest link.