26 February 2016

The Rocky Road to the Top: Why Talent Needs Trauma

Daniel Gallan

In elite sport, the road to the top is a long and arduous journey. It needs to be filled with sacrifice and commitment, with more than a fair share of luck and talent. Even then, success is not guaranteed. It seems counter-intuitive, but failure is vital for success. Without it, athletes are ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable shortfalls and challenges that are part of the game. If an athlete is progressing along a linear path to the top, it is crucial that an obstacle is placed in the way. 

Wladimir Klitschko (r) is counted against Lamon Brewster in the 5th round of their WBO heavyweight title fight in 2004. Few could have predicted that the Ukrainian would go on to win 22 consecutive fights, including the rematch with Brewster. His ability to pick himself after failure is an example to all aspiring athletes.  Image supplied by Action Images / Steve Marcus. 

Wladimir Klitschko (r) is counted against Lamon Brewster in the 5th round of their WBO heavyweight title fight in 2004. Few could have predicted that the Ukrainian would go on to win 22 consecutive fights, including the rematch with Brewster. His ability to pick himself after failure is an example to all aspiring athletes. Image supplied by Action Images / Steve Marcus. 

“I’ve missed more than 9 000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

-          Michael Jordan

The above quote from one of the greatest athletes of all time has been reused ad nauseam whenever someone needs a lift after defeat or disappointment. Whether a high school coach is trying to motivate a struggling team or a caring parent is consoling a child who has failed for the first time, Jordan’s is a one-size-fits-all phrase for anyone looking to rebound after being knocked down.

Sentimental as it may be, there appears to be more than a modicum of truth in His Airness’ motivational mantra. It turns out that elite athletes need failure in order to succeed. Without certain obstacles on the path to success, talented and gifted athletes fail to reach the top.

Since 1998, Professor David Collins from the University of Central Lancashire has been studying developmental pathways and the psychological characteristics found in successful athletes. In 2012, Collins, along with Áine MacNamara, a colleague at the university’s Institute of Coaching and Performance, published a paper called The Rocky Road to the Top: Why Talent Needs Trauma. They found that the talent pathway should not be an easy route. Instead, “It should offer a variety of lessons to be learnt through both explicit and implicit means.”

These lessons come in the form of challenges (traumas) which are necessary for developing athletes. Without them, Collins argues, young athletes are ill-equipped to handle the inevitable failure that all athletes face. “The road to success is non-linear and is paved along the way with challenges and holes and obstacles,” Collins says. “If a young athlete is progressing along a linear path, knock him down! Developing athletes need to encounter challenges and failures otherwise they’ll never learn.”

According to Collins, young athletes who progress along an upward linear trajectory without challenge are much more likely to fail. There must be countless examples of promising performers who swept aside all before them, winning trophies and titles along the way, only to hit a stumbling block just before they progressed to an elite level. These athletes never encountered a significant challenge to their ability and when that time finally came, they failed. Without an ingrained knowledge that failure is part of success, these athletes are hit hard and never fully recover.

It is imperative to equip developing athletes with the understanding that it is impossible to succeed all the time. Through these experiences, and the lessons and skills developed to overcome them, young athletes are able to bounce back after defeat with the required hunger and drive that is vital to achieving success at the highest level. As Collins says, “The emphasis in not on how many challenges an athlete encounters, but how many crucial skills he or she develops.”

This is achieved through cycles of periodised and progressive challenges, preceded and associated with specific skill development.  The first step involves taking a promising athlete and throwing a challenge his/her way. This can involve playing the athlete in a higher age group or in a tournament where success is not guaranteed. It can include focusing on a particular variable in their game where they are not naturally strong such as the weaker foot of a football player or a certain club for a golfer. A coach might raise expectations in training or demand extra hours in the gym. Whatever the case, development needs obstacles. Failure should not be seen as disappointing, for without it, the next and most vital step on the Rocky Road would be impossible.

After failure, or at the very least a demanding physical and mental excursion, the athlete and coach need time to reflect on what went wrong and how to improve performances in the future.  It’s no use to simply throw challenge after challenge at a developing athlete. Eventually he/she will succumb to pressure and suffer from psychological or physiological blow-out. The challenge is only as successful as the lesson learned.

