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The Hard Work Vs. Talent Revelation in Training

In the last few years there has been an explosion of books such as Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code, Outliers, etc., all reaching the same conclusion: hard, targeted work is the major factor in success. The books have been heralded as a revelation.

It’s a revelation that targeted, consistent hard work is the major factor in success? Excuse me?

They happen to be good books, but the very fact that people are embracing these works as if they have suddenly been given some secret code from the gods says something pretty scary about our societal views. And those societal views have to inform our coaching. When the notion that you have to work hard and long to be successful is a “new” revelation – we actively have to coach to counter that culture. We still tend to expect that kids know that they have to work hard and practice intelligently - seems that we shouldn’t be expecting that. That means the coach or trainer in our current culture is exponentially more important than the coach or trainer used to be. So let’s take a look at how my review and application of this information can help us convey this age old “revelation” to our athletes and clients. 

Great athletes (and clients) aren’t born—they’re made.

…it was a place we played every day. We played before school. We played after school. We woke up. We played tennis. We brushed our teeth—in that order.
~Andre Agassi

Mastery takes time. The 10,000 hour rule works. The good news is that greatness isn’t reserved for the genetically selected few; it is reserved for those who are willing to work for it. Repeat that to your clients, constantly. Mastery takes time.

Look at what our clients live with food that is ready in a microwavable minute, scores scrolling across computer screens, media touting social media millionaires they live in an instant world. We can’t take for granted that they know that they are going to have to work long and hard and often be frustrated to be good at something. We have to keep reminding them.

Tell them that you can’t rush physiology. There are no minute muscles. The human body is not a machine that can be tuned up in two hours. In order for the body to grow muscle, to change the nervous system and brain, it takes thousands of repetitions. 

Debunk the notion that the great athletes or people of success just had talent. Case studies have shown that the great athletes worked harder, longer and smarter than anyone else. What does that translate into? With hockey the magic word is “ice time”how much ice time did they put in? Top fighters? Mat time. Lacrosse? Wall time and field time. For our regular clients, that needs to be translated into “gym time.”  My friend Phil Simms was a kid from rural Kentucky who went to an anonymous school yet was a first round draft pick in the NFL and became a Superbowl MVP. And he also spent thousands of hours in that rural Kentucky backyard throwing a football through a tire hanging from a tree. Jerry Rice, the quintessential case study in sports, was known for his off-season workoutsworkouts that were so exacting and strenuous that other top athletes were exhausted after trying a morning of his routine. Good athletes, great athletes aren’t bornthey’re made. And they’re made over thousands and thousands of hours of work.

Practice (i.e. training) needs to be well-designed.

We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn.
~Robert Bjork

Time needs to be well-spent. This has now been termed “deliberate practice” or “deep practice.” Those 10,000 hours have to be well spent on practice designed to improve performance through changing specific behaviors and incorporating specific and continual feedback.

Practice needs to be balanced to fall in the zone between what they can already do and what they absolutely can’t do. Good coaches know the next step for each athlete and client and put that in front of them. The phrases “Good, now do” and “Great, next add” are staples of well-designed practice sessions; it’s never “good enough.” 

Our job is to know what steps are necessary for that athlete or client, and to consciously and deliberately teach to that. What are their basic athletic or structural weaknesses? How do we strengthen their strengths? Coaching research shows that the great coaches give constant, short feedback – they constantly correct using expectations.

Those expectations translate to the athletes in amazing ways. Look at the “world’s hotbeds” of athletic talent described in the books: the Dominican Republic with baseball, Brazil with soccer, Russia for top female tennis players. In our kids’ world view, none of these places should continually spawn top athletes. The Dominican Republic is one of the last places we would have imagined as a great baseball incubator. A lot of the top players from Brazil grew up kicking homemade balls in the streets. The Russian tennis training center looks like it should be bulldozed and replaced. The difference is the expectation. The kids grow up expecting that they can be great; that expectation determines practice time and practice quality, and that practice determines performance.  Does Finland have 4 out of the top 10 javelin throwers because the Finnish kids are born with a javelin-throwing gene? Nope, the sports community there expects that they will have great javelin throwers. These kids have a cultural expectation that they can be really, really good. Their coaches have an expectation that they can be really, really good. And then they are.  We need to start examining our expectation of our athletes and clients, and how that is affecting our results.

I’ve had more 4.3 athletes in the NFL Combine than anyone else. I also don’t train as many NFL Combine athletes as a lot of people out there, so statistically that shouldn’t be the case. But I expect my NFL Combine athletes to be great. Not that we don’t work extremely hard on every aspect of that, nutrition, athleticism, technique…. But I expect 4.3 timesand I get them. Now, you may not train high-end athletes, but expectation still works just the same for fat loss or consistency if you demand – and expect- success.

In our work with athletes and expectations, there are two phrases that are absolutely not allowed: “I can’t” and “I’ll try.” Psychologically, we know that if you think you can’t, you can’tit is setting a negative goal. And the reality is, if you want to work hard and smartand a goal is achievable within physical realityyou can.  Then there is “I’ll try,” words that are the excuse for what you’re probably not going to do. So we eliminate that in the athletes’ mental mind set. They are not going “to try”they are working toward a goal that they are going to achieve.

Practice and training is not always fun.

The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you're willing to pay the price.
~Vince Lombardi

Our clients today are constantly entertained, and one of their litmus tests of worth is whether something is fun. Practice and training isn’t always going to be. It is mentally and physically demanding and draining. It is only “fun” in the context that you are accomplishing something, and that is what great athletes and successful clients are able to hold on to. But while you are going through it, it’s plain hard. We need to recognize this and let our clients know it.

Practice is a lot of repetition. Most people consider repetition intrinsically boring and in our society boredom is a sin.  Yet it is precise repetition that grows the myelin in the brain which allows a motion or movement sequence to be “automatic.”  Repetition shouldn’t be boring; boredom occurs when the brain doesn’t have to be engaged in thinking about the action, so if the client is really concentrating on getting every repetition right and doing each one precisely, boredom disappears. This is where our training and coaching during a session take hold.  If your clients are bored, they either aren’t working correctly or they aren’t being challenged to advance their athletic or physical skills.

The great news is that most other trainers and most of their clients are not going to be patient and not going to put in the work. So, if you and your clients are willing to pay the price, a lot of your competition in the marketplace has already been eliminated.

And those of us who always knew you have to work hard and long to be successful in life need to think about what else we have always known…and write the next best seller…