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Is It Good To Be A Harsh Coach?...Or Be Gentle?

Let’s face it, put your hand up if you have never cheated on conditioning. Sure, I'm sure some of you really have never. I more sure though that that is a very small minority and that even if asked, you would say you never did or at least that you don’t as much as you really do. This is normal. Everyone lies. But why do we lie? What could an athlete possibly gain by telling their coach they did 10 rope climbs when really they only did 8? You lost 2 reps of potential protein building. How on earth does that help you?

Well the field of social psychology looks to answer these kinds of questions and have to admit the answers are a bit startling and some of you may think this is all hogwash so I will put in graphs from the studies to show you how you are not the perfect caring and super awesome human being you tell yourself you are. Even as you read that previous statement many of you are thinking. “ No, not me, everyone else, but not me”. Well, your unconsciously lying and we will discuss why. We will explore human nature and along that path you will have a better understanding of why you would possibly think cheating is a good thing for you in the gym or in life.

Let’s start off with a simple fact. Humans live to satisfy their needs, not their wants. Wants are great but that is not what is fuelling our motives on a daily basis. We really only have ONE MAJOR NEED. It is survival. Sure you can say that companionship and nutrition and all these things are needs as well but they all come under survival. We simply need to survive and our brain is wired to make sure that happens. At a fundamental level we create a world in our heads where we are the king. We do not care about elders, people in hospitals or starving children in Africa. Sorry but it is true. The only reason that humans have this concept that we should donate to the less fortunate or anything of that nature is that when you see a picture of a starving boy in Uganda with a “Go Fund Me” link on screen the parts of your brain that light up are the parts that imagine if you were him. You do not care that he is starving or hurt at an essential level, you only are thinking subconsciously, “Thank God That Is Not Me”.

I do not have the study here as I read about it in a book but when you see someone do anything, that same part of your brain that would be responsible for that movement also light up, even if you do not copy the movement. You only feel pain for others because your brain is giving you a very small dose of it yourself in your brain and thats why people wince when they see someone else break their arm or fall off the bars. “What if I had fallen off the bars?, that would suck!”.

So then the logical question becomes, why do we have this false bravado of caring? If we are all so selfish anyway, then why wouldn't we say “Screw everyone else?” Well see this is where is gets complicated. Back in the day cavemen would get eaten by wild animals and humans learned that if they stick together in groups that they have a higher chance of survival. So we created communities of humans and used the large numbers to protect our own selfish interests.

When you build a community you have to basically buy into the the rules of the group. These rules dictate how humans should get a long with the least amount of friction between members. Over the years humans have learned what the “rules” are and what is EXPECTED from us. We know that if we do not do what is expected from us we will get kicked out of the group and thrown into the wild and effectively die. “Oh I will survive in the wild”. That is what I hear when I bring this discussion up to people. Well you may be lying to yourself but your brain does not really believe it because you are still here. You are hardwired to follow the group from thousands of years ago because your subconscious knows that survival alone is very hard and you will probably be killed by a cougar or elephant or something.

George Wicklund call the concept of the “Rules” the “Generalized Other”. It is what we think that the other members of the community need from us to remain in the group. Because of the fact we know that getting kicked out would literally mean the difference between life and death we put the Generalized Other at the very frontline of our brain. It is the single most important thing we think about on a daily basis. “ Are we doing what is expected? Will others think I am valuable? Thats it! Thats all our daily decisions come to. Will my parents think I am making the right decision in terms of a career? Does my coach think I am doing the reps properly? Do my friends at gymnastics think I am a good training partner?

Loyalty means nothing to you intrinsically but if others think it is important then we decide it is important. We would rather agree with the generalized other then be correct.

Solomon Asch (1907 - 1996) did a study that showed this. There is one person that is the focus of the study. There are 2 other researchers disguised at subjects but have a scripted answer to this question:

“Which stick, A, B or C is the sam length as Exhibit 1?” The disguised researchers would give the wrong answer on purpose sometimes and the actual test subject would agree with the wrong answers from the disguised researchers up to 75% of the time. The study also found that the harder the question is the more the subject conformed to the incorrect answers. It was one of the original studies that showed why people seem to have individual thoughts on preference of fruit or vegetable we like, but with hard decisions like religion they just followed the group.

These kind of studies have been replicated hundred of times with all similar results. If we do not know the answer we take others opinions because it is ok to be wrong as long as we are still valuable to the “Generalized Other” (The community) because we survive as long as the rest of the community believes it. It is better to be wrong but a live then right and dead.

