Exposing the Dirty Little Secret in Strength Training and Coaching: Expert Intuition

Posted on 23 Mar 2013 20:13

By Eric Troy

Strength training and fitness in general brings on reams of discussion as to what it means to be an expert. They also bring on droves of people who play at being an expert on the internet and, increasingly, on television. Recognize that I cannot hope to define expertise without it tending to align with my own interests and biases. However, I do think that the non-expert may be distinctly recognizable!

There are so many things that a person who is not an expert in a particular field would not recognize as expertise, even though they themselves may be an expert in another field!

That, to me, is an uncanny realization. Expertise is not an easily recognizable thing, even to experts. Yet, we are ALL experts at some things, even if they are just little everyday things. For instance, many of us who drive every day for years and years, starting when we are around 15 years old, are pretty much experts at driving under normal conditions.

Daniel Kahneman, in the introduction to Thinking, Fast and Slow, uses driving as an example of when we use accurate intuitive leaps that can be called expert intuition. This is similar to the concept of tacit knowledge. Have you ever been driving along the highway, and for some reason, you sensed that the driver in a lane in front of you was dangerous, and was about to do something stupid? Like, for instance, he is about to change lanes suddenly without signaling and risk cutting you off. You "instinctually" back off the gas, and, lo and behold, he comes on over into your lane. You would have hit him if you had not slowed down after anticipating his move. But how did you know? Did you predict the future through clairvoyance, or were their subtle clues?1

The answer, of course, is that there were subtle clues present which you immediately and expertly picked up on, reacting automatically without having to think much about it. You simply see the road, and the patterns of the vehicles moving on it, in a different way than you see other things that you are less versed in. It seems like magic, but it is not. There is nothing mysterious about it at all, underneath. You were given information, which triggered your memory, and this triggered a response. The fact that you did not consciously register the actual content of this information, has nothing to do with your effectiveness.

So why am I mentioning all this, and what has it to do with the "dirty little secret" I mentioned in the title? Well, let's look at another example first, given by Kahneman: Chess experts. They too, after hours upon hours sitting at a chess board, begin to see the board in a different way. What seems like a big complex mess to us is a familiar and easily recognizable situation! They react to it the same way you would react to a familiar situation. It is that simple.

Can you become an expert chess player by reading about chess, then? Obviously not. So too, you cannot become an expert at strength training by reading about it. Still, is this an apt comparison?

Not really. A chess board is a finite environment. There are so many pieces and they can only move in certain ways. There are only so many situations that can occur. Sure, they still number in the thousands, but imagine if the pieces were dynamic, with changing needs, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, goals, desires…

Well, I think you get the point. You simply cannot be an expert in strength training in the same way that you can be an expert in chess playing! Regardless, once you've spent hours upon hours observing and teaching, you come to recognize familiar patterns and you come to react to these familiar patterns the same way you would react to any familiar occurrence.

Although human beings are much more complex than chess pieces, and I am not comparing the two, trainers can and do use 'gut instinct' to get past training problems. This is, of course, not instinct at all, but expert intuition. Sometimes, although the system itself is highly complex, this intuition involves recognizing one BIG factor, that, when dealt with, brings other sub-factors to light, so that they can be dealt with one by one. This is a process of simplification. We cannot hope to understand the full complexity of a dynamic trainee, but we can use experience and the intuition that comes with it to isolate factors that are influential on that system. This may seem like overly fancy and obtuse language, but I could not think of a better way to say it. I will give an example, though, to bring it home.

People often come to me for help critiquing and fixing their deadlift or squat issues. They come to me also for bench pressing but I am not as much of an expert on that! Often, I look, and something, I don't know what, jumps out at me, and I offer a suggestion as to what I think a simple fix may be. Or, at least, the first simple tool that will lead to the problem being fixed down the line, as other issues are dealt with. This might seem as if I am inside the trainee's mind. "I think you are trying to do it this way, but instead, think of it in this other way." Many times, they react as if I have read their mind. "Oh, my God, that is exactly what I was doing. How did you know that I was taught to do the lift that other way, instead of the way you said?"

