top of page

Improving The Model: Building a Better Athlete From The Neck Up

We are obsessed in this country with physical measurements. Tangible tidbits that allow us to easily categorize or generalize our athletes. Height, arm length, hand size, and shoulder width…these are all genetic constraints that can prevent a great young athlete from getting a real shot at the next level. It can also allow a terrible teammate to receive countless chances at 'resurrecting' their career. Add into this constrained variables (traits that can be manipulated but have a ceiling) like top speed and strength, and Americans will quickly pass judgement on the potential of an athlete before they ever suit up. I would never suggest that physical traits don’t matter – we have to have a baseline standard of physical measurements in order to ‘cut the herd.’ Additionally, there are physical traits that are crucial for success in position-specific sports (NFL lineman would likely struggle to compete at under 200lbs, for example). However, our obsession with physical talent oftentimes is misguided, as is our natural predilection to suffer from conformation bias. Once the player in question is within acceptable physical range, we must start looking at the ‘neck up’ traits. Early Warning Signs This pattern starts with our youngest athletes. Relative Age Effect (RAE) suggests that talent evaluators over-weight physical traits in the athletes towards the older range of an age group. Those young athletes who have a short-term developmental advantage in size and strength are, more often than not, selected for the top teams. This is particularly evident in confrontational sports (soccer, football, basketball) where the immediate payoff of being larger, stronger, and faster is a higher win rate. Interesting to note; in a study from 2015, researchers found that while 78% of players invited to a soccer premier league academy were born in Q1, the top players sent on loan were all from Q4[1]. There are numerous studies that convey the same idea: the early returns on prioritizing physical traits do not necessarily translate into better long term results. How can this be possible? Likely for the same reasons the Patriots are always interested every year in accumulating draft picks instead of putting stock into one or two top round players. The physical differences between two athletes is nothing compared to the behavioral characteristics each has developed on their journey. Studies regarding the relative success of NFL first round picks puts the hit rate at around 53%.[2] Given our range of physical qualities for this group is relatively bound, the numbers suggest that we are not necessarily making decisions based on the best criteria. Non-Negotiable Traits I spend a lot of time preaching about technique as a differentiator in player development. But before we get into technical development, we must identify the non-negotiable character traits that act as a glue when building our 'Master of Craft' pyramid. Without identifying and fostering the following non-negotiables throughout an athlete’s career, it will matter little whether they are drafted early, late, or never. As parents and coaches, we need to accept that our job goes beyond teaching X’s and O’s or developing footwork. We must identify and foster those character traits within our athletes that are so important to hitting their ceiling. Our protocols spend so much time on improving the neck down, and do not pay enough attention to improving the neck up. It is unrealistic to believe that a 21 year old athlete will completely change their character when thrust into a professional environment. The hope is that these traits are embedded within each player before they enter the door, and require little more than guidance to bring them to the surface. Having said that, by identifying the crucial character traits early on and creating a culture around improving those traits, organizations will give themselves the best chance to ‘be right’ every draft year. The List The following I have selected as the top five non-negotiable character traits that competitive athletes must identify and foster within themselves. Intrinsic Motivation: The desire to put in the time and effort in for no other reason than self-improvement. I like to use the phrase – "what you do when the cameras aren’t rolling." In today’s age of likes and followers, we see a ton of effort directed towards gaining notoriety, building a brand, and that certainly is a part of the sporting landscape. But take away the fans, the parental approval, or the headlines, and what are you doing it for? Intrinsic motivation is so powerful because otherwise motivation becomes a currency; something that can be bartered, or negotiated. Organizations want athletes that are in the game to become the best they can be, number one. Kawhi Leonard is a household name now that he moved to LA after dominating last seasons NBA finals – but Leonard has never been about the fame – he has been about reaching his ceiling. I love stories like Leonard's because he didn’t need to post himself dancing in the weight room to feel loved – the sport loves Leonard, and he demonstrates his love for basketball with the way he goes to work every day. Coachability: This is likely a top reason that there was a reverse RAE as time went on in the aforementioned study. Marginal athletes, even above average players, realize early in their careers that the ability to take coaching is something that will promote their ability to get on the field. The more physically developed young athletes will often receive more experienced coaching, but often are treated as physical specimens instead of developing players. This objectivity at an early age can foster a sense of entitlement and lack of regard for authority. Every former athlete has a story about the physical specimens who walked into the locker room week one, only to walk back out only a few weeks later. The problem was rarely physical ability; these athletes had a difficult time picking up and applying the instructions. More often than not this occurs as talented athletes move up in competition, where others have caught up with them physically. Fostering curiosity and coachability at an early age is crucial to promoting long-term success. Presence: What kind of teammate and locker room personality are you? Do heads raise when you enter the huddle, or do shoulders slump forward in anticipation of a negative tirade? Athletes are a collective representation of all of their interactions and experiences; we cannot be complete players without a healthy interaction with our teammates. Additionally, athletes need to understand the importance coaches place on the effect their personalities will have on the locker room environment and the inter-team chemistry on game-day. You hear of many stories where great athletes were given a chance, but it ‘wasn’t a good fit.’ These athletes will continue to receive undeserved chances, because personnel is always willing to take a chance on natural ability. But the great organizations understand that the whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. That is why many championship teams are led by ‘water carriers’[3]; those who shine away from the spotlight in the way they bring their team together.

