The Road to the Top: 3 steps to High Performance Success

A number of people have asked me what lies between the day a talented kid leaves school and the moment he scores a World Cup winning try. There is so much to the high performance process that can be unpacked to answer this question, but I know that most people who ask this question prefer the basic format answer. One day I will realise my dream of writing the definitive, multi-layered and in-depth study on what the formula for success is, but this is not it.

This will be an honest and simple three-step insight without the science and the data. I’m sure there will be some research out there to back me up, but this is purely a summary of my own personal experience.

So what determines whether a kid will make it or not?

  1. Innate Talent and Genes

We all have limitations. I don’t have the right genes to be an Olympic weightlifter. I don’t have the right genetics to be an Olympic sprinter. Or gymnast. Sure, if I trained my whole life, perhaps I could have become fairly decent in those sports.

Jocko Willink (Former Navy Seal)

This is not the Quade Cooper, Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo or Carlos Spencer out-of-the box freakish talent. I am referring to an athlete’s specific genetic makeup (your physical traits) that he or she is born with and will die with (height, size, speed, amongst others). I don’t believe your genes completely doom you to a certain field, but they do play a crucial role in what code you have the potential to be a top-level high performer in.

What I mean is that you have a physical makeup that enables you to fit the requirements of a specific sport(s) or role within a sport and if you don’t fit them within a reasonably expected range, you have to be a such a hard worker (see point number 3) that your limitations become negligible (such as the incredible work ethic and planning of a Tom Brady for example).

I weigh 100kg and am quite bulky at 6’2″, so I was never ever ever (ever) going to excel as a jockey or trapeze artist. I am also not blessed with incredible pace, so my size was always going to shove me towards the forward pack in rugby, regardless of how badly I wanted to play on the wing.

Did you know that if you were responsible for packing the kit for an Olympic team’s opening ceremony, you would be forgiven for packing the tracksuit jackets of the swimmers with the middle-and-long distance runners’ pants?

Why? Because the physiological ratios of the respective team members’ lower-and-upper bodies (swimmers vs runners) are generally inverse to each other. What on earth am I saying? That, almost as a law, swimmers (who are generally much taller than runners) will have a similar tracksuit bottom inseam length to runners, even though they have a longer upper body than runners. (Swimmers: shortish legs, long torso / Runners: long legs, short torso).

These genetic physiological advantages have played a big role in why these athletes are Olympians in their respective sports in the first place: A tall body can be propelled like a torpedo by fast-moving, shorter legs, while long muscular arms pull them through the water. Similarly, distance runners have an endurance advantage over the average human, with long strides that can briskly carry a lighter upper body.

If you are 18 years old and have peaked at 5’5″, you will almost certainly never win a rugby world cup for the Springboks or All Blacks as a forward, so you better make sure you are the world’s best scrumhalf at that height, which will be unlikely if had to play in the forwards somewhere in your life leading up to the consideration of being a career rugby player.

Likewise, if you are 7 feet tall and tip the scales at 18 stone, you can let go of your dreams of winning the Olympic gold in the marathon or synchronised diving. You should probably be on the basketball court.

The ‘fit’ between physiology and athletic success is perhaps the easiest connection to make and young athletes (and their parents!) need to be realistic about this when large mismatches are evident. Know where you stand in a sport and be realistic about your athletic ability. 

By all means please don’t quit if you know you won’t compete at the very top! But be content and happy that, if you are going to spend time and energy on a sport without being convinced that you can professionally compete in that sport, then you better know you are doing it for the love of the game and not for the accolades. This is a very hard truth and might seem harsh for me to write, but I have seen so many parents push their kids into trials and academy systems with bloated expectations. This puts massive pressure on a kid and few things are worse than sitting with a youngster in tears who just wants to enjoy his sport, while his dad wants to be the father of a Springbok.

For further reading on this topic I can strongly recommend my favourite book on this discussion, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene.

  1. Competition and Coaching in a High Performance environment

A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.”

Ovid (Ancient Roman Poet)

Iron sharpens iron. Swords are forged in fire. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Need any more analogies?

You must spend considerable time with other athletes who will push you for a place in the team. That other runner at your school who keeps beating your new PB is your biggest asset, stay close to her.  There is no such thing as a smooth ride to the top in sport. You need constant speed bumps.

I have interviewed literally hundreds of school rugby players and their parents as part of our professional academy recruitment drives. One of the questions I get asked by most parents is ‘how many older players will my son compete with in his position?’. This is always a great filter question to find the kid who is willing to come and fight. If a youngster chooses to go to a team with an easy pathway, he very seldom performs consistently because there is no one to push his improvement.

I have seen very talented young players fall out of professional sport purely because it was too easy for them, leading them to lose their competitiveness and drive.

Likewise, this environment also needs specialised attention in the form of good coaching, from sport specific to conditioning. You have to have great people helping and pushing you to excel.

Strangely enough, a qualifying high performance environment doesn’t necessarily have to be based in a world class facility, only that there are qualified people helping you (experienced coaches) and healthy competition against you (other top athletes). This collection of people creates the culture that will produce top athletes into a specific sport. Naturally being in a state-of-the art facility can provide a competitive advantage in the form of cutting edge scientific support, but when it comes to the bare bones of competitive culture, the people around you are more important than the brightness of the shine on a lifting platform.

