Keep It Simple: The Art of Making Complicated Sh*t Understandable

Confession: I am definitely the pot calling the kettle black, and I’m preaching to the choir through this whole article.

If you’re in business, especially in the sciences or sports (or the sport sciences… my god), you’ve probably done this too.

Okay, let’s keep this simple. Let’s go!

——————

I first started coaching athletes and doing personal training in college.

A big part of that job was the sales - if you wanted to actually make any living, you had to sell to your own athletes.

So I set about my business, trying to make a living with my colleagues in the brutal system of America’s “entry-level jobs” in an outrageously crowded, expensive metropolitan city. Love you, Washington, DC.

Sales did not come nearly as easy to me in training. Speaking and persuading generally doesn’t. It just felt dirty, so I tried to let actual client results with the few athletes I did have speak for themselves. And I tried to be nice to and help everyone who asked, even if they weren’t paying.

It was slow going, but it paid for my food, my rent in a house with three roommates, and a new-ish set of tires for my old-ish Ford.

(Savings account, not so much.)

But I saw the sales guys. I was interested in how they worked, in how they could somehow support families off this work, in how their schedules were always full, and how they proudly waved their commission sheets around on the last evening of the month, signalling that they had reached the quota to get their bonus.

I started watching more closely.

(I can’t lie… I also wanted that bonus.)

As I deliberately hung around the sales table more often, I began noticing a trend across the sales team:

About 30 minutes into the intake session, as the real sales pitch was ramping up, the coach would start using big scientific or anatomical terms and scare tactics to close the deal.

Here’s a real example: “Your hip and back issues stem from your piriformis being tight, potentially shortened, and that causes all kinds of serious neuromuscular pain. It can lead to problems like Sciatica, which can actually make it painful to move or sit. But we fix gluteal rotator pain all the time - it just takes about 9 weeks with me, versus pain that’ll take you to a doctor!”

…okay. Not only are there fallacies in what was said, but it was meant to 1) sound intellectual and important, 2) sound urgent, 3) sound like only the coach could fix it, and 4) make you pay up with no actual buy-in besides fear.

Words like “glycolysis”, “acromion”, and “fascia” were thrown around like words such as “hello” and “cool!” are in normal exchanges.

There were generally two responses to this:

1) A purely fear-based buy-in, where the client would proceed to worry and complain for the entirety of every session he/she had purchased, or

2) Confusion, irritation, and almost immediate, yet polite evacuation from the sales table. Those people would then proceed to avoid all of us coaches for a significant period of time after.

After watching this for several weeks, I decided that, no indeed, sales of this kind are not for me.

(Mostly because I cannot stand people complaining. Thank u, next!”

——————

I must say, though, I took away something very valuable from that experience.

It reinforced for me that the best coaches are Spark Notes for sport science.

What athletes need to know is how to move better for themselves and train most efficiently for the demands of their sport. They need the RESULTS of that, the “this is how you need to train”, the Conclusion part of Spark Notes that every single one of us read at least once to get through that boring GenEd Literature class in college.

The “How” part that we give to athletes should be accessible and understandable without having to know additional, confounding information about Sport Science, Anatomy, or Physics.

Then we can begin explaining to the athlete the “how and why it works” part, the Summary part of Spark Notes.

The “Why” part is when I ask my athletes if they want the long version or the short version of why we are using this exercise or why they need this corrective tool or why the plan is written a certain way.

But I will never tell them to go read a Cognitive Neuroscience or Biomechanics text book to figure it out. And I’m not going to read it to them. I still give them a summary.

Should we know that stuff and, theoretically, be able to explain it as a justification for our methods?

I mean, sure.

And yet I haven’t met an athlete who, when working on his ankle mobility and executing landing drills, really wanted to hear me explain force-velocity profiling, hamstring recruitment in deceleration, the anatomy of the lower body, the equation for force, and the physics of the ankle joint as it absorbs and produces force.

They’re usually satisfied with “if your ankles are restricted, your body has to overcompensate during certain movements” and “landing, slowing down, and changing direction are really important in your sport; it’s best that we practice them so your body knows how to do it in a game”.

I like the Twitter version; 260 characters is usually more than sufficient for the short attention span that most everyone has these days, and I don’t want to risk losing their time or attention over a display of my intelligence.

—————

My Instagram account is essentially an experiment in “Keep It Simple”.

I made it my mantra to bring value in its simplest, most accessible form and targeted to athletes. It is literally a collection of “How This Works” on its most basic level.

Interestingly enough, I regularly get feedback from people (mostly coaches and sport scientists) that it’s “not the whole story” or it’s somehow lacking in information.

My response is as simple as “yes, that is the point. We are attacking the very basics here, but I am happy to explain more in the comment section, should it come up.”

Social media is a show pony in this industry, and that’s not always for the best.

I would rather provide meaningful, useful information to athletes, even if it’s basic or brief, so that they can immediately execute and understand it, as opposed to quoting and citing studies and speaking in Latin.

It’s 2019. With the technology age, information should become more accessible and useful, not harder, more confusing, and less accessible.

We need to contribute our knowledge in such a way, especially to our athletes, who trust us to guide them.

Conclusion

(this is a scientific article now, bye)

As coaches, we should focus on being more like the podcast “How Stuff Works” and less like the sport science lectures and 300pg textbooks we all dreaded in college.

Athletes don’t come to us to learn about physics. They come to us because they need to get stronger, faster, and better at their sport. Let’s not waste their time stroking our egos and refusing to simplify the extremely complex science behind training.

Be a great filter. Try to translate the foreign language of science to an enjoyable exchange.

Keep it simple.