Monday, June 25, 2007

Never Let Go of Your Branch!

This is an excerpt from a book I am writing for my figure skating clients called "Champions in Training". Oddly enough, most of the stuff in this book I learned from years of coaching competitive rock climbers! Take the "Skating" part and trade it for the sport you love, or the job you want to succeed at, and give it a try.

All of us who have participated in a sport we loved have at one time wondered why and how the elite got to be that way. What makes Michelle Kwan so special? How is it that she skated so flawlessly from so young an age? And Tiger Woods? And Andre Aggasi? And Tony Hawk?

Some will say that it is genetics, and a propensity to do well in athletics certainly owes something to being born long lean and fast. But not everyone at the top of his or her game is naturally genetically gifted. In fact, in my experience as a coach it is those with the most natural ability who have the hardest time cracking the top 25%.

Why is that? Aren’t Champions born and not made? Isn’t the Olympic Village peopled with those who started skating before they could walk, were born to parents of Olympic prestige themselves, and who had nothing but the best coaching staff dedicated to their every move their entire lives? Not necessarily! Sometimes yes, but mostly, No.

Who wins, then? Who gets to be a champion? Let’s look.

Imagine this: that the triangle below represents everyone in the world who likes to ice skate.

What does it take to make it into the top 5%? Lets start at the bottom of the triangle with everyone. First, you have to like to skate. Then, you’ll probably take some lessons. If you do well and still enjoy it you might start competing. If you like competing, you probably want to win. Lets be honest, even if you DON’T like competing (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t) you probably still like the idea of being a famous well loved awesome ice skater who goes to the Olympics.

Making it from the group of people who compete (the top 50% of people who skate) into the group who does well enough to start training, who have Olympic dreams, who have desire to be the best is right around where I come in.

Stepping into the top30%, joining the group of “contenders”, or people who we can seriously consider as contenders takes something special. Most of us can guess what those things are, but let’s list them so that we know that it is hard work and not magic that gets us there.

• A love of skating
• Understanding that it takes work to improve
• A desire to improve

Lets stop right there. If I love to skate. And I understand that it takes work to get better, and I have a desire to get better, then… You have to learn to love to work!

• A love of the work that will make you better
• Determination to keep working when it gets hard

Have you noticed that I haven’t yet said “A will to win?” That’s because it takes a LOT more than a desire to win to become a champion. If I had to put “Will or Desire to Win” on the triangle above, I would have to put it down at the bottom with “Takes Skating Lessons”!

• Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed
• Get a coach you trust and listen to them

This list will get you into a more elite group. The big question is… how do you get out of this group and into success? The first guess is that the people who rise to the top of this group are naturally gifted.

Let me assure you that is not the case. I have trained people with more natural talent than anyone would know what to do with. I have trained people who had to work a hundred times harder to land a jump that came in a week to a peer. Its true that you need to have an ability to skate, and enough intuition and natural athleticism to master the moves, but what makes a champion?

Lets look at another triangle for the answer:

Here is my golden rule. It takes any combination of two of the above to succeed. That means: Timing (being in the right place at the right time, or more accurately, putting yourself in the right place at the right time) and Persistence are as likely to succeed as Timing and Talent, or Talent and Persistence. Talent alone won’t get you there. Being in the right place at the right time won’t get you there alone.

The top five percent are people who have remembered that, and are smart enough to hang their hat on persistence, keeping talent and timing in mind.

Imagine that all the competitors in the top 30% (All of whom are good enough to qualify for Senior Nationals. They all have triples. They all have put in the time, they all have spent a lot of money and made a lot of sacrifices.) are in a tree, hanging on to branches.

Let’s imagine that to make it to the top 5%, to be a real champion, all you have to do is hang on to your branch when the tree gets shaken.

What shakes the tree?

• Injury
• Failure
• Depression
• Loss of belief in yourself

You have been skating all your life. You and your family have made sacrifices. The last three competitions you have placed in the bottom 5 in the field. You examine your choices and… give up? Or hang on to your branch? What can you do here? Give up and never make the top five, or…

• Talk to your coach
• Make a new strategy
• Go back to basics
• Learn to reinvent yourself
• Hang on

And crack the top 5%. In my experience, everyone in the top 30% is talented to some degree. Everyone has an almost equal chance of becoming a champion, belonging to the top 5. The difference between the groups?

The only difference is that the people in the top 5% didn’t let go of their branch. They have a cantankerous desire to improve that makes them hang on, back up, and find another maze.

Want to be in the top 5? Never let go of your branch.


Anonymous said...

Hi kate,
I met you at Academy this year and you came to the party that I helped throw on the last night. I stumbled upon you blog and I think it is great. As I have recently lost a little spirit with skiing, it is great to hear our story.
Cheers and I would love to hear more about how you over come your sabatoges tendency when you get close to the top.

a said...

Hey, Cindy
Thanks so much! I loved the party by the way, it was a blast. I know what you mean about loosing spirit with skiing, it happens to all of us, and it is one of the things that can shake you out of your tree more than anything else.

I think the secret here is to first, remember what you loved about it. Maybe you need some time away? Maybe you need to teach a little less and play a little more? What did you hope to get out of skiing? Did you stall along the way? Are you feeling like you just can't get to the level you wanted to? Or like you have gotten to where you wanted, and found it lacking?

Taking some time to examine these questions, and talk about them with your friends, or write about them, or even post to this blog about them, can help make things clear for you.

When I get disolusioned, a good brainstorming session often helps me get back on track. For me it usually means I am over training, and that I need to step away, have a little more fun, and reconnect with the part that gives me goosebumps and makes me smile.

Sometimes it just means pushing hard through a plateau, knowing that if I give just THAT much more, I will be able to punch through. The hard thing about this is that when you are doing anything at an elite level, the jumps you make in skill and ability are further apart, and much smaller in degree.

But progress can be made, and it is up to you to find a way to celebrate your wins, find your joy, and put your head down and push through it when you need to.

Feel free to ponder this here on the blog, I think it is a pretty universal problem, and one I wouldn't mind puzzling out with you, because I think all of us can benefit from it!

Good luck, and hang in there.