In The Goldmine Effect, Rasmus Ankersen chronicles his search for the sporting world’s hidden talent gold mines. One of his most fascinating discoveries was that some of the world’s best performing nations in a specific sport often had the most basic facilities available to them. This included long distance runners in Kenya (dusty running track in a semi-rural community) to sprinters in Jamaica (disorganised, understocked gym and grass running track) and a Russian tennis academy with very limited tennis courts.

What they did have in common was a culture where competitive athletes were continuously trying to better one another though competition on the track, court or field. What good is it if you can lift more than your running competitor in a top quality gym, but he beats you out on the track every time. Make sure you can compete consistently in your sport’s core activity.

I realise that this view might be a bit counter-intuitive in an age of multi-million dollar facilities and cutting edge science, but I believe that if all else were equal, the people make the place, not the other way around.

Amongst all the decisions you need to make as a young athlete (or parent), make sure that you go into an environment where it will be tough. Intentionally choose the high road, because this is eventually from where you will have the best view. If you choose to compete with the best, and you come out on top, it will mean that you are now better than the best.

  1. Hard Work and Grit

“Hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Kevin Durant (NBA Basketball Player)

One of my colleagues frequently uses the above quote. It is always the most important factor in the success formula. It is the key ingredient that is going to make your innate talent limitations negligible or turn you from a naturally talented athlete into ‘one of the best there ever was’.

It is also the single most important thing that will distinguish you from teammates in a high performance environment.

I will put it as straight as it can be: If you don’t work hard (and I mean very hard) you will never make it. There is always someone working harder than you, whether he is the senior ahead of you, the peer in the same year as you, or the youngster at school who is yet to come and push you in two or three years’ time. He is going to arrive no matter what.

And work ethic is not just about pushing yourself to the limit when you run a fitness test. It’s also when you arrive on time (which is 15min early) for each and every session, physio appointment, injury report, strapping session, team meeting or coach’s meeting.

It’s the mundane time spent recovering on a foam roller or a yoga mat or the hours of video work and research you do when your sessions are done.

It’s the intentional rest and recovery you put in when your teammates are in town boozing.

It’s a bad relationship you sacrifice for your mental wellbeing.

It’s the two books a month you read or the extra course you study to make sure you are balanced and grounded.

Work ethic is your entire lifestyle. It’s how you intentionally plan your life to be successful and stick to it day after day. Angela Duckworth puts it plainly in her book Grit: “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice [as much].” Her work on the power of passion, sustained over time, is fascinating.

Angela Duckworth shares at Ted on her research about Grit, which is Passion sustained over time

I have seen exceptionally talented athletes blow it in this area. This will make or break you. The sporting graveyard is full of tombstones inscribed with the names of very talented players who could not deliver on their promise because they weren’t willing to be honest and work hard.

There are few tips I can give you here. You either work hard or you don’t. It’s a very personal realisation that you have to undergo and internalise. Not working hard is either a factor of your background (you never learnt it as a habit) or you have coasted on your talent your whole life (teammates or competitors couldn’t match up to you).

If you never learnt how to work hard (maybe you were in a small school that didn’t emphasise performance or your parents never valued it in your upbringing) you can programme yourself to religiously do the tough things even when you don’t want to and slowly build your ‘hard work muscle’ over time. This can happen through hours of mental preparation, viusalisation or dream-building. Next you need to clarify what behaviours and habits will lead you to your vision and outcomes. Lastly, you need to intentionally practice these habits day in and day out until you succeed.

If, however, you have always been the big fish amongst the smaller fish and excelled based on your superior athleticism, it’s going to be tough for you to adapt. Your mental conditioning has been programmed to tell you that you are naturally better and don’t have to work as hard as your teammates. When you arrive in a high performance environment, this mindset will kill your career. Unless you get a serious wake up call and manage to recondition how you think and act, which I have almost never seen in this type of case.

Work ethic is part of the identity that precedes you wherever you go in sport. Make sure it’s the right identity that coaches and teammates get to know.

Putting it together

Think of how you can apply this to your real life:

  • Parents must emphasise efforts over abilities when praising kids, being smart or strong or quick has nothing to do with succeeding, hard work and not giving up do;
  • Similarly, don’t inflate abilities if they don’t need to emphasised. Focus on what your kids are good at and be happy with and encourage talents and interest that might not be in line with your expectations;
  • Encourage your kids to try things themselves and make them do it until completion if possible;
  • Make the super talented young athletes in your teams work much harder than the others. Give them more responsibility and empower them to embrace leadership;
  • Plan your life around your natural proficiencies and continuously practice the learnt skills that you want to apply to your life. Get to know yourself well and be realistic about what you can and can’t do. Find out what skills will be economically valuable in the next decade and start learning them;
  • Seek out people that want the same success as you and spend time with them. Eject the reject friends who bring you down and smoke up your mind with negativity;
  • Find successful people that are experienced in the same areas you want to perform in and ask them to mentor you. Most successful people also depended on good mentors and realise the value of giving a hand-up to the next generation of performers;
  • Become very good at executing your programmes. Be clear on what you want, plan what actions need to be done and when, but most essential is to specialise in getting started on those actions.

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