Joseph P. Mills and Jim Denison

The Big Idea

While this research topic is specific to endurance running coaches’ practices, these authors believe their findings have implications for all sports.  The more obvious sports would include those with family resemblances to endurance running, such as triathlon, rowing, swimming, cycling, cross-country skiing.  But their findings could easily apply to the wider range of sports where human performance limits are not the primary impact on success.

The topic these authors pursue is the relationship between how conventional endurance running coaches coach and the possibilities for an inverse relationship between such training practices and coaching effectiveness.  But the same question can and should be asked within all coaching venues, and in all sports, whether they depend on peak endurance or not.  For the big idea in this paper is a recognizable tendency for coaches in general to set themselves up as the ultimate “be-all-and-end-all” of their practice planning and training modalities.

We will see that if another perspective is applied for ways to organize our training—let’s say, for starters, that we look over the shoulder of Coach Michel Foucault—we learn how devastating it can be for coaches not to see the potential unintended consequences of misusing their power of social control, where manipulation and coercion unknowingly compromise the courage and heart of our competitive athletes.


  • Endurance running is physically demanding, and largely thought to depend on the advances of sport science.
  • Coaches of this sport rely on physiological and mechanical knowledge to train the endurance athlete.
  • But are there unintended consequences of this slavery to sophisticated, systematic, rigid, and largely unquestioned practices?
  • Mills and Denison enlist the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault, to reconsider the potential unintended impact of this modern coaching logic for endurance runners.
  • They interviewed and observed 15 elite endurance running coaches in the UK and the US, coaches who have produced collectively over 400 international endurance athletes at the highest levels of competition.
  • They found that these coaches were in complete control of defined training spaces, exercised temporal control over their athletes, employed unlimited control over all facets of practice and training organization, and thereby created multi-segmented group social control.
  • Mills and Denison do not disparage these coaches, all of whom were considerate, thoughtful, well-intentioned, and effective.
  • But the extent to which these coaches controlled practice spaces, time, and organization was a significant representation of what Foucault called the use (misuse) of disciplinary power.
  • The invisible effects of this power were to compromise the specific aims of the coaches to produce winning elite distance runners.
  • Systematic, rigid, and mechanistic practice sessions can create unintended consequences, such as docile, unthinking, and dissatisfied runners.
  • And, this is because such practice and training regimens don’t ask for athlete participation, don’t resemble real racing events, and don’t expect athletes to learn how to make decisions—at the very least, racing decisions.

The Research

Mills and Denison begin with a summary of the conference presentations at the 2011 Canadian National Endurance Running Conference in Vancouver.  Attending were 150 endurance running coaches of elite distance runners representing seven different countries.  Explanations, anecdotes, and emphatic pronouncements abounded.  Physiological and mechanical prescriptions were offered on how to train their runners to run faster.  No surprises here.  After all, running is hard, physically demanding, and presumably meant to be scientific.

But what is the evidence for it all?  How did training rules become so rigid, objective, and mechanically rational?  Are there perhaps unintended consequences of endurance running coaches’ practices?  Could these practices influence:  1) endurance running coaches’ own understanding of how to coach, and 2) the making of the endurance running body.  In short, do endurance running coaches really know what in the hell they are doing?

The Study

Power is a loaded word, especially for Coach Michel Foucault.  This study invites Coach Foucault—a philosopher-coach with little standing in the world of endurance running training—to introduce the idea of disciplinary power into the discussion of whether coaches of endurance runners know what they are doing.

The study design is simple enough.  Fifteen high-performance male endurance coaches in the US and UK were interviewed twice; once before being observed in their training environment, and a second time after the observation.  As a group, these participants coached over 400 international endurance athletes who set world records, won titles, and received medals in Olympic, World, European, Commonwealth, and National competitions.

