Science vs Art

Science vs Art

Posted by Marc Mangiacotti

What is the difference between the science vs art of coaching? The science of coaching consists of understanding workouts, progressions, biomechanics, energy systems and other essential factors that influence ones ability to teach. The art of coaching encompasses more depth and understanding of an athlete’s emotions, external stress levels and a host of other social and psychological aspects.


As the semester comes to a close, athletes across the country are pulling all-nighters as they cram for exams and put the finishing touches on term papers. For athletes, this time of the year renders little sleep and weakened diets. Tis the season for stress.


Finals week is a crucial time for student-athletes and the task of achieving success in the classroom and on the track is a challenging feat. As a coach, it is my job to make sure I help lessen the load and make the shift into the indoor season as seamless as possible. The best way to do this is to pay close attention to athlete’s workouts and make the necessary adjustments.


Oftentimes I modify the workouts or change the rest between intervals.  For instance, our long sprinters were scheduled to do 3 x 500m the other day.  The athletes did a great job through 2 repetitions, but there was no way they were going to get through a quality 3rd repetition. I stopped them after two 500’s and had them do 2 x 3 x 60m straight leg bounds.  This kept them moving and added more to the workout without killing them or making them feel overly frustrated because they could not finish another 500m.


Adding the SLB’s was the lesser of two evils.  I wish that they could have done a 3rd 500m, but doing the SLB’s was better than nothing.  Why SLB’s?  Well…I could have used 60-150m build ups, a big body weight circuit, or anything else that would add a bit more volume and help flush waste product. I just happened to choose SLB on that particular day.


As our workouts progress during this time of year I can hear Kenny Rogers singing “The Gambler” in the back of my mind.  C’mon you remember the lyrics:


“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”


We have to make sure that the ‘science of coaching’ doesn’t get in the way of being the best coach for each athlete.  Just because an athlete can’t do 3 x 350m full throttle with 12 minutes recovery doesn’t mean this athlete can’t be a good 400m runner.  As coaches, we have to assess the situation and find another way to get the job done.


I had a long sprinter with some breathing problems last year.  She struggled to complete workouts that included intervals that were over 200m long.  A staple workout in my long sprinters group is 4  x 300m.  Since this athlete could not finish the workout we had to make adjustments.


The ‘science of coaching’ part of me said that she had to be able to run 4 x 300m at a good clip to not only run fast in the 400m, but also to complete tougher and more intense workouts later in the season. The ‘art of coaching’ part of me understood that she would never be able to complete this workout like the rest of the group. Therefore, I understood we had to figure out another way to skin the cat so an athlete with asthma could succeed in the 400m race.


What did I change?  I simply changed the workout from 4 x 300m (1,200m of volume) at 77-85% (depending on the time of year) with a 4 minute recovery to 4 x 2 x 150m (1,200m of volume) at a slightly higher percentage with 30 seconds to 1 minute off between repetitions and 3 minutes off between sets.  The minute between repetitions was enough time for her to catch her breath, but not enough time to lose the effectiveness of what we were trying to accomplish.   Throughout the year, I played with the schemes a little bit.  I also used 3 x 3 x 150m and 3 x 2 x 150m, but keeping the rest the same between repetitions and sets.


This year, I find myself using this same style of workout every once in a while with my short sprinters who may possibly run on a 4 x 400m relay at a championship meet.  Again, it is enough to help them get through the 400m relay, but not too much to kill them.  I still want them to be able to train for the short sprints.


Coaches need to make sure that they coach the athlete NOT the event.  Understanding the science and art of coaching will ultimately help that athletes run faster.


Please feel free to follow me on Twitter @MarcMangiacotti.  I try to post workouts on a daily basis.


Need some sprint workout ideas for Winter Break? Read Coach Mangiacotti’s: Winter Break Workouts

Marc Mangiacotti is an assistant track coach at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.

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  • Mark Warman

    Very well stated. Being a HS coach (your buddy Latiff might have some input here) with a huge program I find having to coach to the greatest common denominator is more manageable for the masses and reserve the individual tweaking to my higher caliber athletes. I really appreciate your explaining how you train the same energy system utilizing different workouts and rest intervals. I have a 400m who has a similar problem to what you have described. Thanks again. PS. Was at the Southern Tier invite at Cornell 2-weeks back ran into a Brown female distance runner (sophomore strawberry blonde long curly hair). Spoke very highly of you. They miss you at Brown. Thanks again for your insights.

  • Steven Booth

    You have to remember that we are dealing with individuals who are all different and sometimes have their off days. Your schedules have to be flexible in order to accommodate this and still get the best out of your athletes.

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  • Eric Simpson

    Great article and so true. I sometimes feel that I “wing” it too much but then the sessions are not set in stone.I know where I want each athlete to go and we know where we want to land up. Notice how I changes I to we at the end of the day the athlete has to know where they are going I have to have the ability to get them there. If an athlete asks you “why are we doing this session” and you can’t give an honest answer then you shouldn’t be doing it. Continue the good work.

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  • Graham Smith

    As Eric says, a great article Marc. Too often coaches adhere strictly to the science of the event, and don’t think about the athlete as an individual. I feel you have to have a really good understanding of the “Science” but as a good friend and coaching colleague states “coaching an athlete is an experiment of one”, you have to be aware of the emotional ,physiological and biomechanical limtations of every athlete you coach and that is part of the “Art”