Friday, August 10, 2012

Lessons From London

The Olympics draw to a close this weekend and I just wanted to share a few observations I had over the past few weeks.

The Olympics draw in nearly everyone to watch whether it’s because of the spectacle, the relatively infrequent occurrence (every four years) makes it feel like a special event and I believe most of us watch with a strong sense of patriotism as we pull for Team USA.  The conversations I have had the past couple of weeks with people that were genuinely interested in the Olympics extended from teenagers to grandparents.

What always captures my attention is not only the diverse viewership but the diversity of the athletes as well.  Look at the gold medal winning women’s beach volleyball team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings.  Misty looks compact and strong while Kerri is long and lanky.  Yet together they make a world-class team.  The “fastest” man in the world; Usain Bolt is a long limbed, explosive athlete who is seemingly chiseled from granite.  While American marathon runner Ryan Hall is a very slight 5’10 weighing in at 134 pounds but he can run all day long.  Michael Phelps has the wingspan of a pterodactyl, while his team USA rival Ryan Lochte is a compact 6’1 194 pounds.

What this points to is that even within the same sport body types can vary even at the elite levels of competition.  While it makes sense for tall long limbed athletes like Phelps or Bolt to play basketball I doubt they would have attained the level of success that they achieved if that had gone that route.  Which brings me to my main point with all of this; diversity and exposure are key variables for developing young athletes.

Size and shape can be an advantage in certain sports but they are not the limiting factors we have been lead to believe and the Olympics are a perfect example of this.  When kids are young rather than early specializations in one-sport kids should be exposed to a variety of sports and activities.  This will allow them to build a strong foundation of athleticism and eventually to develop into sport masters like we see in the Olympics.   But if the athletic foundation is to narrow that mastery will very likely never be attained.  Not to mention with this diverse exposure at a young age kids will naturally gravitate toward the sports they are the best at.  If a kid enjoys something they are very likely good at it and this enthusiasm for the sport will keep them motivated to consistently improve.  And consistent improvement over the long-term is the best way to attain sport specific success when the athlete is fully mature and the stakes are the highest.

In America we tend to focus on sports such as baseball, hockey, football and soccer for the development of our young athletes but if you expose kids to variety of activities early on they just may discover a love and passion for a sport that isn’t on our radar.  Water polo anyone…

I have written in the past about the lack of role models for female athletes.  However, every four years the Olympics provide a terrific opportunity to showcase female athletes.

So as a coach if I can highlight something an elite level female is doing to improve her health and performance I want to point that out.

Natalie Coughlin is tied for the most career medals won by an American woman with 12.  She won a bronze in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the Olympics in London last Saturday night.

This is not a topic that I have delved into in the past but one of the reasons men and women work out is to feel good about the way they look.  The physical benefits achieved from training go far beyond muscle tone and improved sport skill.

Many of the same things that aid Coughlin in her training also help her beauty routine.

"Eating well and taking care of your body is the No. 1 most important thing for good hair, good skin and good nails," she says. "Your nutritional needs show up on your hair, skin and nails."

Her diet is a lot of fruits and vegetables, and she calls green smoothies, filled with kale, spinach, parsley, bananas and coconut water, her "secret weapon."

"It's a way to eat a gigantic salad in a condensed way," she explains. [1]

Many teen-age girls may have a negative perception about being physically active.   They may fear that it might “bulk” them up with gross looking muscles or they may perceive that it isn’t very “cool” or lady-like for them to sweat.  While the bulking up thing is very unlikely due to low levels of hormones like testosterone in females the idea that a woman is less than a lady if she sweats is just as preposterous.

That said, sometimes we have to meet the children where they are at instead of telling them they are wrong a better approach would be to appeal to their sense of self and let them know the other benefits associated with practicing a healthier lifestyle.

If I have to convince a young girl to train because I want her to reduce her risk of on field injury and ensure that she will develop into a fit and healthy young woman by telling her that it will make her hair, skin and nails look awesome I am going to do that.   I will give her what she wants while also providing her with what I know she will need in the long run.  With this approach everybody wins!


Another key lesson that can be gleaned from London for developing young athletes is dealing with failure.

A big part of reality is that most of the athletes that go to the Olympic games to compete, will not head home with a medal. A majority of the athletes at the Olympic games will end their Olympic career in defeat. Does that mean that they are a failure? No, not at all but it does mean that dealing with failure or defeat is part of choosing to be an athlete.   And how they respond to failure will ultimately determine whether or not they will be successful not only on the field of play but in the game of life as well.

Learning to deal with defeat, or setbacks in competition or training is part of being an athlete. Young athletes who learn this lesson and are coached up on it can benefit greatly by embracing the idea that each defeat is just another opportunity to get better.

We all cringe when the young gymnast falls to the mat and we lament that she just lost her opportunity to win a medal.  But the only really loss occurs if she runs and hides and allows that one mistake to define who and what she is as a person.  We can use failure as an opportunity to strengthen our character or we can allow it to use us and it will eventually eat at our self-esteem.

Standing tall after mistakes is the mark of true champion! 

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