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Driving Innovation In Sport

In top level sports one thing is constantly stated as fact but is rarely true; that the collective we are always striving for that 1% that will separate us from everyone else. The idea being that professionals are operating at such a high level that the margin of differentiation must be measured in fractions of percentages. This is easy to imagine – the top professionals in the world should be operating at near maximum capacity right? Considering the risks and rewards of the sports world, this only makes sense.

The truth lies somewhat further down the scale. There are players who are truly trying to maximize their opportunity: checking all the boxes in terms of physical, mental, and emotional preparation. For the vast majority of the professional athletes, the operating level is roughly 75%-80% of their potential. This is a non-scientific number to be sure. I base the percentages on my observations about how they move, how they treat practice and other forms of physical preparation, how they study, how they interact with their organization, and how they perform game to game. In short, I look at their process.

This underachieving state usually is a consequence of what is allowed, or what has become learned behavior. It is extremely difficult to make the leap from talented youth to top level competitor. Even with all of the physical tools in the world, the game at the highest levels is at best 40/60 physical versus mental. I recently read an article suggesting the ratio is closer to 10/90.

That’s an incredible statement; that 90% of the top level competition is separated by their minds not their bodies. But I believe it. That can manifest in many different ways; how you prepare, the discipline you have to learn the scheme, how you approach competition, how quickly you can get into the zone, or flow state…These are the differentiating factors that determine outlier success.

If you looked at the athletic ability in the top flight leagues – any sport, you will see an evolution of human in size and strength that surpasses normal generational evolution. The reason is that people are doing a better job at preparation. The different body types you see in a locker room – they are, or should be, purpose built. Each sport and position within a sport requires specific strength, power, and mobility needs to work through the ideal patterns.

The outlying changes you see in most bodies is guided by focused effort, not genetics. And so, if you are seeing an enormous variation in physical ability, the differences are usually smaller at the genetic level, but the gap widens as we put forth more deliberate effort.

Steph Curry has less than optimal eyesight. The greatest shooter in the world had blurry vision growing up. That should be the end of the discussion on genetics versus deliberate practice, if the end goal is mastery.

So the question is what combination of factors allows one to become all that they can? As Americans we have tried to manufacture the ideal athlete. Todd Marinovich was groomed from birth to be the greatest quarterback anyone had ever seen. He was on a strict regiment of football, weights, nutrition, wash, rinse, repeat for his entire adolescence. But the pressure was toxic, the lifestyle was suffocating. Promise turned to potential, and potential turned into unrealized potential, all in all a sad ending. Marinovich is not alone, just more famous than most. Many athletes burn out because of overtraining, poor leadership or direction; the journey is just as much a war of attrition as anything else. Searching for approval from loved ones can overtake the real goal; to do that which makes you most proud of yourself. Intrinsic motivation can lead to personal satisfaction.

On the other side, the trophy industry has never been stronger. Young athletes everywhere are receiving 14th place trophies simply because their parents signed them up for the team. In some leagues we have stopped keeping score all together, in hopes that no one feels bad for losing a competition. Scientifically we know that this has a negative effect on the brain. We also know through studies, that a society full of participation trophy parents has led our youth to an overblown sense of self-importance. These athletes who are rewarded for often doing the absolute minimum grow up to be young adults who struggle to deal with adversity. Where is the mental toughness come from if resiliency and discipline, dealing with failure, are not requirements for reward?

So if there a formula for creating the top level competitor? If you follow a skill sport – if soccer is your cup of tea – around the world there are different methods used to create world superstars. In Brazil the children play all day, every day in the favelas. There are patches of earth in every town reserved for the sport – it is our basketball but even more beloved. Once you are considered unique by city standards, you are invited to a club. Less play, more focused practice, but never losing the signature flair and spirit of the country. Your environment will heavily influence your relationship with sport.

Perhaps there is no better way to look at developing an athlete than taking a look at the Netherlands club Ajax. They could write the owner’s manual on how to develop young athletes to become the best in the world. Videos of Ajax training from decades ago are still ahead of their time even today.