How did I know? I'll explain some of the reasons: I don't ignore what I call base-line or statistical information. That is, I might know that a certain (wrong) instruction is prevalent in the strength training world. I see something in the way the trainee performs the lift, that reminds me of the same situation with other trainees. Together with the likelihood that the trainee received a certain instruction and developed a certain habit, and some subtle pattern in the execution of the lift that coincides, in my experience, with this instruction (in other words, comes about because of the instruction) I offer an alternative instruction that should solve, or begin to solve the problem.

The thing that most strength training people will not tell you, however, is that none of this necessarily involved any complicated and active thinking on my part! I simply saw and reacted. The reason I was able to do this was knowledge and experience. These things together equal expertise, at least when it comes to deadlifts. Yes? You knew that already, of course. And that is one thing I consider myself and expert in, but not the greatest expert. That does not mean I am an expert in everything to do with strength training. The point is, I've revealed to you that this expertise can manifest itself as a very simple and direct response, without thinking! The dirty little secret then, is that strength training, and performance experts in general, rely on this type of reaction as often as relying on complex and drawn out analysis. It is as simple as "I know because I've seen it a thousand times, and I had the knowledge to deal with it." Many of them, however, would like you to think that the gears are grinding and the wheels are turning like one of those old Babbage machines.


I just see pieces. I know the rules but I extract no
immediate pattern from this board. An expert does!

So the question of how much is knowledge and how much is experience is a moot question. You cannot separate the two, when it comes to being an expert. They rely on one another and are entangled. Yet, we come across experts every day, that read a lot of books but only train themselves. Not an expert, in my opinion. Or, we come across an expert that has never bothered to educate him or herself, and instead relies completely on "in the trenches" experience, with no foundational background. Not an expert.

In the first case, the person who reads a lot, and maybe even has a degree or two, but has practically no experience training others, may have lots of, for lack of a better term, theoretical knowledge, in his head, but will completely lack the experience to recognize when and how to apply that knowledge. In the latter, the person who has observed and worked with many trainees, but has no education, lacks a broad enough knowledge base to effectively deal with most situations. What I've learned to recognize in this type of "expert" is that they often have great ideas, brought about out of intelligent thinking about what they have observed, but they lack a broad enough educational foundation to fully bring these ideas to their fruition, or to recognize when the ideas cannot become models.

Today's internet expert wants people either to think that he is so vastly experienced, and so immune to bias and bad thinking, that he is automatically superior to those 'book learners' who haven't been in the game for the hundreds of years he has. We can't do anything with these experts but ignore them and hope they go away, which they rarely do.

Just as harmful is the expert full of big confusing words and muddy jargon who has practically no experience training others. These "book learners" believe that they can think their way to expertise. The internet slang "knowledge bomb" is a part of this trend, although not all of those who use the expression are guilty. The idea that being an expert is having tons of facts at your disposal is a gross misunderstanding of expertise! Most of us who put their "experience" to work to train others can easily recognize those self-proclaimed experts who write about strength training on the net but who have obviously never trained another individual besides themselves. How do we recognize them?

I'll give you one big clue. This may not help you pin down true experts but it should help you eliminate the all talk and no go experts who inundate the net. Here it is: These bogus experts hardly ever make statements about strength training that you can directly apply to your training right then and there, so to speak. Superficial and vague is the rule. Always remember, even when a true expert is being abstract and philosophical, rather than practical and direct, there is almost always a practical lesson in it that can be applied! These book-learner experts usually always confuse style with substance.

The true expert will tend to see and extract much more than the less experienced expert from any one piece of information, be it a statement made by a trainee or an actual observance of a training situation. The reason they see more is because of the connections that they already have at their disposal. You know the color red because you have experienced it. Well, the same goes for experts, whether they be strength coaches, doctors, engineers, or chess players. You'll also find that the resultant instruction is more brief and pointed. The expert has learned more about efficient instruction, and has gotten past the over-coaching stage.

