Coach’s Log, Entry 4: Utility and Choice
March 23, 2022
I often tell my athletes to make better choices about their training and general behaviour in the gym. This request meets resistance most of the time, and worse, it occasionally confuses those who receive it. It confuses them because they believe they are making the best possible choice given their circumstances.
And their circumstances are critical to this particular point because the utility I refer to here is subjective, and as a subjective “thing”, it isn’t always rational. In fact, it is seldom logical or even sensible.
As you read this, keep in mind that this topic relates to Entry 2 and the development of disciplined athletes.
When we regard something as helpful in the performance of a specific task, we say it has utility. A wrench has utility to a plumber or a car mechanic as landing mats do to gymnasts and tumblers.
We can also think of ourselves, as coaches, as having utility to our athletes. We are, after all, in the gym to facilitate the proper performance of tasks necessary to grow in the sport.
What Does Utility Have to Do with Choice?
Everything, really. But it isn’t that simple.
A rational individual maximises the value of a choice by measuring its utility against all other possible values. Still, this proposition assumes two points that seldom hold true: 1, that humans are naturally rational, and 2, that we understand the value of all available options correctly.
Human perception of usefulness – or utility, as we have called it here – isn’t always optimal. Most of the time, what we see as having importance to our experience reflects how much (or how little) we know about the choices before us.
While we can become rational, It takes training to become critical and sensible people. Emotions are our default criteria for choices; we will most often select what feels good to us without cost-benefit analyses of our alternatives. If we even can know the full array of options available to us.
It follows that we cannot simply expect our athletes to make the right choices in the gym all the time; we have to lead them to see the utility in their behaviour in the gym. But, and here is the kicker, can we modify their behaviour if we don’t know what value they perceive in it?
I think so. It might actually be the most logical option for us.
As I said earlier, it isn’t that simple, and it might be the most challenging part of understanding our athletes.
Let me give you an example.
An athlete is underperforming in practice, and you know she is not putting her best effort forth. You can safely assume that something is different today than on other days. But that is the only safe assumption you can make without adequate information about her state.
It could be that she is tired, so less strain on her body is the most logical option for her. She could be unhappy for reasons unavailable to you, and less effort allows her to better deal with her emotional state. Or she could not want to train because there are other things she’d instead do, and appealing to her mood is the most viable option, according to her.
We can list countless reasons for her performance during practice, all of which have subjective value in the context of her experience. But exploring all the possible options is futile and meaningless to the endeavour of coaching. It would make little sense.
Instead, the more feasible challenge is to point her towards the utility of different, more beneficial behaviour during training.
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The utility of a particular behaviour is specific to the person exhibiting, and that utility depends heavily on the context in which the behaviour unfolds. It is illogical for us to try to negate that value through instruction or verbal opposition. And while resistance may sometimes work, it will often worsen the undesirable behaviour.
This is a time when you must measure the utility of your approach rationally based on your understanding of your athletes and classes.
Finally, seeing and maximising the utility of behaviour is essential to developing discipline in training and knowing how to find adequate resources.
Thank you for reading.
— Coach José