Getting It and Getting There

Why do some athletes get it and make it and others with equal talent and ability fall by the wayside. This is a lifelong fascination of mine. Talent and ability are a given to make it to elite status, but it is so much more than that. Some athletes navigate the path easily and directly and other struggle, but both still make it. Why? Certainly athlete development and passage through to elite status is a process. There is no one model or framework. Nor is there a set time like ten years or a time period like 10,000 hours. No doubt it is related to practice depth and quality. It is related to coaching guidance to first ignite the spark of interest, then inspire and guide the athlete.

Lately I have been totally immersed in studying the process of developing the athlete. It has been a four pronged emphasis: First I have been studying the research and coaching literature, interviewing experts, reviewing my experiences doing research for my new book and some presentations I will give this fall. Second my work with the Ministry of Sport in Trinidad and Tobago on athlete and coach development has driven me to look at various national programs and countries to see how they have approached the athlete and coach development process. Third and probably the most hands on and in my eyes the most important has been my work with the swim teams that I consult with. They are all age group development clubs so it is a living laboratory and window into the development process. Fourth I have been reviewing my career and experiences in developing athletes to see if there are patterns and commonalities.

The goal is to identify the talent and ability and then develop that in a systematic manner. Sounds simple and some of the models that have looked almost exclusively at the physiology of it and the physical growth and development parameters have in my opinion oversimplified it. I am not into making it more complex, but in this case we must look at development from a more holistic perspective. We need to consider the socio cultural milieu in which we are developing the athlete and the athlete’s emotional, cognitive, social and psychological development.

We know how important it is foster a growth mindset though the work of Carol Dweck. We need to avoid the dangers of anointing and appointing the young developing athlete on the bases of talent alone. We need to allow them room to grow into their perceived talent form a holistic perspective. We need to give them space and not impose adult values and expectations on them.

We can’t deny that simple genetic inheritance plays a part in the process. You can’t take a plow horse and win the Kentucky Derby, however you can make it a faster plow horse or we can direct that plow horse to an event where it could be successful. That is part of the development process. In other words you must systematically nurture the nature, grow it, guide it to achieve its potential.

In so many ways the physical development part is straightforward. We must be acutely aware of the effects of growth and development and adjust training and technique accordingly. My observation is that understanding and guiding emotional growth, self-image development and cognitive growth are the difference makes in those who make it and those who don’t. We need to teach them how to train, how to compete, how to live in the context of the “24 Hour Athlete” concept. They need to understand that athletic excellence is not a gift but a lifestyle. Recognize that talent and ability will only take them so far. One key difference maker is grit. Look at the work of Angela Duckworth at University of Pennsylvania on this. The ability to handle adversity, make mistakes in training and competition and persevere is a huge part of the process.

Athlete development is not climbing a ladder toward excellence. That implies a linear process, which it is not. It is a journey, some of it through charted territory and some through the unknown as each athlete is different. The journey has many twists, turns and detours. As part of the process as coaches we need to help the athlete navigate the various roadblocks and obstacles along the way. We do this by teaching them how to train, how to manage their lives, and how to control their emotions.

Developing an athlete from beginner to elite is a complex process. The path to excellence is varied; we must understand all the variables and account for those in the development process.

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