11 February 2016

Trapped in the Wrong Body: Recycling Talent in Elite Sport

Daniel Gallan 

What if the next global superstar is playing the wrong sport? How many world champions and gold medallists were saved by switching codes? Talent transfer, or talent recycling, is when an athlete abandons their primary sport for another in the pursuit of new challenges and glory. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is the world’s leader when it comes to talent transfer and they, along with adaptable coaches and athletes, ensure Australia remains a global sporting powerhouse. 

 Australia's Emma Lincoln-Smith starts a training run for the women's skeleton event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia.  Image supplied by Action Images / Tony Gentile

Australia's Emma Lincoln-Smith starts a training run for the women's skeleton event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia. Image supplied by Action Images / Tony Gentile

It may pain you to hear this, but much of the cult-classic film Cool Runnings (1993) was largely fictionalised. While four Jamaicans did compete in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary as the first bobsled team from their Caribbean island, the rest is unfortunately Disney fabrication.

The team never carried their sled after they crashed, they never faced any of the hostility portrayed in the film, they never came anywhere near a medal (of their three completed runs, Jamaica’s highest placing was 24th out of 26) and most upsetting of all, they never once psyched themselves up before a run with the famous mantra, “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time”.

Even the way the athletes were recruited was novelized. Not one member of the team was an elite sprinter as portrayed in the film. In fact, not one elite sprinter was interested in the experiment so the brains trust behind the concept turned to the military instead.

So while we might never get the chance to see the likes of Usain Bolt or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in spandex sliding down a tube of ice, there is a real life example of talent transfer that involved athletes from an island way out of their comfort zone.

In August 2004, without much drama and with very different accents, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) conducted an athletic experiment by gambling on non-sport-specific athleticism.

AIS scientists had their sights on the 2006 Winter Games in Turin with a particular focus on women’s skeleton:  a sport similar to bobsledding in the sense that an athlete races down a steep hill of ice - only alone and head first on their belly.

Many of the scientists had never seen the sport before let alone trained an athlete to compete at the highest level. What they did have was the knowledge that the beginning sprint accounted for about half of the variation in total race time.

So began the search for Australia’s women’s skeleton team. The AIS scoured the land for athletic women who were both small enough to fit on the tiny sled and crazy enough to contemplate doing what the sport actually entailed.

26 athletes were invited to AIS headquarters to undergo training. These women came from a variety of sporting codes including gymnastics, water skiing, athletics and surf lifesaving (a sport that combines various beach activities such as running on sand, kayaking and rowing on the open sea). None had ever competed in skeleton.

Jason Gublin, then physiologist at the AIS, told David Epstein in The Sports Gene (2013), “It was a real curiosity to dump basically beach babes in skeleton who had never done it before.”

The new athletes exceeded all expectations with Melissa Hoar - a former beach sprinter - winning an u23 championship and Michelle Steele – previously an elite gymnast – making it all the way to the Turin Games. Their incredible story is chronicled in the documentary Nerves of Steel (2006) and in the AIS paper Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months (2009).

Australia has a relatively small population when compared to other sporting powerhouses such as the USA, China, Russia and Great Britain. Juanita Weissensteiner, the Acting Head of Athlete Pathways and Development at the AIS, believes it is Australia’s small population that has driven sports practitioners to find innovative and sophisticated means of producing talent. One such innovation is talent transfer.

“We’re constantly learning and refining our tactics and talent identification models,” Weissensteiner says. “We make sure that we never leave a stone unturned. You never know where a gold medal might be.”

Weissensteiner refers to talent transfer as “talent recycling” as she points out the first requirement for successful talent transfer is sound physical literacy. Athletes are encouraged to sample in various sports right up the final stages of the AIS FTEM (Foundation, Talent, Elite and Mastery) framework. By doing so, athletes not only develop a holistic physical literacy but also ensure that all doors remain open should the opportunity to transfer arise.

 Sarah Cook (r) and Elise Rechichi in action. Both women will have their sights firmly set on Rio.

Sarah Cook (r) and Elise Rechichi in action. Both women will have their sights firmly set on Rio.

James Magnussen is the current 100m freestyle world champion and while he may be dreaming of adding to his 2 Olympic medals later this year in Rio, he once had his mind set on another sport. Magnussen was an avid rugby league player throughout his childhood and simply swam to keep fit during rugby’s off-season. Only when he turned 17 did he realise his path to success would be found in the pool and made the switch.

