Who's going to make it?
Many of you by now know that I'm working for the National Talent ID in an ad-hoc sort of way, indirectly anyway, as Hilton Clarke's assistant. The sprinters, mainly (I'm still doing a little enduro work, but nothing sophisticated). I've now spent a considerable amount of time with the sprint squad here in Victoria, and without exception they're a very talented group. Working with them is a pleasure.
But that's not what I want to write about. I want to write about how we tell who's got "it". Ie: who's got the drive to get to the very top. It's a relevant topic to me now, and one worth reading widely on.
This came across on a coaching mailing list called "supertraining". It's by a famous author called Daniel Coyle, who's pretty well known, it's fair to say. He wrote a superb book on Lance Armstrong called 'Lance Armstrong's War'. He makes the observation that being the sort of athlete that rises to the top is a mental thing - it's about dedication and commitment (and all those cliche's!). He's right, but I think in our area, he's not all right - By that I mean he's only got half the picture and that may be because he's listening to coaches who are dealing with pre-sorted athletes. Mark Rippetoe makes the point rather bluntly (as is his style) when he says that most elite level coaches have little idea of what they're doing with regards to athlete development because they're working with athletes who are pre-selected. I think Rip's not right there (and he was talking about American football coaches, so I've taken this way out of context!), but I think understand what he's trying to say. Armstrong himself got it right, I'll roughly paraphrase from memory : 'if you don't have the legs, no amount of mental strength will help'. The truth is you need both. You need talent and drive. Drive without physical talent will lead to frustration or delusion, physical talent without drive, to nothing at all.
So, back to talent ID. How do you tell who's good before you train them for years? Part of it is physiological screening (a fancy way of saying tests). This gets the exercise physiologists all excited. They get wattbikes out, put kids on scales, they do vertical jump tests, they measure thigh diameters, if they're really lucky they get to do muscle biopsies on their victims and soon enough they'll be able to do genetic tests. Wow ... What does this achieve? It gets the ones who are good physically, at least (and this may change if and when gene testing gets sorted) at the time of the test. They do a lot of correlating. They get very excited and get paid to do it. It's interesting, but it's not all there is to it. Far from it. These tests are, by necessity, crude and can exclude those who do have real potential but haven't blossomed yet.
Sometimes, it's the kid that fails the tests who ends up at the top. I can bring something personal to this, when my Dad was a kid he was a bit of a swimmer, and he got tested by some ex-phys who basically told him he was unfit. A week later he set the 6th fastest 200m butterfly time in the world. I spoke recently with Ken Tucker at a conference in Adelaide. Ken was Anna Meares' coach when she was a kid, and he said that Anna wasn't great as a kid. She certainly wasn't talentless, but she wasn't as naturally quick as her sister Kerrie. Kerrie was outstanding (and went on to win a few medals of her own!). But, Anna kept on improving and she had the right combination of talent and drive that took her to the very top and has kept her there for a long time. Ken saw in Anna the qualities of a genuine champion but it took time to come out. She was fortunate to have a coach that had the vision to see it in her.
So it's the right combination that matters, not (as Doyle implies) mental drive on its own, unless your game is chess!
We need to test for obsessive (healthy!) desire to be the best that the athlete can be, and that's something that I doubt can be easily done, I suspect it's something that some kids grow into given the right environment. I think I can see the signs in a very select few that I'm lucky enough to work with. It's rare, and you can see it in their eyes when they do a hard effort, when they don't shirk a hard session, when they do 'the hard yards' that we ask of them as their coaches, not whinging about them but relishing them. They have to want to hurt and have to be prepared to make some pretty big sacrifices to get to where they want to be. I'm going to quote one of them.
Cycling doesn’t shape my world, it’s everything I am and everything I hope to be.That's what we're looking for. That's a kid that's going to rock the world one day. Talent and