As discussed in the last few blogs I was in the fortunate position to be able to stay in Tokyo for the entirety of the athletics program. Further to this I was in Narita, about 75 minutes out of Tokyo prior to the games with Australian athletes who came into Japan from overseas (Europe and America mostly). There was a reasonable amount of down time throughout my 19 days in Japan and this afforded me the opportunity to speak with many athletes and in particular coaches. The time in Narita I was able to spend time with a large number of the Australian athletes and coaches that were heavily experienced and achieved extremely good results in the Olympics. And in Japan I was blessed to be staying at one of the official Olympic hotels (for coaches and officials of teams not staying in the Olympic village) which exposed me to a large cohort of the American personal coaches. Now some of these names will mean nothing to the majority of you, but for the athletics nerds out there like myself, sharing conversations in the lobby or warm up track with legends of track and field such as Bobby Kersee, Randy Huntington, John Smith, Edrick Floreal, Quincy Watts, Rana Reider and Dennis Mitchell was extremely humbling for a first time Olympic personal coach from Melbourne.
So what do I think drives performance?
There were common themes that continued to be presented to me, either in conversations or from what I observed repeatedly on the training or competition track. Many of these themes appeared to be obvious, but they are clearly very important.
- I cannot tell you how many highly credentialed and experienced coaches (both Australian and International) used the word consistency when it came to training and performance. The number of times I had the conversation whereby they spoke of your average performance across your top 5 or 10 performances. Not your PB in perfect conditions but your average performance. Not for the first time I heard someone use the phrase ‘ the time you can run or the distance you can jump if the athlete was woken up in the middle of the night and asked to perform’. What this told me more than anything that elite performance is and should be judged not on what you can do in exceptional conditions, but more what you can do in any and often adverse conditions. If you can achieve an Olympic Qualifying performance in cold, wet, headwind conditions, you are likely very ready to perform at the highest level. This consistency flows onto something that I spoke about in the last blog on execution. These athletes and coaches were very specific in their actions and the way in which they communicated, previewed and reviewed warm ups and trainings sessions. I will speak of this more in the diligence and attention to detail.
- This may appear to be similar to consistency, but in this instance I am referring to the ability to execute your best performances throughout the rounds of championship competitions. Now it will sound like I am name dropping here so I apologize in advance, but I was able to have a number of discussions with Rana Reider (coach to multiple Olympic medallists including 200m champion Andre Degrasse) and a topic that we discussed was this idea of repeatability. He was very forthright in his ideas that if you want to medal at the games you need to train at an intensity and have the work capacity to carry out these performances in back to back days and races. He spoke about how they made sure to use training on back to back days at high intensities and in particular keeping training loads up at times leading into high level competitions such as Diamond Leagues. His thought was that if you want to perform well at the business end of the season and particularly in championship rounds, you need to be able to perform through multiple rounds on multiple days at a high level.
- Curiosity and Learning
- Now this may seem an obvious one, but at times you do come across athletes and coaches who are closed off from learning. It appears that the best operators stay curious throughout their process, they want to understand more and explore ways to get better. This is extremely impressive when you speak with coaches that have decades of experience and consistent high level success. This may be controversial but if you speak with a coach who is not interested in learning or passing on knowledge, then run. That coach is probably doomed. To give you an example, again I am name dropping, but I went out of my way on the warm up track one day to briefly thank current Chinese Sprints and Jumps coach Randy Huntington (coach of world long jump record holder Mike Powell, and current Asian record holder and Olympic Finalist in the 100m Su Bingtian, 9.83sec) for sharing his knowledge in a few extensive interviews and podcasts that he has done. And the response that I got says everything about him as a person but also what it takes to be a world class coach. He apologized. Yeah you read that right, he apologized for not doing enough education content. He said he wishes he had a little more time to pass on more information and that he would try to do more in the future as well as encourage other experienced coaches to do the same. That says volumes about him as a person, but also his belief in sharing knowledge and continuing to learn as a coach.
- Diligence and Attention to detail
- World class performers are specific and extremely diligent. As I mentioned I spent time in Narita with a number of Australia’s best athletes and coaches. I observed and spoke with two of Australia’s medalists and the level of detail in their preparation, execution and review processes was inspiring to say the least. One such example that most people may have observed is the review process that Australian High Jump Silver Medallist Nicola McDermott uses throughout her competition. In Narita I spoke with Nicola’s coach, a great coach and a great person in general. He explained the review process that they use for each jump, they take the key performance indicators for her jump execution and then after each jump she rates the execution of these KPI’s out of 10 for each jump. This process highlights two things, they are very clear on wanting to understand and review the performance of each execution and secondly that they are willing to learn from this review process to improve the execution of the next jump. It demonstrates humility and a deep rooted willingness to get better. For those familiar of Anders Ericson and deliberate practice this process that they undertake provides critical information on how to make ongoing adjustments and identify areas for continued growth. Not only is this inspiring to see, but it shows a commitment to the process and as suggested in the previous section a willingness to constantly seek a higher level of understanding and excellence. It was no surprise to see her win a silver medal.
Elite performance is difficult, but identifying these key themes provides me with some confidence on what areas to explore in my pursuit for continued growth as a coach and for my athletes in their pursuit of excellence in future international competitions.