When admiring the talents and achievements of top athletes, we often examine – in great detail – the contributing factors behind their successes. Qualities such as good genetics, hard work, mental toughness and sheer determination are commonly cited as the primary influences for high levels of achievement. In some instances, the athlete may point to a mentor, coach or trainer that has made all the difference in their careers. And, we have all seen instances when a coach overtly takes credit for the achievements of a particular athlete or group of athletes, while selectively not mentioning the mass failures that resulted from their direction of others. Rarely, if ever, does an athlete or coach say, “Well, I guess I was just lucky. Somebody had to win and I’m certainly glad it was me.”
I would like to believe that any coach or athlete with an ounce of humility would occasionally wonder if their success has been the result of luck, chance or circumstances beyond their control. Similar to the lotto player whose numbers are randomly selected in the prize draw or a soldier storming the beaches of Normandy who escaped the bullets of the enemy, some positive outcomes can be the result of chance or good fortune, and not deliberate, pre-meditated action. Some lottery winners do not need a complex system of number selection when purchasing a ticket. They randomly select their numbers. Many soldiers have survived battles not due to any exceptional training techniques, Matrix-like bullet-dodging skills or strategies, but by pure luck. Could the same be said for athletic prowess? And, do self-promoting entrepreneurs only take credit for success after it is a foregone conclusion, creating revisionist narratives around an athlete’s path to glory? Of course they do!
The bottom line is there is going to be a winner. This is an absolute certainty every year in professional sports, barring a labor dispute. In the NFL, 32 teams face off against each other at the beginning of the season and one team is going to be holding the Lombardi Trophy overhead by the end. If I represent a shoe manufacturer, clothing company or supplement producer, I am trying to get my product out to every team so that I can take credit when one of them wins it all and say, “The SuperBowl Champion uses our product!” Then you can let your fans and audience draw their own conclusions about the why’s and how’s preceding the victory. Legendary strength coach, Al Vermeil, is very candid about his SuperBowl and NBA Championship rings. “I was lucky enough to have Joe Montana and Michael Jordan on my teams!”
Examining Charles Darwin’s Theories within the Context of Sport
In his 1859 book, On Origin of Species, Charles Darwin proposed the mechanism of natural selection to explain how life on earth has changed over geological time and how new species emerge from common ancestors. Darwin proposed natural selection as a mechanism of how populations change through time, or evolve. The five principal components of natural selection are as follows:
- Organisms produce more offspring than will actually survive to reproduce.
- Every organism struggles to survive.
- There is variation within species.
- Some variations among members of a species allow their bearers to survive and reproduce better than others.
- Organisms that survive and reproduce pass their traits to their offspring, and the helpful traits gradually appear in more and more of the population.[i]
The sports examples in relation to the concept of natural selection are extremely compelling. But for the purpose of this discussion, I must make the distinction between the term, “natural selection,” as used in an evolutionary context, as opposed to athletes being “naturally” selected to higher levels of performance in their sport due to their innate talent, persistence, durability and other specific variants that allow them to succeed. Alternatively, certain athletes are de-selected from further competition based on their lack of talent, skill or durability. We are not discussing athlete achievement through mutation and the passing on of traits from generation to generation. We are simply saying that the strong will survive, thrive and rise to the top despite numerous external factors and interventions, many of which may have little or nothing to do with an athlete’s success.
If we look at the American Football experience and other sporting organizations, there are many of Darwin’s principal components that apply.
“Producing More Offspring Than Will Survive”
A total of 1.23 million youth ages 6-12 played tackle football in 2015 in the United States. Flag football participation for the same age group was 1.14 million. For the 13-17 year age group, participation in tackle football was at 1.98 million during the same period. Thus, a total of 3.21 million kids from the ages of 6-17 played tackle football in America. Add to this, approximately 92,000 college football players and you have an extremely large pool of athletes to draw from. In comparison, USA rugby has reported that they had 50,000 registered youth athletes in 2015, although their numbers are growing year to year. The game is now played by 35,000 high school athletes, 10 times more than were participating over a decade ago. The growth for rugby in America is encouraging, but does not even register as a blip on the radar in comparison with football. The latest information on the consequences of repeated head trauma and concussions in football seems to have had an impact on participation at the youth level. However, as long as the NFL reigns supreme in the professional sports world, there will always be a “healthy” supply of athletes ready to suit up, provided they make it through the gauntlet of challenges and collisions from high school through to college and beyond. The potential financial rewards may be too high as shown in Figures 1a and 1b for people to turn their back on the sport in the wake of emerging brain trauma research.
