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5/6/2013 1:25:46 PM -
The trouble with "referrals"

I’m going to issue a disclaimer here and state, right off the bat, that this isn’t intended to be a negative post. It may not even be logical, although in my experience, what I’m about to talk about has been the case on several different occasions. I guess you could call this something of a word of warning with regard to the people you’re getting advice—and, in some cases, medical treatment—from.

I’ve been guilty on a lot of occasions of disregarding good advice from people because I think they’re assholes on a personal level. The inverse of this is true, too. I’ve often given too much airtime, at least in my own head, to people whose advice wasn’t so good, simply because the guy (or girl) giving it is someone I like, or someone I’ve found to be honest and well-meaning. It’s the latter part of this I want to talk about today.

There’s something in science called confirmation bias. I first heard this term from John Kiefer, and it makes a lot of sense to me. We want something to be true, so we selectively “hear” only the things that back it up. This, obviously, happens all the time with training and nutrition. We want so badly for the method we’re using to be the “right” way of doing things that we tune out anything that disagrees with it, and we read only the things that support our position.

In my case, this applies to local people I deal with on a number of different levels. I’m an active football coach. I work with a team, I work with kids nearly every day, and I meet a lot of people employed in related fields that have zero presence online. Now, I know some of the best trainers/coaches/nutritionists/medical personnel have big online presences, and I’m not discounting that as a qualification for someone knowing what they’re doing. If a guy knows his shit, I’m going to go to him for help regardless of whether he’s posing on his website wearing a khakis and a polo shirt with his arms folded or not. Expertise is expertise.

I’d rather deal with people in person, though. If I have a mobility issue, it’s far more useful to me to be able to see someone in my town, that I can actually make an appointment with, than it is to ask some dude a question on his website. The same goes for everything. I know a lot of people offer distance coaching, but if I were still a competitive athlete, I’d rather have a gym to go to where a real-life coach in my area would work with me. Maybe I’m old-school and haven’t figured out how to get past this psychological hurdle, or maybe I’m not. That remains to be seen.

It’s this bias, however, that sometimes hurts me when I advocate for—or come to the defense of—local people who’ve earned reputations that are strictly anecdotal in nature.

In other words, I’m so fixated on having a network of in-person people, and so loathe to rely on anyone at a distance, that if someone is a “good guy” to me, or a “good guy” to one of my athletes, I’ll turn a blind eye to the fact that I have no bloody idea whether he’s any good at what he does or not.

I’ve done this a few times now locally, and it’s making me think a lot about WHY we use people or recommend them to others. In my case, I do this a lot of times based on confirmation bias. I WANT the “good” guy to be good, and I want the “asshole” to suck, so I’ll recommend the former over the latter. This isn’t because I want the “asshole” to do badly. It’s because I’ve deluded myself into hoping the good guy can get the job done based on the fact that he’s a good guy—even if his credentials are dubious.

This happens a lot when you deal a lot personally with someone with an inflated reputation. After a while, you’ll say to yourself, “I know so-and-so is supposed to be great at this...but I’m just not seeing it.”

I think that in order to avoid this kind of thing, we have to develop empirical criteria for the people we recommend to others. Again, I’m not talking about referring people to websites and linking articles. I’m talking about sending someone, locally, to someone who’s supposed to know what they’re doing. We have to do better than anecdotal, “That guy is f-ing awesome!” evidence, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about training, nutrition, medical help, sport-specific coaching, or anything else.

This isn’t me being negative. I’m pointing the finger at myself. Whether I know what the hell I’m talking about or not, I’ve set myself up in a position where people ask me for referrals to others—both online and locally—and I’m afraid I’ve made them spin their wheels in certain cases. I’m rethinking that process, and I think it might help others to give some thought to it, too.

Angry Coach

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