The new era of elite sports performance

14 June 2019

Sports legends: that’s what we call sports professionals like Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Mia Hamm, Tom Brady, Usain Bolt, and Michael Jordan. These athletes do not just play a sport; they are the face of their respective sports, a source of inspiration for present and future generations, the reason why many kids spend their weekends sitting a couple of inches from the TV, hands clenched with excitement and eyes shining with admiration. To us “average people”, they are natural born winners, prodigies who were destined to animate crowds and always win. But while we admire them for their technical and physical abilities, we can’t help but recognize their limitless determination to be perfectly prepared to perform on game day.

In the debate of Nature vs. Nurture, it is undeniable that some people are genetically predetermined to certain sports. Being 6ft5 doesn’t mean you’ll become an NBA player, but it will give you an initial competitive advantage over many others. However, physical advantages represent a tiny portion of someone’s chances of performing at the highest level.

Another element of genetic predisposition to performance is talent. Talent is defined as a “natural aptitude or skill”: most people are born with some form of talent in a specific area, making the skill acquisition process much faster for them. However, talent isn’t universal and even the most talented athletes will struggle in other areas: Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes had an unbelievable talent for picking a cross-field pass or scoring a goal from 20 yards, but the defensive component of his game came less naturally. There is definitely an argument for people being naturally “destined” for a specific sport but is talent enough?

While someone’s natural ability to progress quickly in a sport was historically a good predictor of that person becoming a success, times have changed when it comes to elite sports performance. Today, talent is not enough. Today for elite athletes, performing at the highest level is not a matter of “ what can I do?” but a matter of “what will I do?”. An athlete needs to consider and manage all the moving parts that come into their personal preparation for game night, such as, skills training, physiotherapy appointments, strength and conditioning, nutrition monitoring, sports psychology programs, personal commitments and many more. The management of all these elements can create a chaotic and cluttered landscape in the mind of the athlete. Many struggle under the various pressures, with a significant increase in the risk of both mental and physical injury.

From a coaching perspective, when it comes to scouting new talent, the first thing that many coaches look for in an athlete is attitude, determination, intelligence and discipline. The athlete who has executed on their personal plan, who arrives on game day with clarity, certainty and calm is without any doubt more likely to execute when it counts. On the other hand, the most ‘talented’ player who doesn’t accept that talent is not enough, who doesn’t incorporate some form of a planned and methodical approach to performance, who operates in a noisy, cluttered and chaotic world will struggle to perform consistently within the current demands of elite sport.

In this new era of elite sports performance, winning now depends on experiencing absolute clarity in the moments that matter. Players and teams need an edge: the best prepared are most likely to succeed, not the most talented. Getting to this level of preparation requires an enormous amount of effort, the kind of effort that the likes of Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, and Usain Bolt have committed to making every day. And the results speak for themselves, they are legends of their own sports.