In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explains how greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. He describes the three key elements that work together to form myelin, a microscopic neural substance that adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to your movements and thoughts. The three things: Deep Practice (specific kinds of practice can increase skill up to ten times faster than conventional practice. 10,000 hours of deep practice leads to world class skills), Ignition (not just motivation but a higher level of commitment – passion – that accelerates development) and Master Coaching (the world’s most effective teachers do things differently, and better, than the rest).
Coyle shows that it’s not just money or location or any of the usually cited things that determine whether someone is world class. It’s a good read and I recommend any aspiring coach get hold of a copy, read it properly and apply the lessons immediately. Another excellent work on the same topic is Bounce, by Matthew Syed. It’s also worth reading from cover to cover.
A study on this New Zealand’s so-called elite athletes would be fascinating. I’d suggest our rugby players, netballers, leaguies et al, wouldn’t need to come anywhere near the approach explained in The Talent Code because the measure of what is world class in those sports would be far less than what it takes to be world class in sports like cycling, basketball, football or tennis. Why? Because the global depth of talent in rugby, netball and league is negligible, so you don’t even need to be all that good of a sportsperson (defined using a global scale) to be considered a great in any of those sports.
I’m not for a second suggesting the people representing our country at these sports don’t work hard. I’m sure they do and I’m sure they’ve put in the hard yards. It’s just that those hard yards wouldn’t stack up if these sportspeople wanted to emulate what athletes like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo have achieved. We’re talking two completely different concepts of excellence here. Our rabidly improving group of cyclists, on the other hand, will know exactly what’s required to be the best.
Anyway, bringing this right back to something that’s close to my heart: how do we improve the quality of talent coming through the footballing ranks in New Zealand? It won’t be easy, of course, but I believe it all starts with our levels of expectation. Every young player, parent, club coach and fan must expect more and contribute more. I know we can’t just flick a switch and make that happen, and I know we’re infected by the ‘just enough is good enough’ outlook I explained above, but we have to try. And if we fail then we try in another way. And again, and again, and again.
My personal interest in this is the rapid growth of my two sons (man, they grow up quick!). As a parent it’s my duty to set standards and expectations, show them the way and support them 100% in what they choose to do. Naturally, they’ll both choose to be footballers, so I’m going to have to ensure they have the best opportunity of reaching that goal. And I’d prefer they aim to be like Xavi or Messi rather than some journeyman international sportsman like many who represent our country.
I’ve got my work cut out for me.