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Art is Long

As a teacher and a coach, I often fall back on one of my favorite quotations from John Dewey, the American philosopher and educator. It comes from his book School and Society, immediately following a long explanation of his conception of a learner's mind:

"It is, of course, comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect —in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time. Here again we must fall back upon the idea of the laboratory."

Dewey believed in 1915—and I believe in 2015—that the perfect mixture of teaching and content hadn't yet been discovered. There was no one formula that would lead to success for every student. Moreover, even when a particular approach did lead to success for one student or one group, teachers shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that what worked for the one should or could work for all the others. A teacher had to tweak or even overhaul his methods day over day and year over year; a good teacher was always experimenting. Good classrooms were laboratories where teachers tested methods and content. Sometimes, the experiments were successful; sometimes, they were not. Dewey believed in this ethic so strongly that he named the school he founded at the University of Chicago "The Laboratory School." It's still in operation, and they're still trying new things.

A lot of the American education system is set up to discourage this sort of customization, though, especially at the secondary level. In the schools that I visit these days—many of which are very highly-regarded—teachers feel pressure to teach every student the same thing the same way. At the end of the year, every student must demonstrate mastery in the same fashion. Even though lip service is paid to "differentiation," teachers aren't given the space and time to actually personalize the educational experience for students. That's a shame, because if teachers had the freedom and authority to customize the learning process for a small group of students, virtually every teacher I know would be a better teacher.

Dynamism and individualization are important parts of coaching, too, for several reasons. First, it keeps workouts interesting. A mentally engaged athlete is one that will perform well, and if I simply have athletes do the same workouts week after week, I'm setting them up for burnout. Second, there may be a physiological basis for it, as anyone who has ever advocated "muscle confusion" would assert. This idea is at the heart of P-90X, Crossfit, and other popular workouts. Taken to a higher level—that is, year over year as opposed to workout over workout—some argue that bodies become accustomed to building fitness in the same way, such that a workout repeated several times over the course of many seasons will yield decreasing benefits. This is why Steve Magness—author of Science of Running, head distance coach at the University of Houston, and coach of several Olympic-level distance runners—says that good coaches must take a "multiple directions approach." Third, athletes are different. They have different physical needs and different life circumstances. Imagine a forty-year-old athlete that ran in college but struggles with swimming, all while managing a three-hour commute and raising twin sons. Now imagine another forty-year-old who grew up swimming, works from home but travels frequently, is prone to injury, and has no kids. Even though they're the same age, these athletes would require radically different training programs, not only because their physical needs differ but because their logistical needs do, too. To give them the same boilerplate training regime would be a disservice, and they would likely underperform as a result.

Is the "coaching system" set up to discourage customization, too? Do we expect our coaches to always give us the same workouts as their other athletes? Do we expect them to take the same approach to our training month after month and year after year? Do we expect every training build to be flawless? As athletes, we shouldn't. Just like with teachers, good coaches must experiment to see what works, and even when they land on a good program, they shouldn't become complacent. Like good teachers, good coaches must stay current with trends and research, applying them thoughtfully and selectively to their athletes to see what sticks. Like good teaching, good coaching is dynamic and individualized. This is what you should demand from your coaches, and it's what they should aspire to provide. It won't always be neat and polished, but over the long-term, it will make you a better athlete.

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