The North American experience with ice hockey also points to the power of numbers. In 2016, Canada and the USA had over just under 1.2 million people participating in ice hockey as illustrated in Figure 2. These two countries account for 74% of all players in the National Hockey League (NHL). It could be argued that Sweden and Finland have better youth development programs and get more value out of every player, but the results achieved by producing a “large number of offspring” is pretty compelling.
In the American Football example – with well over three million young athletes feeding into the system of “development” – a lot of mistakes can be made along the way with talented, resilient athletes still finding their way to the top. And, even though many of these mistakes can be fairly egregious – whether it is in the form of poor coaching, inappropriate physical training or intentional abuse – a good number of outliers will continue to thrive and succeed despite these obstacles. And, invariably, some of these egregious actors will take credit for the success of the outlier and tout their methods as being the difference maker.
It becomes quite clear that every coach and sport organization can benefit from a large athlete population, as margins of error are much greater and none of us are immune to error, despite any illusions portrayed by our social media ramblings. Charlie Francis was always telling me about the importance of keeping your training group as large as possible. “How do you know which athlete is going to turn out to be your superstar. We had over 30 kids who showed up to train with us in the beginning. One of those athletes was Ben Johnson, but there were no early indications that he was going to be the athlete that he turned out to be. And many of the kids that showed promise early never panned out.”
I also remember Charlie saying something rather profound during a rant about the ineptness of the numerous sport federations and government-funded organizations in Canada that were overflowing with useless bureaucrats. These were many of the same bureaucrats that would set unrealistic standards to avoid funding trips for athletes to major competitions, while at the same time booking their own first-class tickets and five-star hotel rooms so that they could attend the opening ceremonies and various parties while the athletes were left to their own devices. Charlie thought we could easily do away with the redundant office-dwellers and simply provide incentives for athletes. “Put a million dollars in cash at the finish line and I’ll bet you there would be someone that would run under 10 seconds!”
“Every Organism Struggles to Survive”
Sometimes, even the existence of a struggle – outside of the regular training and competitions – is enough of an additional stimulus to create extraordinary results. This is sometimes observed in cases where socio-economic hardships exist and can drive athletes to do whatever is necessary to move up the development chain. This concept could be supported by the experience of sprinters in Jamaica, boxers in Mexico, long distance runners in Eastern Africa or baseball players in Latin America. Financial means are limited, but the athletes within a rather large population are motivated to improve and combine their hunger with talent to achieve success. However, the biggest stressor or struggle – even in the aforementioned cases – must be in the form of specific and formidable competition to drive the demand for improved skills and physical abilities. This can only happen if you are playing top competitors on a regular basis. Often this can be an expensive venture in the form of payments for school, joining a club or academy or attending specialized training camps.
Hence, financial struggles do not always translate into greater outcomes later in life, particularly for certain sports. In his 2013 article in the New York Times entitled, “In the NBA, Zip Code Matters”, Seth Stevens-Davidowitz found that modern day NBA players more than likely came from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds. He points out that:
“These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty. In “The Last Shot,” Darcy Frey quotes a college coach questioning whether a suburban player was “hungry enough” to compete against black kids from the ghetto. But the data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.”
Stevens-Davidowitz points out that the socioeconomic advantages also include non-cognitive skills such as persistence, self-regulation and trust, as well as physical height achieved through the availability of good nutrition. He adds that, “In basketball, the importance of every inch is enormous. I estimate that each additional inch almost doubles your chances of making the N.B.A.”
Hence, the struggle must be specific in nature, imposing the demands of the task to be encountered in future competitions, but also making the most out of every advantage available in order to be victorious over competitors. Without an ongoing struggle for existence, athletes are not required to adapt and improve. This type of struggle within a very large athlete population can have profound effects, regardless of coaching, facilities and tactical preparation.
“There is Variation Within a Species”
An article by Abhijeet Bardapurkar provided a very useful description of the power of variation. “When an individual varies from others in the population, and when this variation is useful to the individual in its own survival or reproduction, then the variation is naturally selected and preserved: in the sense that the variation is repeatedly reproduced in the following generations, with more and more variant individuals in the population. Selection and preservation of a variation is a natural consequence of its usefulness to the variant. See the analogy here: be it artificial selection or be it natural selection, the preservation of variation is the consequence of its usefulness. If the variation is useful to the human beings, the selector-breeder causes its preservation; if the variation is useful to the variant individual itself, this usefulness-to-the-self causes its preservation.”[ii]
The concept of variation within a population is critical to the success of individual members of that population. I believe this is why athletes that enter early specialization programs and are placed on “All Star Teams” at an early age do not fare well in the long run. The whole point of bringing athletes together in a large group is to determine – over time – which variations are useful. In basketball, taller athletes with longer arms are useful. However, early specialization and artificial selection may precede the growth spurts of many potentially useful candidates, rendering them unselected for long term development. In the case of boxing, athletes that cannot “take a punch” are quickly filtered out of the athlete pool by essentially placing them in harm’s way and seeing what happens in competition. While not ethical, it is very effective. I distinctly remember one of my older boxing friends telling me about Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) having a tremendous ability to take a punch to the head, making him so difficult to defeat given his already blinding speed and punching abilities. These variations made him a natural winner in boxing.
