Few reading experiences have been more intellectually validating for me than the one that’s being supplied to me currently through David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. I chose it in the hope that it would inform my longstanding belief that generalists (i.e., creative problem solvers) make better coaches than specialists (i.e., people who have a lot of specialized knowledge), and in this regard it has exceeded my expectations.
With a veritable avalanche of science and real-world examples, Epstein demonstrates that “foxes,” who see the big picture, perform better in complex environments than “hedgehogs,” who focus on details. “Beneath complexity,” he writes, “hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise, like repeating patterns on a chessboard. Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause-and-effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic. There are unknowns, and luck, and even when history repeats, it does not do so precisely.”
Among the most compelling examples Epstein cites is a prediction tournament organized by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). Teams of forecasters were asked to bet on the likelihood of certain geopolitical events happening at particular future times. Most of the teams were made up of highly specialized intelligence experts, but all of them got their asses handed to them by a team of generalists called the Good Judgment Project.
To be clear, Epstein does not contend that foxes are better than hedgehogs at everything. They’re not. His reference to chess in the quote above isn’t arbitrary. Specialists, who through heavy repetition acquire vast stores of information that they use to identify patterns and select optimal responses, tend to perform better in so-called kind learning environments like chess, which are a lot simpler than most real-world situations, which present “wicked” learning environments. So, the crucial question for us is this: Does endurance training represent a kind learning environment, like chess, or a wicked learning environment, like geopolitics?
There are some coaches with specialized knowledge of exercise physiology who seem to believe that specialized knowledge in exercise physiology is necessary and sufficient for effective endurance coaching. In their view, endurance training is simple and straightforward. All you need is a thorough understanding of how the body adapts to various training stimuli and how these adaptations translate to competitive performance, plus a steady supply of relevant data from the athlete as they progress through the training process, and from there it’s paint by numbers.
I disagree. In my experience, endurance training isn’t nearly so predictable, even with the aforementioned knowledge and information. There are far more unknowns than knowns in real-world exercise physiology, and there’s far more to coaching than managing athlete physiology. Like psychology.
Recently, NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario told me about a workout he designed for Aliphine Tuliamuk ahead of the U.S. 20K championships. It was a fairly complex hodgepodge of hill surges, tempo segments, and whatnot. “No physiology-type coach would ever give an athlete that workout,” Ben said. Why not? Because there was no clear physiological rationale for the format Ben had come up with. What mattered to him was that it was appropriately challenging and reasonably specific to the 20K race distance, and more importantly, its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink structure was sure to keep Aliphine on her toes, simulating the unpredictable dynamics of racing in a way that, assuming she performed well, would leave her feeling confident and prepared.
What Ben understands that hedgehogs don’t is that athletes are more than the sum of their blood lactate levels and heart rates. They are sentient beings who experience training, and how they experience it matters. By treating athletes as contextualized human beings rather than as tidy closed systems of physiological processes, fox-type coaches are able to deploy a broader range of tools to help them succeed.
It so happens that I’m writing this post on the day Emily Sisson set a new American record of 2:18:29 at the Chicago Marathon. In an interview conducted before the race, Emily’s coach, Ray Treacy, described how her training had evolved over time to become less “textbook” and more idiosyncratic as they learned from how she responded to standard methods like exposure to high altitude (which didn’t agree with her). Hedgehog coaches who adhere to a rote method of training athletes based on specialized knowledge and data have a hard time figuring out how to get the most out of athletes like Emily Sisson, and the fact of the matter is that all athletes are like her, which is to say that all athletes are unique individuals in unique situations. Indeed, of the six athletes I coach at this time, all six have at least one unconventional element in their training that was arrived at through experimentation and learning.
Foxes are much better than hedgehogs at adapting in the face of unexpected events. As Epstein puts it in reference to the aforementioned IARPA prediction tournament, “When an outcome took them by surprise . . . foxes were much more likely to adjust their ideas. Hedgehogs barely budged.” I’ve seen unfortunate examples of this rigidity in endurance sports. When Hedgehog coaches fail with an athlete, they blame the athlete instead of themselves. As they see it, the only reason their narrow, inflexible, one-size-fits-all methodology didn’t work was that the athlete brought messy complications that didn’t allow the methodology to demonstrate is infallibility. It never crosses their mind that messy complications are the norm, and because of this coaches must be flexible and creative in their approach, treating each athlete as a unique case.
You might be wondering why a coach can’t be part fox and part hedgehog, combining the virtues of big-picture thinking and specialized knowledge to coach more effectively than either pure foxes or pure hedgehogs. This makes sense in principle, but as a practical matter it’s next to impossible to be both a fox and a hedgehog. The reason is that the fundamental difference between foxes and hedgehogs is not that foxes know a little about a lot of things and hedgehogs know a lot about a few things. It’s that they have completely different ways of thinking.
Hedgehogs hate ambiguity and uncertainty. That’s why they try to absorb as much knowledge and information as possible—to eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty so that they always know immediately what to do in any situation. Foxes put reason ahead of information—process ahead of content. They accept that complexity and unpredictability are irreducible realities, so they don’t worry about always knowing immediately what to do in any situation. They draw confidence instead from knowing how to figure out what to do. And for this reason they make better coaches.
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