Every man is a teacher

IMG_20160227_131929.jpgJoe Henderson wrote a chapter in his book ‘Run right now’ titled ‘advice to advisers’ stressing that ‘once you have learned the basics of running, you become a potential teacher, coach or adviser’.

This is part of the cultural formation of every social group whether running related or not – ‘old-timers’ show novices the ropes. We cannot have human society as we know it without this feature. Whenever you look at the runners around you, the mirror neurons in your brain ‘learn something’ from that observation. We ‘teach others’ even when we don’t want to do it. Improving running technique across the population will raise the quality of ‘unconscious teaching’ in our culture. In this article I explore the issues with ‘conscious teaching’ such as giving advice to a running friend.

From anthropological studies, we see this ‘every man is a teacher’ element at work in tribal societies where the concept of ‘elders’ remains intact. An elder, rather than being merely perceived as ‘an old person’, is a senior figure commanding respect and authority.

The more you have achieved in running or in coaching runners, the more authority you are likely to command. In this day and age, you can also achieve this authority by shouting higher through various media and by creating a perception of success or illusion of knowledge.

Since a running culture can only be as successful as the accuracy of the knowledge of the members within the culture (and their willingness to act correctly upon this knowledge), we all have a large responsibility. Anyone who gives advice to another runner – whether in an amateur coaching, professional coaching or peer-to-peer capacity – shares this responsibility.

Today, we have more information available to us than ever before but not necessarily more deep knowledge and certainly not more wisdom (ability to apply our information to specific real-life contexts). This leads to much advise being given that is shallow or misplaced. We can make several common mistakes such as assuming 1) methods that work for us will work for others and 2) if I read a research study or online article providing a suggestion I can pass the conclusion on without applying any context or tailoring to the individual.

In truth, our running culture would benefit if we all lived by the mantra ‘when in doubt, give no advice’ and instead let people figure the answer out through trial and error. To ensure we give advice others can apply we must ensure that:

  1. We know the full background and context behind the training advice we want to provide others (i.e. ‘the full story’)
  2. We only pass on information we have ourselves tried and we are ourselves invested in (this is known as ‘skin in the game’ and exemplified by the Roman example of having an architect sleep under the bridge he built – if it collapses, he dies too)
  3. We cross-check our advice against universal physical laws and what we know about how humans are evolved before passing it on (some coaches today refer to this as the ‘BS filter’

Point 2 refers to arm-chair coaches and arm-chairs commentators who are a major problem to the running culture in the West. This refers to anyone who recommends or criticises certain training practices based purely on theory – meaning they never tried or tested it themselves. These ‘pseudo-teachers’ also tend to be more concerned with ‘being right’ and gaining status within the running community rather than getting results.

Coaches who need to get results cannot afford to be wrong for very long so are very open to changing their minds or to try something first and criticise it later. Arm-chairs coaches and advisers tend to ignore context and this makes their advice particularly dangerous. If you receive such advice go back to the source and see what the advice was founded on. A good example is someone sharing a Kenyan training plan and recommending others follow it without explaining and analysing the background of the Kenyan runner and the environment he or she completed the training in.

Point 3 is necessary because even authoritative sources of information about training such as research papers may often be based on a narrow context at beast or, at worst, entirely false. If you pause for a moment and consider what you know about the laws of nature and how human beings would have lived and thrived before we became civilised, you can often deduce whether If not refer to the basic rule: give no advice. This latter part is a philosophy known as ‘Via Negativa‘ – from ancient Greek medicine – which deters us from intervening (advice is an intervention) – when we are unsure about the effects.

Whether you are a coach or simply an experienced runner, you can help make our running culture more knowledgeable, more wise and ultimately more successful by teaching through the principles pointed out here. We can take this too lightly because running is a casual hobby for many people.

In my early days of coaching, I possessed much greater certainty in my advice and teachings than I do know. The more I learn and the more I understand, the more I can see how little we all really know. When you understand that the totality of your knowledge, even when you are an expert, will always remain a very small part of what can be known, you begin to proceed with much greater caution and with greater respect for trial and error and less respect for deducing broad sweeping guidelines based on theory.