Does anyone really know how to produce a champion? Part I
Did Erik Spoelstra suddenly become a worse basketball coach when Lebron James left the Miami Heat? Was Bill Belichick a bad coach when he got fired from the Cleveland Browns, and will he have the same success after Tom Brady retires?
Would Phil Jackson have won 11 NBA titles if he was the coach at the Minnesota Timberwolves or was his timing just impeccable? Is Boris Becker responsible for Novak Djokovic’s recent domination, or would John Smith be having the same impact on Novak’s game?
These are just a few examples of why I am a little dubious about how much impact a coach really has over elite athletes and who is truly responsible for athletic success at the highest levels. It obviously depends on the sport but in some sports I just don’t believe it matters as much as we seem to think.
Portuguese soccer, Spanish tennis, Hungarian shot putting…….I hear a lot about pathways to athletic excellence and have read countless books upon the topic. Every time a country produces a couple of champions in a sport, everyone loves to talk about the system this federation adopted and how we need to copy the exact same pathway in order to achieve the same results. Coaches get a lot of praise and are paid vast sums of money to write books and give presentations about their “system” of greatness. They get wooed by other federations and teams to sprinkle their magic dust and create the next batch of champions.
Then, when you put these same coaches in a different culture with a fresh staff, and a hundred other new factors, they don’t produce the same results. There are plenty of recent examples like David Blatt at the Cleveland Cavaliers and Louis Van Gal’s time at Manchester United. Did these coaches suddenly lose their coaching prowess? I don’t think so! It is just the nature of sports at the top levels.
So what does make a Champion? There are too many variables to keep track of when it comes to producing individual champions or championship winning teams; luck being one of them. I am absolutely not saying that the coach is irrelevant, but I do believe that at the highest levels in most sports it has very little to do with the coach and everything to do with the individual players.
There are always improvements that can be made to nurture and develop talented players. However, many unique nuisances or chain of events need to align for truly great athletes to succeed at a world class level. There are factors deep within societies, far beyond the scope and knowledge of anyone to truly comprehend and be able to mitigate when trying to produce champion athletes.
If you speak to the top 100 tennis players in the world, you will see that each one has a completely different story to tell. Some come from wealth while others have very limited means. Some had success as juniors, others have been slogging away well into their late twenties. Some like to lift heavy weights, others do Pilates.
The list is endless and you will rarely find two players who have experienced the same path. Ultimately, this type of achievement depends upon the individual’s talents and how passionate, desperate, and hungry they are to make it. There are plenty of talented players out there who have all the physical and technical attributes to win.
The question, though, is this: who truly has the one-in-a-million mindset and collection of necessary life lessons to do the hard, lonely work day in day out while relentlessly believing in what they can accomplish despite any setbacks?
Of course, there are things we can do as a nation/ federation/academy/coach to help with the process and these players are no doubt going to need guidance along the way, but at what ages does it really matter?
I am really impressed with the LTAD (Long Term Athletic Development) guidelines and I hope every country does better to adopt these general principles so that we have athletes playing a lot of sports in their early years. Yet at the end of the day, trying to create the next Roger Federer is like trying to create the next Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet or Michael Jackson. It has to happen organically.
When it comes to tennis development, I believe the more people we have playing tennis, the more likely we are to produce great champions. While there may be exceptions to this rule, it is always a great place to start. Tennis is a difficult sport and kids are eager for instant proficiency and success these days. If enough children play, then the elite will rise to the top as they always do. Most importantly, if we have a lot of children playing and loving our sport, then our sport is in good hands for a long time to come.
The best and brightest usually find a way to succeed despite their limited resources, lack of opportunities to compete, or outdated equipment and facilities. Furthermore, I contend that these very challenges could potentially contribute to the breakthroughs these athletes make.
Let’s stop worrying so much about identifying the most talented individual player and figure out what we need to do to grow our sport for decades to come. Our energies as an industry would be best spent figuring out exactly how we are going to get more children playing the sport and keeping them involved for the rest of their lives.
My opinion is that we are, at times, rewarding and praising the wrong coaches and “development systems”. We need to find ways to reward and praise those heavily involved in the grassroots of tennis. Increase their access to adequate equipment, coaching education and filter more time and money to increase the efficiency of their jobs so they may affect twice as many children as they do. Personally, the coaches I most admire are the ones with a copious amount of passion for developing young athletes and getting them excited about what tennis has to offer.
Another reason why I love college tennis is because it keeps players in the game longer and involved in the sport. Tennis is a very global sport and at times I see coaches, federations, academies, or colleges make decisions in their own self-interest and not necessarily in the interest of their players and their sport.
To be continued. Part II of this blog will come out next week where I expand on some of these thoughts and talk more about the role of tennis federations in the development of players.