Competitive Mindset: Are you willing to come back for more? This trait is age and skill appropriate: as a young athlete it is not necessarily realistic that one can get ‘knocked down’ and have the mental/emotional capacity to make the adjustments necessary to take back the victory. Some sports are more than just working harder than the next player; there is a limitation placed on effort when high levels of technique are involved. However, coming back the next day, at the next opportunity, with focus and confidence in your ability to improve takes an athlete with a competitive mindset. They want the challenge because it is part of the process of development. As an older, highly trained athlete, competitive mindset does manifest more often during live competition. We have the ability to make the adjustments required to win our 1v1 matchups; it is often a question if we trust ourselves and our preparation enough to make the required changes. Regardless of age, how we approach competition can speak volumes about our longevity in the sport. Focus and effort can be volatile in younger, immature athletes. It is crucial that a healthy 'fighting spirit' must be present, and celebrated by parents and coaches. As older players, respecting practices with healthy competition is the best way to prepare for real confrontation. Given the right amount of recovery, an advanced athlete should be expected to ‘bring it’ every single practice. Breeding healthy competition into an organizations culture, if genuine, will have a knock on effect on game day.

"ONE MORE ROUND" Hard Working: The all-time greats are the rare athletes who have uncanny natural ability AND the work ethic to match their athleticism. All-time greats Jordan and Kobe had insatiable appetites for competition; at times this overwhelmed their teammates. What is more impressive is the amount of work they did away from practice; physically and mentally preparing themselves for every encounter. Elite-level athletes are able to show up on game day, and many have good practice habits. But it is very easy to draw a line connecting the best of class with those willing to put in the extra time. A caveat to this is that the work must be focused and dedicated. Dedicated practice is difficult; it takes a high level of focus and energy to maintain a dedicated practice session for a sustained amount of time at the individual level. I suggest no longer than 15-20 of dedicated practice at a time, after that duration quality is likely to falter. As a team this can be broken up into drills, or sections of practice. Quality trumps quantity. Willingness to Accept Short Term Pain For Long Term Gain: This is not necessarily physical pain. This can be the pain of failure, embarrassment, or demotion. Tiger Woods was the greatest golfer of his generation, possibly of all time, and he changed his golf swing mid-career. He could have easily continued on with his status quo and would have likely maintained his standing in the world. But Tiger played the long game, foregoing short term victories and affirmation as the greatest golfer in history because he thought changing his swing would ‘improve the model.’ In fact, Tiger changed his swing multiple times during his career; evolving with age and experience. Imagine a 180lb high school strong safety who has the 230lb running back dead to rights on the 1 yard line. If he makes the stop his team wins the city championship. Coaches have drilled technique into his mind for four years straight; same foot, same shoulder tackle at the near hip, shoot arms, drive feet, finish to the floor. But in the moment, can he muster the courage to take on the opposing back who outweighs him by 50lbs? Does he fall back on his training, or does he dive at the ankles and take the easy way out? Maybe he jumps to the side and tries to strip the ball…the decision to take on the larger player in this moment might result in a highlight reel play for either side. Attempting to tackle the runner correctly might result in a touchdown; the distance to cover is minimal and this player is greatly overmatched physically. But in accepting the potential short term pain, our hero gives himself the opportunity not only to help win his team the championship; he also is developing the habits and character traits that will go on to define his athletic career. This last non-negotiable is my favorite because it inspires us as athletes, fans, and parents. We want to imagine ourselves as brave, willing to accept whatever comes with reaching for greatness. These non-negotiable traits are developed over time. You might be born with a predilection towards them more than your peers, and many of these might seem natural to you. Identifying these traits early on and fostering their development is best done through the combined efforts of players, parents, and coaches. ‘Neck-up’ development is the final frontier in the world of sports. As an athlete, parent, coach, or mentor; give your player the best opportunity to succeed by fostering these non-negotiables at every level of development. Work hard, Michael Wahle

  1. [1] Georgios Andronikos, Adeboye Israel Elumaro, Tony Westbury & Russell J. J. Martindale (2015): Relative age effect: implications for effective practice, Journal of Sports Sciences, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2015.1093647 [2] The Riot Report, Vincent Richardson (2018) [3] Sam Walker, Ebury Publishing (2017): The Captains Class

12 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page