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We know that in elite level sports champions are formed through ‘the struggle’. Those that persevere in the face of exceptionally tough conditions can develop very high levels of ‘grit’ (a term I learned from researcher Prof Angela Duckworth), determination and ‘mental resilience’ (a term I was taught by performance psychologist Dr Mike Gervais) and have the chance to win and be the best in their sport. Athletes that have natural talent in abundance and aren’t incentivised by significant challenge at an early age to overcome disadvantages rarely every make it all the way through the career journey to the podium.

very high levels of grit

The list of those that adhere to this basic principle of performance psychology is endless: Michael Phelps, Mo Farah, Usian Bolt etc. This extended process of overcoming adversity and difficulty, refusing to give up, battling through and self-teaching the art of how to learn and how to improve is an intensely personal one that reaches beyond the boundaries of sport across all areas of life. Prof Carol Dweck has shown recently just how important the personal struggle is to the learning development of young children such that they understand how to grow their learning ability – ‘the growth mindset’.

the growth mindset

So why is it that so many sports practitioners over time have abandoned this philosophy en mass and defaulted instead to depending so much on educational qualifications, courses and so-called credentials? A system that is fundamentally at it’s core entirely flawed. Because information is given to the subject automatically on request and then tested in such a way as to focus on the subjects abilities in memory recall only. Whilst then validating the flawed process with unnecessary certificates and post-nominal lettering. Leaving the naive subject feeling justified that they have now ‘achieved’ status in that field. But what they haven’t achieved is true innate ability. The level of ability that creates people of substance and character that go on to profoundly affect their profession and leave a long lasting legacy. Some of the worst coaching and sports medical support I’ve witnessed over the past 10 years comes from people with letters after their names and ample certification. Many of them happy to play the game within the confines of the accepted mainstream system, with the view that material credentials will hopefully get them the respect and acknowledgement society and mainstream culture has encouraged them to crave.

Ultimately understanding why this sub-standard credential-based culture has grown to become so pervasive today in the field of supporting athletes requires a deeper look into the prevailing educational system that is dominant around the world (hence the earlier reference to the work of Prof Dweck).

The modern reinvention of higher education as set into motion in the early nineteenth century by Wilhelm von Humboldt was meant to give the curious minded man on the street an opportunity to further challenge his powers of learning in a given subject to a level that would enable him to stand out from his peers for being more effective in society in this given field. For Humboldt it was not a question of hierarchy or of academic status but about providing incubators for developing resilient thinkers. No doubt Humboldt’s vision was a romantic one, but at its heart was a serious move to transform the educational system to cultivate successive generations of independently minded people who could struggle through the learning process to get to a purely self-motivated conclusion. Unfortunately though in the late 19th century higher level academic institutions began to change and move toward the conversion of the learning doctorate into a professional credential for academic employment, which began in late 19th century Germany but was not completed in the UK and elsewhere until the late 20th century.

incubators for developing resilient thinkers

The move formally removed the element of imagination and even amateurism from academia that had made the classroom a site for exploration and a crucible of revolution in the modern period. In its wake, a strong proprietary approach to knowledge prevailed. ‘Disciplines’ came to stand for bits of intellectual real estate with high entry costs to access. Over the following decades this rhetoric percolated down into high school education systems and was spread across the globe. Today this is the environment within which children, the practitioners of tomorrow, are being taught. Fundamentally this is the root of the issue, they are being taught, but not taught to learn. And even more, not taught how to grow their learning ability over time. So where does this meander through history get us. It gets us to a dominant modern system and culture of so-called skills development that relies on auto-fed and convenient access to information used to tick boxes and gain ‘qualifications’. Qualifications that act to bolster egos and give the holders a sense of entitlement that they deserve respect as relative experts.

In coaching for example, the key traits that make a standout coach cannot be taught in the class room or learned through a folder or textbook. Qualities such as the ability to communicate effectively, the ability to develop a rapport with athletes quickly, the ability to elicit trust and attention easily. These have nothing to do with courses and cannot be measured in credentials. They also do not correlate with number of years experience, contrary to popular belief among so many mediocre coaches. When we look at the greatest and most successful running coaches, the likes of Percy Cerruty, Arthur Lydiard, Bill Bowerman, Colm o’Connell and more, did they become great coaches by gaining qualifications and certifications?

As I will mention in a future post on coaching all of the great running coaches I have talked to and learned from around the world all share one interesting little trait in common, a trait that was honed in them from a very young age, well before they were shoe horned into the local system of available education. They are all extremely observant of what’s happening around them in people and in nature. Essentially when we think about helping athletes run faster and avoid pitfalls along the way we are immersed in the broader realm of natural science. As someone who has devoted his life to better understanding processes in nature I can tell you that un-taught and innate powers of observation combined with a resilient approach to learning and developing learning abilities is what makes a great natural scientist.


M.Sc, MSci, B.Sc, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, XPS, CGS. Malc Kent is a professional coach, internationally respected applied scientist and former world class athlete that has represented Great Britain 31 times internationally. His services include personal coaching and mentoring, running gait and biomechanical analysis and running strength coaching.

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