Episode 20- A Systems vs. Process Approach to Coaching – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


In Episode 20, Jon and I discuss the difference between a Systems and Process approach to coaching. What’s the difference? A systems based approach could be described as having a set formula/specific model for training. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Daniels, Coe, Lydiard, or any other coach. A systems approach means following that plan without giving proper consideration for the world surrounding it. In essence the system (i.e. doing mile reps on this day, threshold on this, and long runs on the weekend) is more important than the result. A process based approach flips that on it’s head and emphasizes the process of development. Recognizing that it’s not about improving variables in isolation, but instead the global improvement that we’re looking for.

Jon likes to make the comparison that good process based coaching is a slow cooked meal, while a systems based approached is like cooking in the microwave. In another analogy, I brought up research by Brett Fajen that showed that during motor tasks, novices have a very fixed/rigid system where they can perform a task as long as it follows that defined task. Experts, on the other hand, have a flexible global model which allows for deviations outside of the fixed path. With this generalized model, the expert is able to deviate from the norm and still accomplish the task.

That’s how systems vs. process coaching is. As a coach, you need to possess the ability to have a global model that allows deviation and flexibility.

In the end, it’s similar to the idea expressed by Nassim Taleb “One cannot understand a macroscopic system by appealing to its components in isolation” It’s about looking at how athletes react during workouts. Having the comfort to adjust and change workouts on the fly AND not having athletes see that as a failure, but instead the coach doing their job in adjusting and making sure they hit the right effort level. It’s in these adjustments, just as Igloi masterfully performed with runner’s like Bob Schul over 50 years ago, where great coaching comes from. We go over some of our favorite ways to manipulate workouts mid-workout to gain success.

Beyond what’s described you’ll get plenty of rants by both of us and a lot of energy and fun. We were definitely fired up discussing training, so hopefully you’ll find it as interesting as we did!



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