The Shameful Fraud of Sorting for Youth Meritocracy

Seth Godin wrote a great blog post this morning about the folly of utilizing “success” at an early age as a way of delineating how the youth are trained going forward. As he mentions, this is not limited to sports, but goes for all avenues – school, music, etc. Build the foundation, reward effort, and worry about “success” (using whatever metrics you deem appropriate) later.

Exercise as Punishment

One practice of coaches that continues to astound me is the use of exercise as punishment. I can’t say I haven’t been guilty of this in the past, but thankfully I graduated high school and got smarter.

Think about it this way – would it make sense for a teacher to punish their class by bombarding them with homework for doing poorly on a test? Or would they probably be better off figuring out why they did poorly and attempting to correct it?

Some will argue that by utilizing punishment, the athlete will be focused on not screwing up, and therefore do better. This is wrong on many levels, but the simplest of which is that the mind simply doesn’t deal well with negatives. Telling yourself to NOT think of something is the surest way for it to appear. Don’t think about a pink elephant. What happened? I think I know.

This doesn’t mean a coach can never be negative, but realize that positive coaching cues are sure to have a greater impact. Saying “do this,” instead of “don’t do this,” will have a much different outcome.

Others will argue for the “mental toughness” ingrained from such training. The question must be asked, however, are you truly instilling mental toughness? Or allowing them to demonstrate their ability to endure an ass kicking? Additionally, what impact is the lactic training (as this is what most punishment consists of) having on the physiology of the athlete? It’s not positive.

This is especially common among youth coaches. Again, the question must be asked – what is the benefit of having a champion 10 year old? There are a select few sports in which high sport results at a young age are a requirement. Other than female gymnastics, diving, and perhaps a few others, there is no correlation to sporting success later in life. In fact, it’s more likely that those athletes with greater genetic gifts will be more successful early in their sporting life. And going back to the concept of lactic loading, it becomes even more detrimental to young and developing athletes.

Long story short – utilize the training time wisely. All coaches will lament their lack of time available to work on all the things they want to, and yet unnecessarily spend at least part of it performing things which, at best, have no relevance to sport success, and at worst, are detrimental and possibly contribute to injury. If the question becomes how best to eliminate mistakes, the answer may lie in removal or decrease in playing time, or at the very least, discussion with the athlete themselves on how to fix the issues.

What’s the Difference?

I recently came across an old answer from the Q&A at EliteFTS by James “The Thinker” Smith. Anyone who reads this site or has spoken to me about training knows the immense respect I have for James and how much I have learned from him. I really liked this part of the response, as it actually runs parallel to a discussion I had with some of my athletes recently:

“People are confused into thinking that there’s something extraordinary about ‘Russian’ training. What they don’t realize is that what distinguishes the Russians and Eastern Europeans is the training is simply congruent with physiology and methodically planned to suit.

I recall that one of my critics from the Syracuse seminar wrote (on a survey) that he wasn’t convinced that I knew anything about Russian Training.

Perhaps he was expecting me to dim the lights, turn on the dry ice, and perform something out of the Matrix.

A squat is a squat, a jump is a jump, a press is a press, a pull up is a pull up, a throw is a throw, a sprint is a sprint…

Ah, but how should we organize these means, at what intensities, in what volumes, at what times of the annual plan, etc.”

The discussion I had with my athletes was that the difference between trainers, facilities, coaches, and what have you, lies not in their exercise selection. It lies in the ability to properly teach them, when and how to utilize them, and how to dose and administer them. The specific talk I was having was in relation to swimming – I’m sure that, no matter which swim club or practice you go into, they all swim. They all do freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and fly. The differences lie in the ability to teach, administer, and dose them properly. The same can be said for any other sport or training. If you are describing your training (or choosing your training) based on the exercises performed – you’re missing the boat.

The specific Q&A answer I quote from can be found here.

More from James can be found here and the rest of the Q&A (all authors and current answers) here.

Habit Forming

“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.” -John Dryden

Almost anyone who has accomplished something worthwhile had very good habits. The human body relies largely on ingrained actions. They save time and energy and make any task easier. We have only so much willpower. Every decision we force ourselves to make only saps this well a little more. Now, is this trainable? I’m sure that, to some extent, it is. However, as with many things, we may be better off simply keeping the well as full as possible most of the time.

Therefore, try to eliminate as many decisions as possible. Prepare food ahead of time. Develop routines before bed so it becomes easy to go to sleep when you need to and get quality sleep. There are many more, and specifics for everyone will differ. But the important thing is to develop good habits over time, because bad habits become very hard to break.

Doing the Ordinary

“I don’t expect my athletes to do extraordinary things; I expect them to do ordinary things extraordinarily well.” -Loren Landow

It is often unappreciated how important the fundamentals are to sport success. While the flashiness is what most often gets celebrated, it must be realized that all extraordinary performances are built on a solid foundation of fundamentals. Proper technique, ingrained over years and years and thousands of repetitions, lays the groundwork for exceptional performance of those fundamentals at a higher level. This goes back to the concept of stimulate-adapt-stabilize-actualize. Just because a skill has been completed once, does not mean it is readily performed immediately thereafter. It must be always revisited, and further cemented in the athlete’s motor pool. As it is repeatedly practiced, honed, and perfected, it becomes less volitional and more reflexive and instinctual. Once this is the case, it is performed at ever higher intensities and speeds, thus creating the performances you see at the highest levels. Ergo, don’t focus on doing the extraordinary – focus on doing the ordinary so well that it seems extraordinary.