Bro, do you even research?

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Or, What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do.

This post has been written for my good friend and coaching colleague Dan Reis whom, among other endeavours, runs his online personal training business DNA Fitness Online.

Dan kindly invited me to write for him and asked if I could pen something that other personal coaches and fitness trainers would find useful. I had a number of ideas on what I wanted to write about, but one kept resurfacing: Research.

In creating this piece I decided I wanted to achieve two key things. The first is to provide some actionable tools and resources for you to use. You’ll find links to these throughout the text. The second is to throw the subject matter open a bit further. Whilst this post is primarily for personal coaches and fitness trainers (and is framed in that context), the principles, resources and tools within could be applied in almost any learning environment, field of study or workplace.

What Do You Know? 

As a coach you might be comfortable reading up on research articles, but for many of us the prospect of doing so can be daunting. Programming for clients with a lean body mass goal? No problem. Providing general nutritional recommendations? Easy. Then a client comes in and mentions that they’ve seen something online (they can’t remember where) which says if they do 30 repetitions of an exercise with a lighter weight for a short period of time then they’ll see larger longer-term gains. Would this help them? Or you have a client that has replaced sugar in their drinks with artificial sweeteners. They want to know if it’s a good thing to do as part of a weight loss goal? Suddenly the answers may not be so straightforward and clear-cut. You’re thinking you might need to dust off the textbooks or consult your online course notes to find out how best to respond. Or you might even have to do some research.

How Do You Know What You Know?

This is quite a deceptive question, so let it sink in. Take anything you know, anything you hold to be true. How do you know what you know? Let’s say you consider the deadlift to be the best exercise around for strengthening hamstrings. Or that you believe that a kettlebell is a great tool for performing a shoulder press. How do you know what you know? Perhaps you consider High Intensity Training (HIT) the best form of training. That it’s important to keep hydrated. How do you know what you know? 

Therefore it’s important to have awareness of two things:

  1. WHAT and HOW you think, and
  2. WHY you think that way.

The awareness these questions bring allows you to challenge your own thoughts and become curious about knowledge. How has my knowledge been produced? How do I know what I know? These questions may then lead you to think this: how is any knowledge produced? Here’s where research comes in.

Dunning Krueger Effect

Where To Start The (Re)Search

Before you start the research let’s take a step back. You’ve a client who has brought up a question for which you don’t have an immediate answer. Will you give them an immediate answer anyway? After all, the ‘fake it til you make it’ approach hasn’t turned into ‘fake it til you screw it up spectacularly’ …yet (see graph above for a somewhat more academic explanation of this phenomenon). Will you attempt to deftly side-step the query, get back to the round of press-ups that have been rudely interrupted by the question and hope the matter never ever comes up again? Or will you provide a ‘well, it depends’ answer and shut down the conversation faster than you can neck a protein shake on leg day? Maybe you would choose one of those options. However, if you’re faced with a situation where you genuinely don’t know what the answer to your client’s question is then I would recommend you start with this:

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you on this.  Would that be reasonable with you?” 

This response, whether it’s been in my fitness or financial career, has served me well on countless occasions. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • You’re admitting you don’t know. This may be counter-intuitive, especially as the client is paying you some of their hard-earned money to receive your advice and you’re conscious of coming across as the gym-floor idiot. But I strongly believe it’s doing the opposite; – that it’s building, maintaining and/or strengthening rapport between you and your client. You’re showing that you’re human too.
  • You’re taking responsibility. If there’s only one thing you take away from this post I would ask that it’s this: take responsibility. From an organisational perspective I’d never experienced upward delegation until I worked in a gym. It was frustrating and fascinating in equal measure. It never ceases to amaze me that a lot of coaches/instructors/trainers claim to be doing the work in order to help others yet at times cannot or do not address client or member concerns. That they need to pass the matter to someone else. Whenever this happens a great opportunity to show you care has been missed. From experience the opposite tends to happen. The magical, mystical ‘someone else’ might get the message. They might – if time and existing demands allow – look into the matter. They might even be able to reply. Here’s the fact: If you don’t actively take personal ownership and responsibility you might as well say, “I don’t care.” Whether you think it or not, irrespective of whether you like it or not, that’s how your lack of action is perceived. Trust me. I’ve had enough conversations with upset members and colleagues to know this. I’ve even taken on clients this way, not through my hard work but through someone else’s willingness to drop the ball. I could probably write a book, never mind an article, on this subject alone. I don’t want to, so please, take responsibility.
  • You’re setting expectations.You’re making it clear you’ll take action and that there will be an outcome. It may be that ultimately you come back to an ‘it depends’ response. But at least now you know why ‘it depends’ and perhaps the conversation evolves.
  • You’re seeking permission, creating accountability and creating deeper rapport. By asking if your planned course of action is reasonable you’re creating buy-in to what you propose. Whilst you’ll look into the matter further, your client feels that (i) you’ve listened to them, and (ii) knows what you’re going to be doing to some extent. They feel they’re part of the matter and will appreciate the efforts you go to. It’s rare that when you ask someone if what you plan to do for them is reasonable for them to object. You’ll almost always encounter approval for what you’re proposing to do.
  • You’re not only addressing the question, you’re also addressing the client and their needs.  And just for the sake of clarity, it’s vital you do the latter.