The initial interview was semi-structured using these headings:

  • Dominant planning practices and knowledges
  • Implementing training plans
  • Problem-solving in planning
  • Limitations and constraints in planning

In the analysis of the interviews and the observation for each coach, the researchers interpreted the collected material using Foucault’s disciplinary framework as found in Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 (1978).


What follows is our understanding of the researchers’ understanding of the endurance coaches’ understanding of what they do—as understood through the lens of Coach Foucault.  The findings are presented by way of what Foucault called “disciplinary techniques.”  Four were identified.

  1. Cellular distributions

This disciplinary technique is the use of space to control bodies.  Even if different spaces, what was common was the use of defined training spaces for these coaches’ endurance practices.  These space-uses of the different coaches included, for example (coach names are pseudonyms):

  • A Monday evening training session in a hilly wooded park for over 40 years. (Kieran)
  • 30 weeks a year “in the park up the road, the same rolling hills, week in, week out. (Lukas)
  • 120 miles/week on two wood chip five-mile trails, not injury-causing road-running. (Dennis)

When the spaces are regular and useful, the space organization can be quite detailed and controlled.  One coach interviewed was known for his precise course measuring—practically to the centimeter.  The coaches all tended to be efficient with the use of space as well.  Training routes were always measured clockwise around the perimeter of the space.  One coach, Theo, always rode his bike besides his athletes to enable them to run their repetitions in different parts of a huge park.  Theo always used the same park; his athletes always met at the same place before a training run; did the same warm-up routine; and the running type never varied.  In all 15 cases, the coaches’ use of space enabled them to control their athlete’s bodies, and therefore consistently used space in a fixed and structured manner.

  1. Organic power

Time can be used to shape bodies, wrote Foucault.  In all 15 cases, the coaches designed their training plans by regulating time, using a timetable.  For example:

  • One coach designed the workout for his athletes to run five repetitions of five-minutes on the track, but incorporated practice time thoroughly, and this way: “Usual timetable is: Arrive and w/up 7pm; Core workout, on track, starts at 7:30pm; reps end 8:10pm; debrief and w/down to 8:25pm; then go. (Lauren)
  • Another: “If the plan says there is 60 seconds recovery in the workout, I’m making sure its 60 and not 62, ‘sorry guys the plan says 60 seconds, not 62.’” These youngsters must be as disciplined as their workout is.  (Tony)
  • And another says, without time it is impossible to design a training program. He would get really frustrated if his athletes didn’t bring their stopwatches to practice.  “How are we going to train if you haven’t got a watch?  How do you know where you are?  What’s the point?” (Thierry)

Wasting time, under these kinds of rules, is impossible, says Foucault.  Every athlete’s progress can be monitored by using time the way coaches regularly do.  The coaches understood that exercising temporal control over their athletes was mandatory.

  1. The subjection that never reaches its limit

This third disciplinary technique was the use of a variety of organizational practices to mould individual bodies. Time, then, can become divided up into segments and applied precisely.  The ability to adapt a training plan gives the coach nearly unlimited control of the entire training session.

  • What one coach learned to do was use the 30 minutes before a practice to modify an athlete’s training session for that day depending on what he had determined was his readiness. (Alex)
  • It is possible for coaches to create comprehensive plans over time. One coach created four successive phases of training in a year-long training program, from pre-season to post-season. He also used benchmark workouts to test athlete progress throughout the season.  (Thierry)

Using Foucault’s lingo, these abilities to apply a range of organizational techniques to aid in continuous progression to reach ultimate performance—through discipline, in other words—is how athletes’ behavior is bent to a ‘terminal state.”

  1. The collective coercion of bodies

Wrapping up the three previous disciplinary techniques together gives us Foucault’s fourth technique: group control.  By way of the three previous techniques, we have created a sophisticated and efficient machine.  If we use the individual machines in combination, we can create a multi-segmented mechanism.