According to Julian Jones, Head of Strength and Conditioning for Performance Preparation at the AIS, if Magnussen hadn’t sampled swimming in the manner he had, he would never have been world champion. “If an athlete hasn’t attempted the sport they’re switching to by the time they’re 17 or 18, they’ll be pushing uphill,” Jones says. “Those who have been successful almost always have a touch point for the new sport.”

Athletes looking to transfer may have hit a ceiling in their primary sport or might be looking for a new challenge. Whatever the reason for the switch, it is a gruelling process for both the athlete and the coaches involved. As Weissensteiner says, “In order for talent transfer to be successful, we need full buy-in from the coach as well as the athlete. After that, we need to make sure that they both tick all the required boxes.”

Apart from a competent physical literacy that lends itself to the sport’s specific physical requirements, athletes also need to possess the right psychological aptitude for the transfer. Weissensteiner explains that the AIS have had the most success with mature athletes who have experience as an elite or near-elite athlete in a previous sport. She says, “If they’ve been through that journey before, and understand what it is like to be a high performance athlete, we assume they have the right psychological make-up for the transfer.”

Talent transfer athletes are not expected to perform as well as athletes who have trained in the sport for many years, but the inevitable frustration that the early struggles bring must be tempered. Small successes are encouraged and micro goals are set. Fast tracking is not a policy that the AIS adopt and both athletes and coaches have to be realistic about their expectations.

Sarah Cook was an Olympic rower in Australia’s women’s coxed eight at the London 2012 Games. After a serendipitous encounter with Elise Rechichi - an elite sailor -  on the flight home, Cook decided to hang up her oars in favour of sailing. 

Rechichi won gold at Beijing in 2008 and was looking for a tall strong woman to join her and Cook wanted a new challenge and an opportunity to fulfil her lifetime ambition of winning a medal.

“I knew I wanted to go to Rio but I didn’t know what sport and sailing was an option after I spoke to the coaches two years ago,” Cook told the Sydney Morning Herald. Weissensteiner explains that when Cook approached her with the transfer in mind, they both set realistic goals over set periods of time. Cook explained that if she couldn’t reach those goals, she would accept that the transfer wouldn’t work. This maturity from the athlete is crucial and is honed after years of elite competition.

Certain sports lend themselves to talent transfer better than most. “Donor sports”, as they’re known, are sports that build an eclectic physical literacy without being too skills orientated. Gymnastics is the best donor sport and has acted as a donor for multiple Australian Olympic and World Champions in rowing, aerial skiing and canoeing. Gymnastics builds natural proprioceptive responses which translates well into other sports.

Sports where success is measured in centimetres, grams or seconds are known as CGS Sports and include most Olympic sports such as track and field events, weightlifting and swimming. These sports allow for talent transfer much more than skill-based sports such as cricket or ice hockey as they are more physiologically based. In order to be successful in skill-based sports, extensive sampling is required as they often have a larger perceptual anticipatory element to them such as picking up the length of a ball or finding space on field filled with opposing defenders. These skills need to be developed through experience.

That doesn’t mean that success in one CGS sport guarantees success in another. Nor does it mean that naturally gifted athletes can slot into any sport at random. “Sometimes, physical abilities don’t even account for 50% of what’s needed for success,” says Jones. “Coping with pressure, decision making abilities, learning from defeat, understanding the nuances of the sport; these are the elements that make a champion athlete.” Certain variables simply can’t be replicated in training and require years of experience in a particular sport.

Both Weissensteiner and Jones lament the diminishing numbers of young athletes participating in sports across the globe. They also cite an unfounded assumption amongst many young athletes and their parents that early specialisation provides more tangible path to success. As a result, talent identification and development for the AIS is multi-faceted and extends beyond talent transfer.

“With our FTEM framework, we’re getting sports to look at their pathways from development to elite and we’re getting those sports to fill in the gaps wherever they may be,” Weissensteiner says. “We work with 20-30 national sporting organisations and we’re all working together to ensure the success of Australian sport.”

The successes that the AIS have had with talent transfer attests to their ability to identify talent and develop it in the sport that it is best suited. The AIS is an example of how a nation can overcome certain limitations (in this case, its population) and punch above its weight with intelligent strategies, and an open mind to alternative pathways. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.