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 a great rule, I learned it from Jeffrey Tambour, my acting teacher years ago. The theory is that 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?
• 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.