  • One coach celebrates the way his athletes progress individually when they train in a group. “Sophie does a lot of training on her own, but she says that she enjoys training with the group.  She will often travel three hours to be with the group for those big practices.” (Lauren)
  • Another coach believes strongly in knowing everything he can about his athletes. This is an example of the coach’s decision to understand the abilities and potential of individuals so he can understand the various components of the group.  (Alex)
  • The same spirit drives another coach to create Excel spreadsheets on each athlete, rivaling the data necessary to send an astronaut to the moon. For Sheila, one of his athletes, he has every single training workout for six and a half years. (Aaron)

Foucault called this immersion of individuals threatening, if it becomes coercive.  The potential is for this immersion to infiltrate the body.  What he means is that the discipline techniques are transformative; but that there are unseen, unnoticed, and undesirable consequences following from the desired transformation.

Cascading consequences of discipline practices

The upshot of high-performance endurance training practices may be different than coaches imagine it to be.  Foucault’s perspective is that a good deal more is going on in these systematic, rigid, and mechanistic practices than most coaches—or even the athletes themselves—see.

Mills and Denison do point out that there is little doubt that these 15 high-level coaches were well-intentioned, considerate, thoughtful, creative, and effective.  But in Foucault’s work, we find that modern power is posited to have changed from exclusively visible controls to a system of subtle, invisible effects.  In endurance training, if peak performance is the aim, the conventional and unquestionedmodern practice strategies may be counterproductive.

Here’s the central issue.  Both endurance coaches and athletes are comfortable and successful with coaching rules, traditions, and conventional practice planning.  Coaches believe they have “the right way,” and athletes routinely believe that coaches know best.  We turn to coaches for the right:  training, shoes, diet, pre-and-post conditioning, and daily routine.  Coach Dennis says:

I think for athletes to be successful, in some ways, they need to train with blinders on, almost like a racehorse.  Let the coaches do the thinking, the science work and all those sorts of things.  I’m going to manage my athletes’ training and my athletes’ successes and failures, so that my athletes can have more successes, otherwise why have a coach?

But, there are cascading, invisible consequences of these decisions.


  • Foucault suggests that while the discipline of training produces visible results, it can simultaneously create invisible docility in our athletes.
  • Docile athletes are, as the word means, “easily taught.”
  • It is the case that among these interviewed coaches—and coaches of all sorts—that they must deal with frequent unexplained athlete underperformances.
  • Often these lapses in performance are attributed to the athlete’s inadequacies, not that the practices are problematic. This is a frequent and acceptable part of distance running.
  • In other words, Mills and Denison say it is “ironic that the disciplinary framework that defines athletes’ training and preparation could, at the same time, be at odds with the aim of running as fast as possible.

The problem with exerting overt control

  • There is a problem when a coach doesn’t just exert overt control over their athletes, but feel they must always exert such control to be effective coaches.
  • Some coaches will believe thereby that they know their athletes better than the athletes know themselves.
  • Athletes become comfortable with this discipline; that it is perfectly normal to leave all decisions to the coach.
  • But if our athletes never learn to make decisions in the process of practicing, how can they be expected to make decisions during a race?
  • Are our runners then coached to be docile, even in their races?
  • “As a result, we see runners exhibiting little expression, spontaneity, or assertiveness when they compete.”
  • Yet, what competitive running requires, even demands, is a thinking runnerwho takes ownership of the races—and again ironic, since that is exactly what the coach expects but does not afford.

When training doesn’t resemble competitive running

  • Does the disciplinary framework produce prepared competitive runners?
  • Not necessarily, and because the world of training practices trumps the real world of competitive running.
  • An endurance race is uncontrolled and unpredictable; yet training is its opposite.
  • So, the question remains: Is systematic and controlled practice an effective way of training for the wild chaos of the competitive events they are training for?
  • Practices are typically unlike races because: races don’t end a quarter of the distance; races aren’t run as up-and-down intervals with rest in between; there are no racing events called 6 x 1600; and endurance races don’t call for merely physically fit specimens.
  • Racing calls for athletes defined by their strength, courage, poise, and honor—in addition to being fast, of course.
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