Exercise, Autism, and Expertise

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A friend and fellow fitness professional recently shared this article The Death of Expertise (Federalist, 2014) on his Facebook page:

In addition to citing the autism/vaccine issue (which is only an issue in that the connection myth continues to persist and, as a result, a host of previously near-eradicated illnesses are rising), author Tom Nichols addresses the blurred distinction between expert and lay opinions, along with the idea that a person’s belief is equivalent to expert opinion.

Among fitness professionals, particularly those of us who are skilled (our athletes progress, do not sustain injury under our guidance, and in most cases, are motivated to continue leading an active lifestyle), it is common to be confronted with the dreaded; ” Oh yeah, I strength train. I do Extreme Turbo DVD Volume 1.”

Sometimes it is used as a way to connect socially, other times we are told how challenging the workout is and how it “totally burns your core” with a look of anticipated approval. And we stand there and, as many of us have learned to do, say “I’m glad that’s working for you” and attempt to change the subject.  Granted most competent fitness professionals have spent far more hours learning  through experience and application than academically, because criteria for professional status (certifications and degrees), let alone expert status, in the industry fluctuates greatly depending on the circumstances.  The byline for a fitness celebrity will often read “expert” when marketing is the individual’s true area of enhanced ability.

Please keep in mind that those of us (trainers, coaches, exercise physiologists, etc.) who are worthwhile  learned both theory and application of a science (in some cases, including my own ,  multiple disciplines). Accepting this, maybe, just maybe, we know something more than what the 14 Minute Xtreme Abs DVD offers. Perhaps merely walking into a gym and letting the placement of the machines or the “How To” posters on the wall guide a training session is not ideal.  It is entirely possible we’ve cultivated some  knowledge concerning what programming, based both on personal goals and our assessment of movement/strength/stability, would suit an individual.

I have been asked whether I do “yoga” or “Zumba” or “Insert sport here” with my athletes on the autism spectrum. Recently I was told about an inclusive running program and it was suggested that I partner with them. My answer of “I’m not a proponent of distance running” most certainly landed me in the asshole box. But lookit; I know what I’m doing.

The highest compliment I’ve received is that my approach “makes sense.” It isn’t the hyperbolic “Amazing,” “Incredible,” or “Awesome.” It is the recognition that my athletes needs are being met and rather than espouse the bullet-point benefits of fitness (self-esteem, socialization, independence), there is clear indication that the athletes are doing something well that they were not able to do before.

Usually the yoga or Zumba question arises from the belief that there is some deeper connection (merely typing “mind-body” makes me want to throw a rock at a glass window) through these oft-trademarked programs than, say, stepping over some low hurdles before doing frog hops and overhead medicine ball throws.

Dr. Kwame BrownJeremy Frisch , David Kittner, Dave Gleason, and David Jack are on my list of the best trainers specializing in youth fitness. I’m certain they receive questions/accusations concerning “X program” or “Sport-specific training” at least once a fortnight. It is fine, even recommended, that parents ask about programming, goals, and philosophy. You should. But keep in mind that expert trainers do not hold that distinction because they memorized a protocol in a book or DVD. They’re not waiting for the next “it” product to land so that next week’s program can be written. They balance exercise and play science in their own approach.

We’re all guilty of bias. As professionals we can fall victim to the “Curse of Expertise,” or forgetting what it is like not to know a lot about something. Lay people forget that a lot of learning and practice goes into true professional expertise, and that the “next big thing” is usually a rehash or watered-down piece of something far less exciting/effective. Based on our history, credentials (academic or otherwise), references, and successes, trust that we know what we’re doing. Because we do.

Live Inspired,


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