For Ajax the first crucial aspect of a successful program is scouting; they have strict standards for physical and cognitive requirements. Once a younger student is invited to join the academy, they become part of the Ajax family. The culture is demanding and disciplined; athletes are tested for standards regularly, and every six months they are given the thumbs up or down on whether the invitation will remain in place next season. There is scarcity and exclusivity that has to be earned.

Ajax – like many European clubs – have the luxury of being a privately funded, competitive environment that can demand focus and effort from every training opportunity. The amount of advanced learning that goes on is far beyond what their American counterparts might find, but it is not only because of the quality of the coaches like many of us have been led to believe. It is the dedication shown by the player and their support group.

Here is the big secret: the amount of wasted reps, wasted sessions, or wasted days is very low. If a player decides they want to dog it for the day, they could be signing their exit papers that evening. Compare this to a US college athlete on scholarship, and you will see that the timeline is far different. Thus, the intensity is much greater. There are consequences for poor performance.

What kind of pressure does this put on a young athlete? Certainly from a family standpoint the pressure felt could be high. Certainly the aforementioned participation trophy group would abhor such an environment. But for a competitive athlete, is there really pressure to compete against your peers every day, or is this more of an incredible opportunity? What about knowing that having a bad day has real consequences? How is any of that worse than a snowboarder learning a demanding trick, or a big wave surfer looking down the barrel of a thirty foot wave? It is a different kind of pressure to be sure, and difficult to measure or compare. But that rush that you feel when something matters; when there are real consequences for your actions; those are the moments where we level up. Where our focus is dialed in, where we learn to get into our competitive mode, our flow state. These are the opportunities for athletes to dramatically improve.

This is where amateurs become masters. Through the crucible of real competition, social challenges, and aspiration to beat the best. Think of what YouTube has done for the X Games community. If anyone pulls a new trick, something that has never been thought of until that moment – everyone across the world can see it, study it, and try to match or improve on it. When Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier for the first time, just the idea that it was possible was enough to drive multiple runners to break the mark within weeks and months of his time. There is information sharing and competitive environments to grow.

This is why places like Ajax do so well; every day their athletes wake up with the intent to make the club. Every day they have to stretch their limits in order to keep up with the curriculum and their peer group. This lifestyle is not for everyone, but everyone has their own Ajax they would love to enter into. Aspirational reminders.

That is why Westside Barbell has continually put out the best lifters in the world for twenty years. If you grew up in the 90’s and 2000’s and you wanted to be a powerlifter, you went to the place where the best were training and competing every single day. Not only did you have the best lifters in the world, you had the most innovative coaching and competitive culture aorund you every day – pushing you to be the best version of yourself. No chance for social loafing.

Iron sharpens iron. While some may prefer to train alone, measuring oneself against a capable opponent provides feedback, direction, and motivation. And this opponent doesn’t have to be a confrontation. Give two high level skateboarders a new park and a camera and see what comes of it. They want to push each other, that’s where the innovation lies. Sometimes we can put a face on our competition, sometimes that face can also be our closest friends. Constant feedback and evolution within the group.

To truly maximize your potential, you must tick all of the requisite boxes. One cannot recover if they do not eat properly or sleep enough. Strengthening joints or building body armor will improve anyone’s ability to execute the given patterns of their sport. There must also be a complete mastery of the fundamentals, which requires time, more time, and patience. But soon enough to transition from good to great, or great to iconic; there is a combination of deliberate practice, competition with real consequences, and social pressure to perform that will drive those who really want to become the best in their field all that they can become.

And surely this is true in any endeavor; I have to imagine that hearing Charlie Parker performances drives the minds of young musicians. Bearing witness to the innovations happening right now at Apple, Amazon, and Google impose a completely different reality for the young program designer then anything I grew up understanding. Advances in medicine, technical procedures, or anything surrounding Moore’s Law demonstrates that we are living in a world that is quickly running out of boundaries.

Our athletes can be at the front and center of this revolution. They have the resources, the information, and we are getting closer to finding the formula.

Get out there!


1) Success is not guaranteed by any set agenda

2) Find a framework that works for you and your tribe

3) Get outside your comfort zone!

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