Sometimes developing talent is not as easy as cream rising to the top. The pathway from potential to elite can often be interrupted or even derailed, wasting the talent or limiting its capabilities.
Climbing the ladder to the top in many sports involves success at one level then moving up to the next level. I compare this to the big fish analogy: the competitor becomes a big fish in a small pond, before leaping into the next pond where they have to find their feet (or fins and work their way up to being the bigger fish again). Using tennis as an example, players begin at the futures level, and when they find success at this level they progress up to the Challenger tour, where again they must develop significantly before they can step up to the ATP tour.
When developing talent, these sequential “ponds” are the challenges through which everyone has to progress. Some talented individuals experience meteoric progression whilst others get stuck or experience only late development.
The key consideration for High Performance programmes is whether the best just “make it happen” or whether development systems could be doing more to encourage talented individuals to discover the necessary spark? And do standard pathways cater predominantly for the obvious rather than having the flexibility to nurture the more unconventional? The responsibility to facilitate this invariably lies with the HP manager, and whether they believe in a type or system rather than an open mind to facilitating this spark.
We learn more about the brain and body and how it learns skills every day, which is a good thing: imagine how many left handed batsmen lost heart and interest when being taught because the (then) thinking was that you only did it right handed?
The following are some key lessons I have leant whilst developing potential in various arenas over the years;
Understand your pond – trying to emulate the best in your chosen field can be misleading. The classic “process over outcome” could be used here. Sometimes what’s needed to progress to the next pond is a far cry from the game you’ll need in the top pond. Consistency of performance, together with momentum are key, so work out how to achieve that in your pond rather than focusing on what’s needed for the top. In time that will become more relevant when you get closer to the ultimate aim.
Learn when things are going well – so often we analyse the bad bits looking to get better, but often at the lower levels the key is to have consistency in the good parts of your game. I often find that less reflection or reviewing of performance occurs when individuals are winning, and yet this is where the most valuable information is. It really is as simple as “when you were winning, what were you doing well?”
3. What’s holding you back? – there are so many factors that can affect consistency, and it is all too common for progress to be derailed by an unforeseen element affecting performance. This is where an external or “helicopter” view can help you identify what’s holding you back. A vital skill for a performance coach is the ability to assess the situation objectively although often a third party can offer the different angle required. The human brain is (by design) subject to bias, and I’ve seen many instances in the development of athletes where individuals within the close support network are having a detrimental effect. These people are often acting in what they believe are the best interests, and a professional, balanced perspective is essential to ensure the pathway is unaffected. Once discovered the issue might seem so obvious that you wonder why you couldn’t see it, but it’s important not to lose time or momentum being stubborn about it.
4. Momentum – the 3 points above all factor in this, but gaining momentum can see you rise the ladder effectively. There is never a smooth upward line to progression, but when you get on a roll it’s important to maximise it. Remember too that these times are the best development times. When everything is clicking into place, you are positive, confident and further benefits occur.
A great example of this in tennis is when a player is taking their opponent’s service game deeper each time, which produces secondary benefits to concentration, experience and fitness.
A good friend once met Steven Gerrard, and when you find yourself in these situations it’s important to maximise the opportunity! He asked Gerrard what advice he’d give to aspiring academy players. His answer: “work out how to get picked”.
Simple really, but within it lies the secret to development up the ponds.
The essence of a good performance coach is someone who identifies & focuses on these areas & more importantly can decide when to intervene… or not!