People think being intelligent is knowing everything. In reality it’s more important to know what you know and realise the limitations of your own knowledge. 

There’s nothing more dangerous than a keyboard warrior with a little bit of knowledge. Fresh on a new journey of information, they take up opinions as fact and are buoyed with confidence. We’ve all likely done it, normally as youngsters, when the world is easy and you know the answer to everything.

The four stages of competence

A commonly used model of competence, often used when talking about development of skills or expertise goes like this: unconsciously incompetent -> consciously incompetent -> consciously competent -> unconsciously competent. Skill or expertise development is less linear in the real world.

The first step on the pathway to expertise is always realising just how little you actually know. Even those who are experts in their field know that they don’t know everything and the constant search for more knowledge is a sign of someone to potentially trust.

On a personal level my own professional development is built around three main factors; learning from experience, continued education and learning from peers and mentors. I know there is still a huge amount I don’t know.

Learning from experience

Quite simply you learn by doing. One study asked two groups to spend a week making pottery. Group one were asked to make just one perfect example. Group two were simply given the task of making as many pots as possible. Who do you think ended up like Patrick Swayze in Ghost?

The first group spent their time perfecting one piece and eventually made distinctly average products. Group two went through a continuous process of trial and error. The students learned from their mistakes and were actually making better clayware by the end. 

Any area of expertise you learn by doing; be it coaching, nutrition or sports psychology. What you learn on a good education course won’t give you all the answers, but will guide you on where to find them. 

Building up a wealth of experience, with reflection, will improve your knowledge base. This is true especially for individual cases, which can vary greatly from a textbook when real life is introduced.

The Endurance Conference is a fine example of like-minded individuals, all with a desire to learn, developing their knowledge together.

Surround yourself with people who know more 

A great way to learn is from others who know more than you do. Finding a mentor can be difficult, but even just a network of specialists in aspects of your own area can be a wonderful learning tool. The idea of this article actually came from a catch up with a Registered Dietician who I’ve learnt plenty from over the years.

There are sports psychologists, dieticians, biomechanists, doctors, research scientists, coaching academics and cross sport experts who make up the group of people I love to discuss, disagree and learn with. You don’t learn much from people who simply agree with you.

As a coach some of my biggest learning comes from fellow coaches too. The combined knowledge and experience of a group is greater than the individual. Even a simple Whatsapp group to share useful information or discuss problems can be a huge help. The fancy name is a virtual “Community of Practice“.

Count yourself lucky if you have a network of peers who share a similar desire to learn, you’ll grow stronger together. Even that network can be constantly evolving. I’m very grateful for the friends and peers that help me grow.

Know what you know

One thing all these people have in common is that they know what they know. The limitations of our own knowledge isn’t a failing, but an opportunity. 

We all might step beyond our own labelled discipline as we develop a wide range of skills, a coach might advise on race day nutrition, whereas a dietician might advise on training and its effect on the diet. But it’s important to know the time to advise the athlete to seek the next level of help from an expert in that particular field. 

Chatting with fellow ultra distance coach Paul Tierney recently we both agreed that we’d much rather trust someone who admitted they didn’t know something rather than fudge their way through to save face. 

It’s also important to be okay with admitting when you’re wrong (although my wife might disagree just how much a grasp I have of this). It would be lovely to say this is just because research in endurance sport is always developing. But it isn’t. There’s no shame in making mistakes in the past, as long as you are willing to learn and adapt.

Add to this the individual context of each athlete and it can simply be that what is right for 99% of the population isn’t right for this athlete. 

Lost on social media

The danger we have these days is that there are too many “experts” on social media. People who aren’t really aware what they do or don’t know, but willing to shout really loudly until they deem themselves the “victor”.

This isn’t how healthy debate works. You have to approach it with the willingness to learn. You might not learn anything new, but if you’re not open minded to the other person’s argument then it’s not a discussion. You’re just WRITING. IN. CAPITALS.

We’re at risk of losing real experts from these forums because a thicker and thicker skin is needed to debate online. Someone adding evidence-based research to the wider world should not be subject to abuse. Period.

If your social media is more than 50% conspiracy theorists then you’re not edgy and most are just being contrarian to stand out.

I don’t have any evidence to back up that percentage though so I could just be a CIA agent who helped fake the moon landings for the lizard people.

Related: Fast Running Performance Project marathon coaching for all.

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