Another well documented concept is that by seeing ourselves do something against the generalized other we will conform more. This means that if you were to watch yourself do something against the community such as stealing then you are less likely to do it. A group of researchers rigged their doorbell to their phone so that when a kid came trick or treating at Halloween the phone would ring at the same time. The researcher would say

“ Oh that’s the phone, I have to take it, just take one piece of candy so others have some”

The researcher would run behind the wall and secretly spy on the kids. Some of them had a mirror in front of them and some didn’t. When the mirror was put in front of them they were less likely to steal the candy. The act of seeing yourself break the rule of the generalized other is enough to alter your behaviour. Not always but a large percentage.

Weird? Try this one out for fun. This study showed that people care more about living up to the ideals of the group (Generalized Other) then their own goals and aspirations.

“As you can see in Figure 12.11, “Research Results,” for low self-concept discrepancy participants, thinking about their ideal or ought selves did not much change their emotions. For high self-concept discrepancy participants, however, priming the ideal self-concept increased their sadness and dejection, whereas priming the ought self-concept increased their anxiety and agitation. These results are consistent with the idea that discrepancies between the ideal and the actual self lead us to experience sadness, dissatisfaction, and other depression-related emotions, whereas discrepancies between the actual and ought self are more likely to lead to fear, worry, tension, and other anxiety-related emotions.”

So what the researchers did was work with the subjects and found that by not living up the expectations of others (Generalized Other) we get anxious and agitated. But when we do not living up to our ideal self, such as goals and ambitions we simply get sad which is not as strong of an emotion. It shows that people are more worried about fitting in to the rules of the community then they are about their own dreams and goals.

So the case has been made from different angles that humans only care about fitting in for survival purposes and our goals, dreams and ambitions are secondary. So why wouldn’t every kid simply do the conditioning?

The answer is unflattering. The truth is that kids do the conditioning a lot and the fact they even did 8 reps in the first place is a strong indicator that they fear getting kicked out of the group. ie. the gym. So maybe they wont get 10 but that is ok because you are still getting 80% of the results. Can’t win them all.

But why not 10/10? This is because we have a conflict in our brains between what we want and what we need. Athletes do not NEED to be part of the gym. They can easily quit. In this day and age where coaches are pushed to be “nicer” to the athlete and in an age of relativism where athletes do not have to do anything they do not want to we create that 20% failure rate and the sad reality is that the more we relax on the rules as a community the less the athletes will feel threatened into conformity. Everyone says that you need to be patient with kids and be supportive and be their friend and never kick them out or lay down harsh punishments. But, from the research I see, there is not really fundamental evidence to back that up. People will only act out of fear, as fear (as shown above) is a stronger emotion then joy or happiness from accomplishing a goal. I know 100% that that is tee for me. I felt I had no choice as a kid training. I know I had parts of it I liked but generally speaking it was fear of upsetting my family my coaches or my fellow athletes that kept me in line and kept me conditioning.

I tell this story to people: When I was younger and just beginning to turn 12/13 years old I saw one of the other boys training who had really worked hard on his conditioning. At this point my hormones were doing what they do for a 13 year old boy and I noticed the girls at the gym were more attracted to him and it seemed to be because of the muscular gains he was making. What did I do? I told my parents I wanted to get stronger and asked them to buy me a chin up bar for the home. I tell you I was on that thing several hours a day after training. Not because I wanted to be strong but I wanted to be liked and get attention from the girls in the gym. Once I started seeing results and accidentally saw the benefit at competition with new strength elements then did I see how important it was for competition as well.

The reality is that your athletes will cheat on conditioning unless in someway their lives are threatened. In my case it was being threatened for not being involved with the girls as the guys who did conditioning were. If hypothetically cheating on conditioning was punishable by exhalation from their own families then no one would cheat. Ever wonder why countries like China, Japan and Russia have a higher success rate? It is because the coaches are able to threaten the athletes in different ways and not just through physical abuse. The underlying reason why they do better in most areas regarding gymnastics and trampoline is because the generalized other will kick them out of their community and not just in the gym. They will lose the respect of their family and their friends and be effectively exhaled from their normal day to day community.

