Updated: Jun 25, 2021
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
This quote is thrown around quite a bit in many settings, from economics to business management, from scientific study and even the fitness industry. It is often attributed to Peter Drucker, the "founder of modern management,” but it is not, apparently, something he ever said. His views on measuring results were actually much more comprehensive and ultimately realistic. More on Mr. Drucker’s views in a moment. In the context of physical preparedness and training, measuring success is also quite nuanced. Consider a few of the options used as performance indicators: a vertical leap, a single rep max Deadlift, a two-thousand meter row time… the list of possible assessments is overwhelmingly diverse and extensive. Then there are those more nebulous goals we see on the cover of magazines at the grocery store, all related to aesthetics and personal appearance like a smaller or bigger this or that body part, “x” pounds of weight loss or gain, more “definition" or “tone"… more overwhelming. I believe that assessing the effectiveness of every training program is exceedingly important; so much, in fact, that it occupies a large portion of my daily work in program design and coaching. I love collecting data and using it. But I also believe that the most important ways we can recognize the success of our programming cannot be easily captured by a metric. Too much measurement can be just as bad as no measurement at all.
When it comes to preparing for a specific event, the performance assessment is all too obvious; we hit the target or we don't, we lift more or less than before, we cover more distance, we get there faster, etc. The contest inherently measures the results or our training, but what about the rest of the time? In between events, or when training for more general physical preparedness, measuring success becomes fraught with challenges. Testing maximal strength or endurance or body fat every day are not healthy ways to assess our continued performance. In a paper on the “Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Measurements,” V.F. Ridgway wrote, "Quantitative measures of performance are tools, and are undoubtedly useful. But research indicates that indiscriminate use and undue confidence and reliance in them result from insufficient knowledge of the full effects and consequences. Judicious use of a tool requires awareness of possible side effects and reactions. Otherwise, indiscriminate use may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits…” Improvements in many areas can be subtle and easily taken for granted. Better stability, less pain or discomfort, greater range of motion, resilience to injury, higher quality movement, improved proprioception, these are all very common results achieved from consistent hard work and high quality training. Unfortunately, even though we use tangible measurements for many of these, they are often overlooked and underrated. It’s not typical to see a huge celebration over an improved score on the Functional Movement Screen, but it really should be! On the other hand, weight loss and improved appearance are socially acceptable to celebrate in a big way, regardless of how they are achieved. Physical training is further complicated in that as our work capacity improves, we become more aware of what might be possible if we could just improve it that much more, and we seldom consider how far we’ve come already. This can become a pathology. Sometimes a trainee will participate in an exciting new activity on vacation, or jump into a friend’s sport or workout class for a day and say something like, “I must be out of shape because I could barely keep up!” Neglecting the fact that they had enough confidence and were in good enough shape to even participate in an activity they never would have tried before. Testing out a day in someone else’s sport or exercise program is an excellent way to assess our own training, but expecting to be great at it is unrealistic. Having the confidence to try it out in the first place and not be injured is already a huge step, and if we’re able to participate with some effectiveness it should be considered a huge win! This is why training to improve general physical preparedness is so much more valuable than sport-specific or aesthetically focused training and why we should be spending most of our time working at it and measuring it. A bit better at everything is usually far healthier than being excellent at one thing and terrible at everything else - or having huge biceps but no leg strength.
Something I’ve observed in athletes is that although we already have goals of our own, we often don’t find a particular metric to be all that important until we see someone else achieve it, or read about it or see it in a headline. Then it seems of paramount importance and we feel woefully behind in comparison. “Did you see ‘X' person do ‘Y'? I’m nowhere close to that. I’m so out of shape.” These are moments that I believe we should guard ourselves against. They’re similar to the feelings we get from seeing pictures of chiseled movie stars in their camera-ready state and comparing ourselves to them. Being inspired is a good thing, but chasing other people’s goals probably isn’t. We’re not training so that we measure up to someone else’s performance targets, but to be free to experience our own lives more fully. It won’t get a lot of hits on social media, but If someone's personal goal is to be able to hike up a mountain with their grandchild, and they are now squatting deeper without discomfort, they just hit a performance target in service of that goal.
In the book "Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices,” Peter Drucker uses the phrase, "Work implies not only that somebody is supposed to do the job, but also accountability, a deadline and, finally, the measurement of results —that is, feedback from results on the work and on the planning process itself…” At Breakthrough we take this to heart as a coaches and apply it to our training process. The trainee and the coach are accountable for the results of the program and need to be able to measure them. But Drucker is also quoted as having said this phrase to one of his management coaching clients; “...It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. It cannot be measured or easily defined, but it is not only a key function, it is one only you can perform.” It is this aspect of our work as coaches that I consider to be of far greater importance than constantly measuring the results of a VO2 Max test or the number on a scale.
What does success feel like? It depends. If we’re trying to get competition-ready, then we’ll get tested on competition day and find out. Competing in events can be good, but there’s a caveat; the state we obtain for an event is temporary. We shouldn’t be prepping for a contest or measuring our peak performance all of the time. If we did, it would only mean that we are never ever actually reaching a true peak potential. Since we live far more of our lives between such events, we should have a way of recognizing our effectiveness at such a time and avoid the self criticism that comes from comparing ourselves to someone else or even our own previous personal bests.
Being a part of a tough, physically capable and supportive community of people, able to live our lives to the fullest, and choosing to peak when we want to… that feels like success to me. “When it comes to people, not everything that goes into being effective can be captured by some kind of metric.” - Paul Zak.