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Evidence-based vs Evidence-informed Coaching

Over the past decade of being in/around the fitness and performance realm there’s been a real growth in coaches/trainers, course providers and figureheads in the industry assigning the term ‘Evidence-Based’ to their coaching practice - but what is it?


“denoting an approach to medicine, education, and other disciplines that emphasizes the practical application of the findings of the best available current research.”


In clinical practice of medicine, social work, education and more, there are various models for Evidence Based practice that follow a structure similar to the one I’ve outlined below:

  1. Ask a question

  2. Find information and evidence to answer the question

  3. Critically review the information and evidence you find

  4. Take an integrated approach to solving the problem based on available research, individual expertise AND the clients preferences

  5. Evaluation of steps 1-4, review their efficacy and adjust as needed for future implementation


The continuum below I use as a ‘First Principle’ of coaching (although it applies everywhere from neurobiology to ecological systems and financial markets). First principle simply being defined as “a basic, foundational, self-evident proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption”.


three bears.jpg

Put simply, you can think of this continuum like the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, the bear of varbility is where we WANT to be, too much rigidity and too-much chaos are suboptimal. But that variability porridge is just right.

When it comes to looking at Evidence-Based Coaching, it often sits to the left of the continuum with a somewhat rigid reliance on hard data.

For years the Evidence-Based Practice model has been debated and the need for a new and clearer definition that shows a balance of the 5 stages laid out above and EQUAL important of three phases of scientific research, the expertise/experience of the practitioner and the preferences of the client/athlete.

A growing problem I see is course providers, coaches and others using the term ‘Evidence-Based’ and espousing a rigid reliance on the scientific research, at the expense of the indivdiual’s expertise/experience and the preference of the client or athlete. This rigidity of approach leads to a loss of varability to do what may be best for the client, but which is not driven by the research.



Fig 2. Japanese concept of Shu-Ha-Ri

Something I teach to the coaches and trainers I mentor is a Japanese concept of the path towards mastery, called Shuhari. This framework follows three clear and distinct phases in the development of mastery in any area, from coaching to woodworking, martial arts and more.

Phase 1: Learn
Focus on the basics. Coach people, learn, make mistakes. Research, study, take continuing ed courses, learn from people further along the path than yourself aim to be a sponge to information whilst retaining a critical eye.

Phase 2: Innovate
Now you know and undertsand the principles, start to experiment a little. Bend the rules staying within the boundaries of the fundamental pricniples that you’ve learned.

Phase 3: Transcend
Few if any will reach this point, this is where mastery lies. The ability to see tools, systems and principles for what they are.

"Before I learned martial arts, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick. When I studied martial arts, a punch was no longer just a punch and a kick was no longer just a kick. Now I understand martial arts, and a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick." - Bruce Lee


If your coaching practice falls solely on one end of the spectrum it’s going to be pretty much impossible to progress beyond the first step towards mastery in any field. Either you’re bound to the rules with no flexibility to bend or break them OR are so chaotic in your approach that meaningful reflexion and evaluation of your methods becomes near impossible.

To this end, I’d suggest a re-purposing from “Evidence-Based” to “Evidence-Informed”. Empowering coaches to put equal value and importance on the research, their experience and the preferences of the client.

Critical self-reflection of coaching practice, training model, nutritional interventions, communication strategies, program design methods and more ALL fall into this category of being driven by science, experience AND client preference, and to me - that’s where the magic lies.

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