Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Biggest Mistake in Sports Performance Training (and life)

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail!"  Benjamin Franklin

When we think about Benjamin Franklin, athletics isn't the first thing that comes to mind.  Franklin was know for his wisdom and creativity and this famous quote wasn't about training to be a better athlete BUT it perfectly sums up what athletes need to know about Sports Performance Training.  In the argument about what type of program is best for developing an athlete it is easy to lose site of what's important.  It is now widely accepted (still some old school hold outs out there) that off season training can improve in season performance.  The whole goal of starting a sports performance training program is to maximize the potential inside each athlete, which can only be demonstrated on the field (court, etc) performance.  Athletics is a great experiment in the potential for the human body.  We marvel at what certain athletes are able to achieve during a contest.  We just can't get enough of the plays of the day, we argue about the greatest athletes of all time, the greatest at any given position in every sport.  We talk about being 'in the zone' and wonder what that really feels like.  The players who seem to achieve this try to explain what it feels like and every athlete strives to reach this high level of participation.  The goal of every athlete is to be the absolute best they can be and of course to be a Champion!  Just to get a taste of what that feels like, to raise the trophy, to get the ring, to stand on the Olympic Platform and hear the national anthem playing!!  Everyone who has ever picked up a ball, thrown a pass, run a race, or competed in any athletic event has had those dreams.  But, what separates the Champions from everyone else?  Is it luck, divine intervention, 'wanting it more' or simply genetics?

Let's start with genetics.  We like to argue that some people are just born 'natural' athletes.  This just must be the case some people are just born to be athletes and no matter what they did in life they were just destined to become great athletes.  Willie Mays was one of these 'natural athletes', he was able to make the game of baseball look easy and effortless so he must have been predetermined to be a great athlete.  But, when he was asked about it his reply (paraphrased) was 'well, if working hard 8 hours a day for all these years has made me a natural athlete...I guess I am."  Willie was right, yes genetics play a role in our development.  Our genetics dictate how tall we will be and what we will look like and even the percentage of fast twitch verse slow twitch muscle fibers and maybe even our flexibility due to tissue make up.  There is continuing debate over whether the major factor of our development is Nature or Nurture, basically meaning that our DNA dictates who we will become or is it more the environment we are raised in?  I believe it is obviously a combination of the two.  While nature/genetics dictate what kind of hand we are dealt it is what we do with it that ultimately makes the difference.  The one thing I know with absolute certainty after all of these years of working with athletes is that very few athletes ever reach their true potential!  We know through motor learning that it takes millions of repetitions to learn a motor skill in order for it to become automatic.  That is a lot of work, years of work, 10 years of work by most estimates.  The human body is the most complex organism there is.  Our bodies are not only made up of the skeletal system with ligaments to hold the joints together, the muscular system with tendons to connect to the bones, the nervous system to tell the muscles to contract plus provide feedback to the brain about the amount and direction of movement, but then we have the digestive system to get us the fuel we need, the skin to regulate our internal temperature, the lungs (pulmonary system to get oxygen into the body and waste out), the hormones that are system wide controls, and on and on.  The amount of knowledge of how the human body functions is truly amazing and takes years to learn (and research continues).  Then just to make things interesting we have the human mind and the constant battle between our subconscious and our conscious mind.  You know the battle, the conscious mind says 'we should go to get in a workout today' and the subconscious mind says 'we should finish watching this game and maybe get something to eat.'  In order to achieve those moments of Glory, of being "in the zone" we have to get all of these systems completely coordinated and that takes lots of practice (IE. millions of repetitions).  We need to refine the desired skill, take in feedback and continue to perfect the movement until we perfect the outcome.  The problem with sports is that it is not a controlled environment so we need to prepare for success in an uncontrolled environment.  Thus, the person who is best prepared for whatever is going to happen in this environment has the best chance of success.  So, Ben had it right "By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail!"  Oh, this works for everything else in our lives as well, are you willing to put in the work, the long hours of perfecting your skill, taking in feedback and making corrections to increase your chances of success years down the road?  Or Not?

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