Updated: Mar 30, 2019
Photography by Emanuel Berthe
When we see an athlete really excel at what they do - is it because of their natural talent or how hard they train? The answer is a lot more complex than just “both!” - and this week we want to break down the factors of why and how, some athletes succeed more than others.
1) ATHLETIC PSYCHOLOGY
This considers the person’s ability to have a constructive mindset, but also an ability to translate thoughts into physical actions and their overall body/mind awareness:
Body awareness: An athlete’s understanding of their own muscles, joints, skeletal structure, breathing, speed, flexibility, relative position to others/the floor/the air, etc. and how skill elements affect their body.
Confidence: The athlete’s belief in their own ability and potential; leading to strong, deliberate visualization and mental resilience.
Mindset: If an athlete has a Growth Mindset as opposed to a Fixed Mindset, ie their ability to be constructive or destructive in their inner dialogue, thought-process and actions they take as a consequence.
Approach to feedback: The athlete’s willingness to take feedback and impact a physical change in their action.
Curiosity: Natural athletes who “get” things straight away may not need to be curious because their body just executes an instructed action. But a struggling athlete with a high curiosity factor will go above and beyond to understand the mechanics of what they need to do. This gives them an advantage of tackling more difficult skills in the long-term.
2) BODY ARCHITECTURE
While some physiological aspects can be changed (like muscle mass and reaction speed), others sadly cannot (such as genetics). Understanding the difference can help push the boundaries of an athletes’ achievement:
Body Composition: What makes up the athlete’s body: including fat percentage, lean muscle mass, ratio of fast-twitch and slow twitch, bone density, VO2Max, etc.
Natural Ability: Also known as ‘kinaesthetic intelligence’, the natural rate at which an athlete can use their body to perform the skill with minimal time spent in the learning phases.
Genetics: The athlete’s innate ability to react, be flexible, be strong, be fast, utilize oxygen, endure, sustain possible injury and any other physical factor without training (ie their bottom line).
Physical Trainability: The margin between the athlete’s ‘bottom line’ and their ‘top line’ (maximum potential) of genetic capability developed through athletic training.
3) MEANINGFUL TRAINING
You may have come across the “10,000 hours to master a skill" theory presented by Simon & Chase (1973). It is important, however, to understand that even though time is a crucial, it's not the sole contributor to success. Imagine an athlete has never learned the correct technique for a specific skill: they could drill it 10,000 hours and at the end they would have only mastered something useless or potentially dangerous.
Muscle memory is not a memory stored in the muscles (unlike involuntary contractions like the heart beat) but rather a procedural memory stored within the nervous system. This long-term memory is responsible for letting us know how to perform certain actions without thinking about them while doing them, like tying your shoelaces or walking.
Building procedural memory happens as we repeat a certain sequence over and over again. When building procedural memory, the body does not differentiate between an action or skill performed correctly or incorrectly; it's crucial that the skill is consistently drilled correctly during the initial learning phases. The same goes for drilling skills when we are over-tired. If the body drills when it’s fatigued, the procedural memory still builds with bad form. Procedural memory is extremely difficult to reverse (think of how hard it is to learn a different way to tie your shoelaces!) and can take over 5 repetitions to rewrite incorrect muscle memory.
Save your time by ensuring individual skill elements are drilled in isolation before repeating the full skill for a large number of repetitions. Your body's ability to properly recruit muscles and communicate with your brain is called Neuromuscular Efficiency.
Does the amount of time spent on a skill directly affect mastery? Only if the time is MEANINGFUL: 10 hours of correct of training are more valuable than 100 hours of “mindless” drilling.
4) NATURAL SELECTION
In biology “natural selection” refers to the survival of the fittest where those with the strongest and most effective traits survive. Similarly in sports, the strongest and more naturally apt athlete will find it easier to make their way up the progression ladder. Athletes with natural ability and avoid injury are able to move through the ranks more rapidly.
However if we only rely on natural selection to decide which athletes progress further without considering or testing all the other aspects of their athletic potential, we are severely limiting the success of the available talent pool. When selecting athletes at tryouts, it’s not enough to only test skill: coaches should be looking at all aspects of their athletic potential:
Do they give up when things become challenging? Are they using grit when talent isn't enough?
Do they show promise when taught a new skill from scratch? Do they listen to your instruction?
How to they react when they receive a correction?
Is their body built for speed? Strength? Flexibility?
What are their strengths and weaknesses as an athlete and teammate?
If we consider these questions as well as their existing skills, we might find some gems that we would have otherwise failed to notice. Equally, we might select athletes that show a great baseline, without the ability to progress further.
5) SCIENTIFIC APPROACH TO TRAINING
#BodyBeforeSkill: Functional Conditioning Workouts, Warmups & Stretching
Managing the balance between being pushed enough and pushed too far will also preserve and athlete’s ability to progress. Those who are pushed too far too quickly will inevitable get injured, encounter "mental blocks", back-tracking their progress or even worse: end their athletic career or reduce their quality of life. A balanced approach to training requires:
Following progressions of athletic ability and skill
Identifying weaknesses in the body and incorporating corrective conditioning before the problems arise (corrective movement training)
Plan training to consider recovery and avoid body overuse
Including conditioning for joint stability and then mobility
Pay attention to nutrition and hydration to see immediate and long-term results
Keeping track in the form of a journal or cheer log to be able to analyze their training regimen
I am a strong believer that sports science is not just for “nerds” or the specialists - of course if you’re new to the subject, following advice from a trusted resource or expert is key. It's not just about graphs, Latin words, charts and wearing oxygen masks.
My love for sports science came about because as a coach, I wanted to understand how I could get the best results for my athletes. I have found that if you start slowly, just like a new language, by making it part of your every-day vocabulary you can slowly start to master it and use the principles effectively. By taking things one step at a time and continuing a never ending life of learning, it’s become my native coaching language and a true passion that’s ever-evolving. I couldn’t think of any other approach to coaching!