Updated: May 17, 2021
To begin, David Dunning and Justin Kruger were psychologists who studied confidence and competence. Their discoveries are now some of the most impactful theories in the psychology world.
What they discovered was this: Individuals who can’t do X, don’t understand that they can’t do X.
To put it another way, when we lack competence, we are most likely to maintain a degree of overconfidence.
On the flip side, the theory goes further to say that individuals who perform well (large competence), underestimate their abilities.
Basically - the smarter, more skilled you get, the less knowledgeable you feel.
Many believe that these ideals run rampant in the strength and conditioning world and, no doubt, I am as guilty of them as anybody... but is that a bad thing?
As a young undergraduate student, interning as a collegiate sports performance coach, I thought I ran the world. I thought I knew everything via my little academic education, minimal real world experiences, and plenty of self study. I had taken in just enough to have an opinion (and a quite strong one), but not enough to truly think about that opinion. I was 100% in the Dunning-Kruger club.
“The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club” (Grant 38).
Fortunately, I had mentors along the way who helped guide me with their wisdom, showing me the sports performance world through the lenses of humility, exploration, and creativity. They didn’t impart their training methods on me, but instead pushed me to think more critically, find self-discovery, and engage in continuous learning - which I still prioritize to this day.
My Issue with Dunning-Kruger
On one hand, we have overconfidence and lacking competence, which is probably more common in our world today (as evidenced by younger me).
If we view this as a “problem,” which many more experienced coaches in the S&C world do, the next question is, how do we solve it?
Option #1: The older strength coaches go the route of eliminating the overconfidence of the younger strength coach, thereby removing the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I suppose this is one way to solve the “problem” - however, probably not the correct answer.
Option #2: The older strength coaches will attempt to raise the competence of the younger coaches by instilling their training philosophies within them.
Option #3: The older strength coaches challenge and guide younger coaches to seek self-discovery, allowing their creativity to be used as a fuel source of growth, and explore the industry for their own solutions. By doing so, the younger strength coach can make use of their confidence and innovative ideas to empower growth within themselves, their athletes, and the industry as a whole. If it isn’t clear, I think this is the best way.
Let me paint the picture for you: A young strength coach, we’ll name Joe, with two years of experience gets the opportunity to intern at a local college. Once he arrives, he is full of confidence, creative ideas, and feels well prepared (Is Joe a member of the Dunning-Kruger club? Probably.)
Many young coaches come into the industry, if they are anything like myself, or Joe, with this confidence, excitement and creativity, hoping to change the training world with their ideas.
However, more experienced and “wiser” strength coaches often believe it is their duty to enlighten the younger ones with their way of doing things.
Here, we squat with our knees behind our toes.
Here, we deadlift with a strict neutral spine.
Here, we direct athletes how to move.
Many “wiser” and more experienced strength coaches point towards the Dunning-Kruger Effect as their reason for needing to teach and direct younger coaches.
*Quick sidebar, the reason I am writing about this is because a few weeks back there was a post being passed around Instagram that talked about Dunning-Kruger, and I think 99% of the “older” strength coaches I follow reposted it in some way. To me, it came off as a subtle jab at younger strength coaches to take a seat and learn. ‘Become competent, and then you can become confident,’ was the vibe I was getting from most of them.
More experienced coaches will take it on themselves to help younger coaches achieve a level of “competence” they deem to be adequate..
And while this isn’t inherently wrong, younger coaches should learn from more experienced coaches. They should absorb their knowledge and grasp their training methods. They should learn from the life lessons they’ve experienced in their time as a coach and leader.
But, it can’t come at the cost of losing the creativity and fresh perspective the young coach brings.
And too often it does.
A quick history lesson for you…
Strength training dates back to the 1800s, and maybe even earlier than that. However, true athletic training did not take hold until the mid 1900’s. That means that athletic strength and conditioning has been around for maybe 70 years total.
Here’s a couple other quick facts that will help you understand the importance of questioning things:
Women weren’t allowed to run competitions more than 800 meters before 1960 because there were fears they weren’t physically capable of it.
Until 1991 scientists believed that dinosaurs died off because of a volcanic eruption. They then believed that it was due to an asteroid. Now there are new unsure beliefs that it is a mixture of the two. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.
Until 2014 scientists believed that Neanderthals died off because Homo Sapiens were smarter than them, however, new research has shown that Neanderthals actually had cognitive superiority to Homo Sapiens. Scientists don’t fully understand why they went extinct. Neanderthals died off 50,000 years ago. I’ll say that again, 50,000 years ago - and we still don’t know why.
So, what is my issue with how the Dunning-Kruger Effect gets utilized in S & C?
Dunning-Kruger, and the “wiser” strength coach that misuses the theory, tells us that Joe is best off holding back his overconfident and creative theories and instead should listen and learn from his coaching peers with more experience. Joe is overconfident and under competent, and he needs to learn the “‘correct way.”
Is Joe’s two years of experience truly that much different than the coach he is learning from with five?
Scientists still don’t understand how Neanderthals went extinct, 50,000 years later. Experts still don’t understand exactly how dinosaurs died off, 65 millions years ago. But yet, the "wiser" strength coach knows how to perfectly train athletes.
What if Joe’s creative ideas would have lifted the field higher? What if his new perspective would have created a solution to preventing all injuries (unlikely, but you get the point)?
The dichotomy exists:
And so, to summarize, my issue with Dunning-Kruger (at least, how it often gets utilized in the S&C world) is the fact that it gives off the notion that people with more experience and knowledge are better suited experts on a certain topic.
While I understand the ideas being presented by the Dunning-Kruger aren’t directly saying this, I believe this is how it gets misused in the strength and conditioning world.
There are ways to teach younger coaches without directing them.
There are ways to usher younger coaches towards self-discovery, without simply imparting your methods onto them.
There are ways to let younger coaches explore their creative and fresh ideas, without them threatening your way of coaching.
I’d like to thank my mentors for guiding me in these ways.
Who's to say that Joe’s fellow coaches know more than him? Who's to say they have better ideas? I am guessing they still have athletes get injured in their sport and are still leaving performance potential on the table… because this is the case everywhere!
Nobody has the answers.
All coaches find themselves on this journey of discovery, trying to find them.
Don’t shut down a younger coach's journey to simply bring them into yours.
Allow your journey’s to coincide and yet also take different paths.
Be a part of the younger coaches journey, and not vice versa.
In the end, all of our desired destinations are fairly similar: Greater performance, fewer injuries.
I think we may all have some Dunning-Kruger inside of us.
About the Author (not actually Joe):
My name is Carter Schmitz, and I graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2019 with a business degree and a minor in exercise science. While there, I played football (as long as we consider being a kicker, playing football) and found two of the deepest passions in life - learning and human performance. Since then, I have become a certified strength coach and have had the opportunity to train hundreds of athletes ranging from the middle school to the professional level.
I believe in building humans first, athletes second.
I believe that everybody has extraordinarily high amounts of value to offer.
I believe that the pursuit of improvement will lead to growth, no matter the outcomes.
Within my writing, I strive to breakdown and apply complex ideas in order to boost understanding, draw comparisons from seemingly separated and opposing topics, and empower growth in my readers. Knowledge and understanding are power, and they create the foundation of improvement. Moving forward, I plan on continuing to seek the betterment of my athletes, myself and my community, empowering growth along the way.
Be sure to head over and check out my Instagram and other blog posts at the links below:
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/coach_carter_schmitz/