In the case of peripheral injuries, variations can be either a curse or a blessing. My good friend and veteran physical therapist, Robert Panariello, believes that many athletes in the NFL have made it to the professional ranks because they have anatomical variations that allowed them to survive in such a brutal sport. Some players may be selected out of the talent pool because of laxity or instability in knee or shoulder joints that are exposed in their high school or college years and abruptly end their careers. Those that have made it to the NFL and are enjoying successful careers may have variations that have maximized their chances of staying in the league. In either case, coaching and training may not have made a difference in their durability throughout their careers. Natural selection and a number of variable qualities may have played a more significant role in their fate.
Becoming “Facilitators of Natural Selection”
The backlash that may follow from this article could very easily come in the form of physical preparation coaches and strength coaches throwing their hands up and sarcastically asking, “So we don’t really have an impact on an athlete’s success? It’s all due to chance and natural selection?” My response would be to consider all of the factors at play and do your best to be a “facilitator” of natural selection. Understanding your role in the process is critical for maximizing the probability of success for any particular athlete under your charge. Here are some final thoughts on the subject.
Get Out of The Way: Cultivate and Refine Talent
We must be thankful when exceptional natural talents and athletic outliers are part of our training groups and teams. Many of the great athletes that I have worked with made my job easier because they were remarkable responders to almost any heightened stimulus. My primary focus was to maintain their abilities and allow them to flourish organically, picking my spots carefully with precise dosages of training stress at different times during the week – not flooding them with high volumes of work. If one acquires a football athlete that can run 4.3 seconds over 40 yards with little training or preparation, there is often an automatic – albeit overly simplistic – assumption that he or she can improve this athlete with their brand of training to a 4.2 or 4.1 performance. Most of the time, it is very admirable if you simply maintain this athlete’s 4.3-second speed, while improving their ability to repeat such speed throughout a game and consistently throughout the season, as well as improving their strength, change of direction abilities and overall durability. But pushing an athlete to run 4.1 seconds at the expense of other essential qualities could be deemed irresponsible and prove costly in the long run.
I believe it is also important to realize that fantastic things can emerge from chaos and disorder. Must we control everything? Having too much structure in a system can inhibit growth and intuitive abilities, leading to the down-regulation of the very qualities that make an athlete – or a musical talent or intellectual – great. In my experience, great talents thrive on non-linearity and spontaneous scenarios. It is the job of the experienced coach to know when to stick to the plan and when to deviate from the script.
Avoiding the PR’s
Promises, prediction and prevention for the sake of promotion – although a playful alliteration – can be a dangerous trend for sport professionals (PR is ironically used to refer to Personal Records in individual sports). Ego often gets in the way and we can all be guilty of placing too much emphasis on our contributions to an athlete or team’s successes, while underreporting our less efficacious case studies and failures. Providing narratives after the fact whether telling us that you knew a team would win or you knew this athlete would get injured is unprofessional and unscrupulous. Also, standing in front of a crowd and telling them that you will prevent something – such as injuries – can backfire spectacularly. Sometimes stuff just happens. Athletes may prevail but sometimes they fail, and we have no means of explaining either scenario most of the time. Standing back from the composition and taking full stock of all of the contributing factors in an objective manner can be a difficult process in the wake of our insecurities, but can also be an exceptionally liberating experience and lead to future discoveries.
As a parent of young athletes, I am acutely aware of the need to keep my kids involved in a variety of sports for as long as possible. My children continue to amaze me with newly acquired abilities and greater determination coming to light almost every week. Most of these abilities have not been developed through deliberate coaching attempts on my part. They simply appear. As they encounter stress and struggles, the initial instinct is to shelter and protect them. However, their built-in desire to succeed, along with their inherent adaptability almost always seems to allow them to both survive and thrive. Intervening or imposing structure could likely do more damage than good. The one thing I am certain about is that absolute certainty is a fleeting and often unattainable concept. As long as we are aware of the fact that natural forces are often the most powerful influencers, we can be better prepared as both coaches and athletes for the uncertainties of life and sport.
[i] Curtis, Anthony D. A Lesson On Evolution and Natural Selection. The American Biology Teacher. Vol. 72, No. 1 (2010):110-113.
[ii] Bardapurkar, Abhijeet S. What is ‘Natural’ in Natural Selection? Resonance. May 2013: 475-482.