Collins is quite clear on what to look for during this period of consideration. “The kids who go on to make it at the elite level are the ones that admit to their failures and focus on where to improve,” he says. “The ones that are either daunted by the obstacles or unable to process where things went wrong are never going to make it.”

This understanding led to a more recent paper where Collins and MacNamara were joined by Neil McCarthy, a former England rugby union hooker and current Head of Academy at Gloucester Rugby. In Super Champions, Champions and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road (2016), Collins et al conducted a series of retroactive interviews with athletes to determine how certain challenges impacted success. Athletes were divided into three groups: those who had achieved sustained success at international level (Super Champions), athletes who were on the cusp of international level (Champions) and athletes who were on the fringes of franchise and domestic level (Almosts). They then created a graphic timeline of each athlete’s development in their different sports. Athletes were grouped in matching trios according to their sport, nationality and ethnic group to minimise the differences between Super Champions, Champions and Almosts.

The study revealed that there was a lack of discrimination in terms of trauma, or at least in the perception of trauma, across the athlete categories. Instead, the findings suggest that the differences between levels of achievement relate more to what the athletes bring to the challenges than what they experience. In other words, how the athletes responded to challenges and the lessons they learned from them determined how successful they would be.

Andre Schurrle celebrates with the FIFA World Cup trophy after Germany defeated Argentina in the 2014 World Cup. 

Andre Schurrle celebrates with the FIFA World Cup trophy after Germany defeated Argentina in the 2014 World Cup. 

The study showed that on the graphic timeline, all athletes, at some stage, encountered a drop in either performance or perceived ability. However, all Super Champions climbed back up after they fell and more importantly, climbed higher than they were before they fell. This up and down approach enabled the Super Champions to become accustomed to falling and developed an ability to bounce back higher. These athletes either encountered injury, loss of form or exclusion from team and competition, but they all recovered to achieve success at the elite level.

The Almosts, athletes who never reached the summit of their sport, also encountered setbacks, but these athletes were unable to climb back up. One reason for this is that many Almosts never encountered any challenges on their way up and when that first obstacle was encountered, they lacked the cognitive ability and experience to rise to the challenge.

As one Almost interviewed for the study said, “I just went year to year, stage to stage and everything was great” while another admitted, “Things came so easily to me… the skills, techniques, tactics… I felt no pressure and really agreed when everyone told me ‘you’re a natural.’” This is arguably the most dangerous mind-set for a developing athlete. This athlete is unable to acknowledge a need for improvement and can easily associate failure on the field with a failure of character or ability.

Athletes need to be made aware that progress is non-linear and that there will always periods of decline. Many Almosts believe that the first step of their temporary decline is in fact the first stage of a descent from which there can be no return. Collins points out, “Two athletes might be at different stages of their progression. One athlete might be on an upswing and another on a downswing. It’s important to acknowledge this as they could both still be potential Super Champions. It’s important for the athlete on the downswing not to get despondent and to keep working.”

André Schürlle, who has 49 caps and 20 goals for the German national football team, very nearly didn’t make it at an elite level. A fantastic junior player, Schürlle regressed around the age of 16 to the point where he had to drop down from the national set-up to regional club competition. Because the German Football Association understand that talent development is non-linear, and have a system in place where athletes who regress are able to rise back up, the young man now has a long and promising career ahead of him.

If Schürlle had given up or curbed his training and commitment, which would have been understandable, he would have never lifted the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio. It was his perseverance through the first major challenge of his career that made him the player he is.

Athletes that are able to embrace challenge with enthusiasm are able to learn from their shortcomings and improve on their mistakes. Through introspection, they can tweak the finer variables of their game, thus making them more accomplished athletes.

Those who are not surprised by failure and seek new challenges once they have reflected on that failure are the athletes that bring glory to themselves and their team. It may sound simple in theory, maybe even obvious to us who are not at the coalface of talent development, but the ability to cycle through challenge, failure, reflection and improvement in a positive and refining manner, makes all the difference on the rocky road to the top. 


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