Back To The Research

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You have the unfathomable question from your client. You’ve made it clear that you’re going to have to look up the matter. Now what? Well if you’re wanting to delve deeper than your existing sources of knowledge then there are a few online options worth looking into. I’ve provided four such options below:

Google Scholar

Google Scholar works in much the same way as Google itself, with its’ searches focusing on academic publications and materials. To test it out I typed ‘tennis elbow’ into the search terms and the site produced a staggering 54,700 results. To narrow it down, the menu on the left hand side provides options to sort articles by date and whether you want to include patents or citations (Tip: for the best part you won’t want these so they can be unchecked). In my example doing so reduced the number of articles by over 10,000.

Examine.com

If you’re looking to do some specific research in regards to nutrition and supplementation then you might want to check out Examine.com. Go to their home page and type in your search terms. The website is extremely well organised and will give you key summarised information on your search term (I used ‘Coenzyme Q10’ as an example) as well as the number of references to the term in scientific papers (over 300 in this instance).

Public Library of Science

Taking a much wider approach is the Public Library of Science, with a myriad of scientific research. To give you some idea, I typed ‘fascia’ into the search field and the website produced 3,550 results. Out of interest I typed ‘foot fascia’ – even with such specifics the website contained 176 results.

PubMed

As with the other references, when you go to the PubMed home page, you simply put your search terms into the search field to obtain a list of results. A quick search for ‘Vitamin K side-effects’ brought up 4,268 results which can then be further sorted by date, type, whether you wish to review (i) an abstract, (ii) free full text, or (iii) full text, and species. In my example, simply selecting ‘humans’ removed over 600 results from the initial search.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Even when you find a research article or two you then need to make sense of them. It doesn’t need to be as harrowing an experience as you might be thinking it will be, especially if you choose to follow or use some of the information below.

When reviewing scientific research papers and articles I’ve used some of the techniques I discovered in ‘Brilliant Speed Reading‘ by Phil Chambers. Whilst the book can help you read faster, what I took from it was how to read smarter. In the book the author outlines where to focus your attention when it comes to scientific papers. Included in this are some of the following areas:

  • Title – What’s the paper about, is it appropriate for what you’re wanting to learn?
  • Abstract – The summary of the paper, its’ purpose, aims, methods, findings, etc
  • Key Definitions – These might be included. If not, or if there’s another term you don’t know then you can use a search engine such as Google to help you. Tip: A quick way to do this  – type ‘define:‘ in front of the particular word and then search the results. (Make sure you include the colon punctuation mark : if you do try this.)
  • Methods – For example, how did the researchers go about determining their population, how did they perform their research?
  • Results – What did the researchers observe? Were their observations expected or unexpected?
  • Conclusion – What have the researchers concluded? Do they recommend further research?
  • Citations – Details on any studies cited within the paper.

In addition to this it may be useful to look at any tables, graphs and/or diagrams that may be included in a research article as these tend to get to the core of the matter quicker than the written word. If there are shaded areas in the paper again this may be information that is summarised and therefore easier to grasp than wading through all the technical details.

When faced with a long section of information I will usually read the section heading and then the first and last paragraphs. Why? Chances are the key information; the introduction, summary and conclusion are in those two paragraphs. If I do then decide that I want to read the whole section then I have some context before I wade in.

Linked to this technique is something I refer to as ‘swim to the other side‘. If you wade into a section and feel like you’re getting out of your depth,  keep going. Don’t get hung up on the exact meaning and nuance of every single word. Instead try and gain an understanding of the key concepts and information. Try and absorb the main ideas. By the time you’ve reached the other side you may well understand more than if you’re treading water in the midst of the section.

Let’s Talk About Statistics

If digging into the technical details and statistical analysis of a research paper is something you want to do then I’d recommend reading the section on ‘Let’s Talk About Statistics‘ featured in this superb post by Tim Ferriss as a very good place to start learning about the concepts of p-value and null hypothesis.

Organising Your Research

Something that I’ve found helpful in reviewing research has been to use a matrix to write out my understanding and findings. I created such a matrix off the back of and in conjunction with my current studies and mentoring from Precision Nutrition. (That’s also the source of the disarmingly deceptive question.)  You can access and download a copy of it here.  Please feel free to do so.

I’ve created this matrix to be able to compare and contrast up to 4 research articles at any one time, to help me gather and organise my thoughts.  It’s essentially looking at research papers and articles from 5 perspectives.

  1. Comprehend – What are the main points in each study? What are the general findings? How would you summarise the studies in your own words?
  2. Analyse – Compare this (new) information to your existing understanding of the topic. What is new, different, contrary, etc to your previous understanding?
  3. Synthesise – When considered together, how do these studies add to your understanding of the topic?
  4. Evaluate – What conclusion(s) do you come to based on the (new) information?
  5. Apply – What key findings from these studies would you share with your audience?

Again, please feel free to use this resource, following the instructions at the top of the spreadsheet for creating and saving your own copy.

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

There’s one other precious source of information we might have a tendency to overlook, yet it may be one of the most beneficial to employ in our quest for knowledge – our peers and colleagues. How do they know what they know? There’s a good chance that they have reliable sources of information and can help you in your quest for knowledge. What’s more, they can make your learning come to life, discuss and challenge your thought processes. Don’t rely on them to do the work for you though, and ask more than once for their help if needs be. For they’re most likely very busy too and if you can demonstrate that you’ve taken some steps, no matter how small, to get to grips with the matter in question then the chances of receiving their input will increase greatly.

Over To You

Take anything you wish, from a long-held belief to the benefits of a certain exercise or training modality, and apply some of the options and resources above to it. How do you know what you know? How and why do you know that? What if there’s more to know? How can you find out more?  What if – heaven forbid – you have to reconsider your point of view altogether?

There’s only one way to find out…and you never know, you might even enjoy the learning process!

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