When doing nothing is better than doing something. – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


I have a collection of physical therapists I reach out to whenever one of my athletes has a problem. If I can’t figure it out, then the next step is to reach out to one of these guys to find a solution

One of them is John Ball, the well-known track injury guru out of Arizona. What I love about John is that he is blunt. He tells you like it is, which is why I’m always amused when this master of injury rehab tells me point blank  (and I’m paraphrasing) “I don’t know if any of this works. I have a hunch, but no one really knows.”

Along similar lines, my Houston based PT, Roderick Henderson likes to say “Sometimes, it’s better to do nothing,” when he sends you away with instructions to let things calm down before starting up a program.

What are these supposed experts getting at?

The Art of Cupping

When phenom Allie Ostrander dropped out of women’s 5k at the
NCAA indoor championships, you may have noticed some peculiar looking circular bruises on her leg. No, these weren’t signs of abuse or a rare skin condition, but instead a well-meaning athletic trainer intentionally put them there. The bruises are a result of the practice of “cupping”, a traditional Chinese method using suction.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen an explosion of the use of this ancient method

The initial theory for why this worked is based on the pseudoscience of toxins and such. The newer explanation uses another in vogue term that is poorly understood and often misused: Fascia.

I have no idea if it works. I haven’t researched it beyond a curious glance into the research literature. Regardless, it has all the trappings of a wonderful placebo. It is novel and exotic, it is an ancient secret, and most of all, it leave a mark behind to symbolize that ‘something’ happened. All of which lead to an enhanced placebo effect.

The point isn’t whether there is science behind it; the point is what it represents.

When one ventures into the training room or to the local PT, often the kitchen sink is thrown at them. From Ice to compression boots to muscle stim to lasers to graston to dry needling to ultrasound; they are all used.  Undoubtedly some of these things work and some don’t.  The problem is, often we don’t know exactly what does and doesn’t work. So everything gets thrown at an injury.

The premise is that if we throw enough at it, something will help. Something has to be better than nothing. I think that’s a false premise. We often perform treatments not to actually get something better, but to make us, and the athlete, feel better.

There’s nothing worse than sitting there as a coach, PT, or trainer and saying “I can’t do anything for you right now, the best thing is just give it some time.”  That sucks. It’s a horrible feeling not being able to do anything. We are relinquishing all sense of control that we have, admitting defeat, and letting the injury be the master.

It’s this fear of losing control, being able to do ‘nothing’, that paralyzes us. It creates the fear response, the unending worry that we should be doing something, almost anything, to work towards getting better. As coaches and athletes looking forward hoping for continual progress, standing still seems like the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Yet, doing something might actually do nothing.

Making our selves feel better.

At the Stanford Invite I was standing next to my podcast pal, Jon Marcus, as we watched our respective athletes run in the men’s and women’s 10k. We got on the topic of coaches yelling at their athletes mid-race. I’m as guilty as the next person to going crazy during a race. I get excited and pumped up for the athlete and my way of releasing that energy mid-race is to yell encouraging things to them.

Many think that this behavior is for the athlete, to encourage them or provide that cue on when to strike. Next time you attend a track meet, sit back and watch the coaches. The hand waving, the yelling, the crazy behavior is not to encourage the athletes, it’s for us. Perhaps at the high school level with athletes, who aren’t quite motivated, yelling works? And sure, every once in a while the athlete responds or seems like they are responding and we feel like we contributed, but those are few and far between. Instead, the athlete was still going to muster out that last lap quick, or the gritting of the teeth to latch onto the chase pack for a minute longer.  If they are motivated, they are going to try.
If they are race savvy, they are going to make the pass at the right time or not, and it’s not going to have anything to do with you yelling from the stands. Instead, all the crazy gesturing and yelling is for our benefit. As coaches, it’s to make us feel good. It gives us the illusion that we are actually doing something. We gesture and yell to give us some sense of control on an event which we have absolutely none.

The same principle applies when coaching out at practice. I often catch myself saying things just to say things. It’s this urge to comment after every lap or repeat to make myself feel like I’m doing something besides standing and observing. Other coaches I’ve worked with or observed display the same behaviors. Sitting there watching, you can see the need to say something, almost anything, to the athlete to make themselves feel involved.

There is a fine line between saying something to say something and providing a cue that translates into improved performance, behavior, or technique. Research on feedback when coaching tends to back this up. As shown in this nice graph from Frans Bosch latest book shows, the timing and frequency of feedback impacts learning.



So what?

It’s not just in the training room or out on the track where we search desperately for this sense of control. This need to ‘do something’ guides many of our behaviors are. They are there to make us feel like we are doing something. It’s to give the illusion of control.

The yelling and screaming, the use of the latest fad treatment, the post race talk; these are all examples of things we do to make ourselves feel better. The same thing happens in the collegiate and corporate world. The leadership meetings, the pseudo-enforced ‘charity’ meetings, the programs designed to look good but accomplish very little (i.e. most life coaching/skill programs) are all further examples of making us feel good. They all create the illusion of control and accomplishment.

So next time you assign a workout, give a lesson, or tell an athlete to get a treatment, ask yourself if you really think that it will improve the athlete. Or are you simply pushing them in that direction for the simple sake of “doing something.”



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