Is it good to force athletic success in this fashion? Thats for another day. What you should understand is that unless you threaten that person’s survival instinct they will not have a need to modify their behaviour. This has been shown a million times. Paraphrase: “Unless you activate an emotional response people will not change”. The emotional response has to be in the hindbrain (The monkey part of our brain). You can be nice and have everyone like you and have all your athletes think you are a great coach because of the fact you let them decide how much conditioning they do and when they do it etc. but the reality is that unless you threaten their involvement in the community then they will not have the need to follow the rules, ie. the conditioning.

When I was a kid you got kicked out of the gym club if you did not do the conditioning or the work and got caught. Now I see more and more gyms that specifically dictate that you can not kick a kid out of the gym because of the fact is is emotionally harmful for the kid as well as it costs the gym money. Which one is the most prevalent factor? HAHA what do you think after looking at those graphs?

So what, kids will cheat on conditioning and unless you threaten their involvement in the community they will cheat more and more and act out in other ways if you let them. One thing I would do to try and prevent cheating would be to tell the athletes that I want them to do 20 rope climbs. They inevitably would complain so I say

“Ok, I'm such a nice guy so you tell me how many you want to do, be reasonable” .

It never fails, they will be primed to think that 20 is a big number. Asking them to be reasonable reduces the chance of them saying “2 or 3” and they will say like 5 or 10. I originally only wanted them to do 5 or 10 anyways and now I have empowered them to think that they themselves have come up with a good number that fits the generalized other. In this case it is my opinion as the coach that they are trying to conform to. I get my 10 ropes (sometimes its 5/6/7) and they think they are conforming to the norm which reduces their anxiety subconsciously which in turn makes them more willing to work with me and listen to me when I do ask for something that is more strenuous.

If you compare it to simply saying “ Do 5 ropes” your rate of cheating is reduced. I have seen it work throughout my years of coaching. Do not do it all the time or the gig is up but try it out here and there and see what happens.

The biggest thing I found that determined how much cheating happened in training is the initial perception of the coach. If the coach was introduced to the athletes as a push over or someone who does not care about the extra 20% reps then the athletes have this idea that it is ok and if there is no negative consequences then why would they conform?

As a coach you have to set the standard and thats that. As soon as you falter because of a parent or because of a employer who has a complete different goal then you as a coach then the athletes see who has the real power. And, I do not mean power as in who is “powerful”. It is who will bring down the hammer. If the coach says one thing and kicks the kid out of the gym for bullying and the owner says “No, we need the money.” then you have destroyed that coach. That coach now has no power and the kids will do what they want. If we as humans didn't have a chance of being kicked out of the community then we would do whatever we wanted but because our survival is threatened we comply. When you take that fear away from anyone, not just athletes then it is anarchy.

Ya sure, everyone else would do that but not you right? You are the one that knows conditioning is good for you and that you do it and everyone else is going against the norm and you get dragged in to their cheating ways…right? This concept is called the “Self Serving Bias” and here is an example of how biased we are.

So what researchers did was take a person and ask them questions while the other person watched the interview on a tv. What they found was that when you observe someone else speaking you believe that their personality and emotions are leaking through their speech all the time.

“Wow that person has some real pent up issues that they need to deal with”

“They are so transparent, gosh”

But when asked we never feel that we fall under that issue.

“yayaya they are biased and their previous experiences has made them emotional or biased…. BUT NOT ME, Im right , they are wrong”.

Here is the kicker, if you watch yourself in your own interview you then think that your emotions leak through like you did for the other interviewee. It is just one example of how naturally we are biased to think we are right and everyone else is wrong.

Not good enough? Ok Here is another one:

When asked if the media is representing your cultural and religious beliefs properly people generally think that the media is making them look bad.

“You can never trust the media”

This chart shows that people regard their religion or their belief higher then others. If 0 is neutral:

“Im sure there is no bias in the media”

And 100 is religious extremist, and you give a 60 you are still considered against them because its not as biased as they are. (Even if you still are siding with them). And everyone does this at some degree and that this bias is what causes wars in religion and almost everything else.

“I am right and they are wrong and everyone is against me”.

Even though the stats do not prove that any one religion or belief is better people still think theirs is. Why? Because of this bias.

Ok still not good enough? Ok well here is a real doozey for you. This is another self serving bias example. The researchers take your face and tun take a person who is more attractive then you and mix in 10% of their facial features with yours and make a 2nd face via computer animation. Then they take a person who is uglier then you and mix 10% of their face with yours. They randomize the three faces and ask you which one is your face. I bet we can all guess which one you picked. You are right, you picked the face with 10% more attractive features then your actual face. People literally do not even see their own face and make themselves look more attractive then they actually are within their own mind.