Generalists Versus Specialists

The problem of expertise with "coaches" of strength training, especially on the internet, is a kind of two-sided coin. The expertise of the generalist is not defined the same way that the expertise of sports coaches is defined. That is, by the success of their "players." Instead, it is defined simply by their popularity, which is the province of marketing rather than expertise.

Then, the expertise of the specialist, which is mostly those who market themselves as powerlifting experts, is defined the same way, but only as it pertains to highly advanced elite lifters! So, a coach that is very skilled at training "sub-elite" lifters will not be recognized as an expert as readily as the coach who, to put it bluntly, is riding the coat-tails of advanced lifters who have the bulk of their progress behind them. There are thousands of strength trainers right now helping sub-elite lifters who are just as good, if not better, than these coat-tail riders.

Your expertise as a coach or a trainer is defined by the success of those you train! On the net, a successful trainer is one who makes a lot of money and reaches reams of people. Here we have the autonomous expert and the attributed expert. The autonomous expert is an expert regardless of how many people recognize them as such. The attributed expert rests solely upon their "circle of peers" and the attribution that entails, as well as the attribution of the followers their probable marketing efforts have gained.

The expert will always be, as Williams, et al. concluded in Exploring Expertise, socially contingent:

A clear conclusion from all this is that the role of the expert remains socially contingent: what is judged is not so much the content of the evidence or advice, as the credibility and/or legitimacy of the person giving that evidence or advice; if we trust the expert, we must trust their expertise.2

I am not an expert to many people simply because other experts do not recognize me as such. But in the fitness industry, this is not based on my powers of persuasion! It is based on how much a marketing platform I represent. If, however, I represented a vision of success, that in itself would be persuasive and that power of persuasion would symbolize expertise. I want you to think about that for a second. It doesn't matter how much success the people I help have. It only matters what other experts have to say about me and I can control this, if I choose, just as I can control whether I actually gain true expertise. I could give advice to 20 people a day from all over the world. But so can anyone. I can only successfully train a relative few, in comparison, and see to it that they succeed in their goals with my help. Only those people will experience me as an expert.

Expertise and Trustworthiness

Those people whom I have worked with, after some time, come to trust me. Now, what if I could have gotten them to trust me in advance? Would that have influenced their view of me as an expert? Absolutely. When someone says to a fitness expert "what makes you an expert?" or "why should I listen to you?" what they are really saying is "why should I TRUST you." Credibility is the first criteria of expertise. Sometimes there is objective credibility. For instance, you might find the message of an independent fitness trainer more credible than a supplement company, when it comes to dietary supplements, if you think the supplement company just wants your money. So, not only do you trust the fitness trainer over the supplement company, he or she then becomes more of an expert to you.

But, before I continue with this line of reasoning, let me say that you cannot discount the importance of content. There is this thing that social psychologists call the sleeper effect. It has a lot to do with the strength of the message. If a message resonates enough for you, even though you may have discounted it at first because of the low credibility of the messenger, this effect will diminish over time and you may remember the message but forget the messenger, and thus your very reason for discounting it! This is so important to our discussion I cannot begin to explain it. So many of those messages held as truths in the strength training and fitness world started from dubious sources. Persuasion is everything. A more persuasive message trumps credibility, over time.

But there is nothing more persuasive than to tell people what they already believe or would like to believe. A fast track to becoming a credible expert in the strength training and fitness world, then, is to do just that. A message that does not challenge your audience, ironically, can make you seem smarter than a new idea will. Therefore, as I have said so many times, telling people what they want to hear works every time. The second, or first, way is to be introduced as an expert. In the fitness industry this is usually done by endorsement. You become an expert simply because someone else who is perceived as an expert endorses you as one.

1. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
2. Williams, Robin, Wendy Faulkner, and James Fleck. Exploring Expertise: Issues and Perspectives. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1998.

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This page created 23 Mar 2013 20:13
Last updated 20 Oct 2015 16:58

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