by Bret Contreras April 03, 2012
In this article I’d like to discuss the importance of Evidence-Based Coaching (EBC) and what EBC means to me. Many of you might have read up on the topic of “Evidence-Based Practice” (click the link to read about it on Wikipedia). Many fields have adopted this approach to decision-making and typically it relies upon the research, meaning that the literature tends to dictate one’s practices.
If we stuck to this definition for EBC, then I would strongly disagree with sticking to this approach. Why? Strength & Conditioning research is very young, and there’s so much we don’t know. Many coaches say that S&C is “an art and a science,” but to me it’s all science. In other words, I believe that any “art” a coach describes could easily be turned into a cool study, in which case it would then be labelled “science.”
Nevertheless, the best practitioners possess a mastery of “the art” (things you can’t yet learn about in journals) and it’s very important to learn from these individuals. Moreover, we’re just finding out in the literature that certain practices employed by top coaches for the past 5-10 years were in fact spot on; it just took time for the research to catch up. Many times the experts are “ahead of the research.”
We therefore must rely upon all forms of evidence in our decision-making, and the practice of EBC involves carefully considering the quality, relevance, and importance of each piece of evidence in order to formulate a decision. EBC should be fluid and flexible to accommodate new-found evidence.
What then, are the various types of evidence? First we’ve got expert opinion. I confess to having certain sources that I rely upon for knowledge and expertise in various areas, and I trust these individuals so much that I often take their advice at face value without delving into the matter or questioning whether or not they’re wrong. Is this wise? No it’s not. It’s convenient, but it’s not wise. We should question everything. We should be curious, open-minded, and sceptical. I’d rather talk to a bodybuilder than a soccer coach about hypertrophy training, but being muscular and lean doesn’t make you right; being right makes you right. Many times we’re too busy to investigate everything we learn, which is why it’s critical to follow trustworthy sources.
Next up we’ve got anecdotes. Personal experiences are very important and a good coach never ignores them. We have personal experiences, but we also hear and read about the experiences of others; for example other coaches, trainers, therapists, clinicians, lifters, and athletes. Some anecdotes are better than others. I’d weight the advice of a coach who uses the scientific method and conducts experiments using reliable technology over the advice of an athlete who simply feels stronger or faster and attributes it to something based on intuition.
Then we have articles. Obviously a journal article that has undergone the peer-reviewed process will hold more weight than a magazine article or a blogpost. And some journals are more stringent than others, indicating that a higher level of credibility exists in certain journals. In the past I’ve been guilty of reading a single article and basing my entire viewpoint of a topic on that article, only to find out later that the article I read contained a major inherent flaw and that the majority of articles on the topic point to a different conclusion. For this reason it’s important to consider the entire body of knowledge on a particular topic.
Some types of articles are better than others. A meta-analysis showing strong results or a review paper citing multiple studies leading to the same conclusion would hold a lot of weight. In contrast, an in vitro study or an animal study might not. A specific study that carefully examines the topic at hand is ideal, but many times specific studies are lacking, causing us to extrapolate or piece information together, which isn’t quite as sound of a practice. A study examining beginners might not apply to elite athletes, a study with ample subjects is going to hold more weight than a case-study, and a randomized double blind placebo controlled study will hold more weight than a study that didn’t go to such extremes to ensure validity.
We also have science and logic. Something’s gotta make sense for it to be true, right? Well, not exactly. Every once in a while we stumble upon things accidentally and have to work backwards to figure out the science. And if something makes sense it’s bound to pan out in the literature, right? Again, not exactly. Time and time again controlled experiments shoot down logical hypotheses. Often things make good scientific sense but just don’t hold up in the real world.
Unfortunately, experts are often wrong. Many are biased and have hidden agendas. Tradition often steers us astray due to the combination of a charismatic expert and a gullible group of followers. Anecdotes don’t hold much weight; since we’re all so different in terms of anatomy, physiology, and psychology, what works for one person might not work for another. Some research is more applicable than other research. And experiments are sometimes flawed.
For these reasons, if we only utilized one form of evidence, we’d frequently miss the boat. Ideally each topic would contain a dozen high-quality studies each leading to the same conclusion, and this conclusion would make perfect logical sense and jive beautifully with anecdotes and expert opinions. But this isn’t always the case, and often no research exists on a particular topic. In these situations we need to carefully consider our own experiences, our clients’ and colleagues’ experiences, trusted experts’ opinions, logic and science, and extrapolations from non-specific studies. In the absence of comprehensive research we defer down the line to other forms of evidence. And only by weighing all of the evidence can you make the best decision possible.
Then you have to filter those decisions through your own logistics. A coach may be forced into a certain decision simply because he or she is limited in time, equipment, space, or staff.
To me, this is the essence of EBC.
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