Do not think that is possible? Ok try this optical illusion. It will show you that you actually see the world in black and white. on or off, 1’s and 0’s. Colour is created in your brain depending on the length or wave of the particle bouncing off the surface. Oh you didn’t know you are actually a bat? Well you are and you use a type of sonar to survive but tell yourself you don’t. Here is the link.

Colour to Black And White Optical Illusion:


1) Click the video

2) Keep eyes on the black dot

3) Watch the duration

4) Try and tell me your brain does not make up what you think is reality.

5) I wont believe you

Ok so we have bounced around quite a bit today from self serving biases to how humans need mirrors put in front of them to feel obligated to act in accordance with the community rules and several other points. Whats the take home message?

Well I would look at it as proof that humans need a firm hand along with a gentle fun atmosphere. The graphs above show that we fear being left out of the group, whether it is the gym friends, coaches, family members or even people on the street. If we are not valued to any of these societies it actually triggers a stress response and anxiety which is noted to be the only real motivator for change in addiction etc.

Side Note: Portugal and several other countries have decriminalized at some level the use of drugs and put most of the funding for drug use into rehab programs that connect drug addicts to social situations and putting them into groups that they can belong into. Rates of drug use plummeted and it now well understood that the core of addiction is the absence of belonging to some kind of community.

So all our athletes need a firm hand that says:

“If you do not maintain this threshold of standard, you will be punished somehow”.

Be it extra conditioning, a slap on the leg when they are bent or getting kicked out if being bad. I got kicked out of training a lot as a kid. Do you think I cared about missing training? No, I just didn't want to have to face my parents.

If you do not have this threshold then you are really doing a disservice to the athletes. People need to be forced to do the right thing for their long term goals as kids can’t see it when they are 6/7/8 years old starting in gym. It is the coaches job to remember that the mentality the coach brings to the table will directly affect their long term development. Do not give in to their wants. Have that hard line that they do not cross ever.

But I think we can go a step further and say that even though that fear will trigger the emotional response to conform and do the conditioning which is good for them long term, they need to feel happiness and joy which comes from achieving goals. Goals may not be as important to a human as our fears (as the graphs above show) but I think we need a balance. We need to feel joy and happiness generally so that we dream to come back to the gym and that motivates us to keep going. But, we need a firm hand when we step out of line to scare us back into the heard.

When I coach, my athletes know I am a fun and cool coach who jumps with them, cracks jokes and makes fun of myself and others in a fun comical agreeable way. But… if I see you doing something stupid, like excessively cheating on conditioning, bullying, doing something dangerous, then you will hear about it from across the gym as I walk over to you with the most pissed off look I can muster. It is just natural for Russians :p.

My athletes know that, you do what I say or training will not be in your favour. The cool part about it is that I have only had to kick out a handful of kids. I set that serious coaching tone right from the start and what I did is use that as my base and then soften up around it with cool fun conditioning and trying new tricks and I give my athletes that freedom to have control over their training as long as they adhere to the principals I have shown them.

But with the fun happiness they also know there is a line they do not cross and when I am serious it is for a good reason and that they better shut up and listen because it is important and anything but conformity to my training methods will end up with them getting kicked out or not being able to participate in the group game after training etc. I kick them out of the group for sometime by saying:

“ Oh ok you know best, so go over there and do it yourself, don’t come here, you do not want to be involved with what we are doing”

I do not even have to tell them to go condition or anything, “Just Go Away”.

Another cool part is that if you begin with this firm mentality and you remind them once in a while the frequency of having to “Drop The Hammer” on them becomes less and less. I coach in a way that inspires questions and of course I am there to provide answers or direct them to where the answer can be found. In the later years of my competitive program before I started traveling a lot I did not have to drop the hammer often. They were self motivated and saw that the way I had began with them had given them results so they internally saw the results of the coaching and my mentality and they saw it worked so it started as a fear based motive but then transformed into more of a respect and cooperation. I think it is important to start new competitive group on fear motives and to establish who is Boss but then I think you need to counteract it with fun stuff. You can’t have one or the other.

Thanks! Hope you enjoyed the article! Please reread it a few times and really think about it. I know we all live with this false idea about human nature but I think it is better to see the reality even if it is not so glamorous because then we can actually make improvements that then open up other possibilities that may be more glamorous. If we live in constant ignorance on how our brains are actually wired then no one gets any better.

Gregory V Roe

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