Saturday, 9 June 2012

the next Usain Bolt...

Britain has a new sprint superstar. 
Last week, in Regensburg, Germany, Adam Gemilli ran the 'A' standard for the 2012 London Olympic Games, and the two fastest times in the country this year: 10.11 and 10.08. Adam is 18 years old, and just began full-time sprint training in January of this year. He is destined to become the next Usain Bolt then...right?  
(he's already faster than Usain was at 18)  
Well, not necessarily....

This result, and the emergence of another world-class British junior sprinter (there have been many over the years), got me thinking again about the macro-development of the athlete - how is it that some athletes seem to get faster year on year, while others peter out soon after (or even before) making the jump from junior to senior ranks?  
There is much in the literature regarding the long-term development of athletes (Atko Viru is the leading researcher in this regard, and offers an excellent review of adolescent athlete development and critical windows of trainability in Critical periods in the development of performance capacity during childhood and adolescence. European Journal of Physical Education. 4(1): p. 75-119. 1999 - 

As well, the now well-used (and abused) LTAD (long term athlete development) model developed by Canadian Istvan Balyi is liberally applied throughout the world in various sporting federations (although I feel Balyi’s model is excellent, and - learning as a coach in the Canadian system in the 90s, I was one of the first to be exposed to it -  the evidence of its efficacy is limited - either empirically or scientifically;  if interested, read Ford, P., M.D.S. Croix, R. Lloyd, R. Meyers, M. Moosavi, J. Oliver, K. Till, and C. Williams, The long-term athlete development model: Physiological evidence and application. Journal of Sports Sciences. iFirst article: p. 1–14. 2010 - - for an excellent review).    The LTAD model identifies various key stages of development through an athlete's adolescence; but there is little that speaks specifically of the period after this - i.e. the main professional career of the athlete. 
Although probably not novel, I have developed a three stage macro-development system that identifies key qualities and their relative importance during the athletes' career. Please accept that this is a massive over-generalization, and there are many exceptions to it - but for my simple brain, it helps to organize things in this way. It is truly a work in progress, and there is much to add and refine.  I base the model on what I feel are the limiting factors of the three stages of an athletic career: genetics, programming, and lifestyle.  For those familiar with and/or who follow Balyi’s model, the first stage of my model incorporates the first four stages of his (up to the “training to compete’ stage).
Stage 1: Genetics

This stage follows the athlete from the time they get into the sport, until 'maturity', which normally is between 15 and 17 for girls, and 17 and 19 for boys. The adolescent growth spurt (puberty) occurs as a result of a large increase in the rate of production of growth hormones, thyroid hormone and androgens. During this time, there is also a significant improvement in brain organization - particularly an increase in the rate of myelination in the pre-frontal cortex, positively affecting the efficiency of information processing.  Together, this neurological and endocrinological acceleration accounts for great changes in the young athletes' physical potential. it is here where the talented young athlete will begin separating himself from his peers. 
After this period, the rate at which improvement of these processes occur slows down significantly, and it is this period of 'stabilization' which signifies the end of the first stage in the development model. 
Although the rate at which these changes occur can be affected somewhat by what the young athlete does (I.e. what he eats, how he trains, what he thinks about, etc.,), it is mostly controlled by genetic factors. Although there are exceptions, for the most part, the performance of the athlete will fall between a fairly narrow band-width, no matter his or her coaching and programming situation. The young athlete can get away with having poor nutritional habits, poor mechanics, poor coaching, etc., and still perform to a very high percentage of his or her potential. This is why we see young athletes in all sports succeeding in spite of their programs and coaching situations - genetics is by far the largest indicator of success during this period. 
This is not the case, however, as they continue with their athletic careers. 

Stage 2: 'The Program'

Let's assume that two athletes enter the second stage of their development with everything relevant being equal, including identical genetics. The more successful athlete will be the one with the most successful 'program' - by which I mean, the athlete that has the best coaching, the best therapeutic input, the best strength and conditioning set-up, the best nutrition and supplementation, the best mechanics, etc.  It is for this reason that coaches can have the greatest influences on an athletes' careers during this period. The gifted athlete could effectively float through their adolescence with a poor coach and program, and still enjoy great success, as the coaching will not - for the most part - affect the genetic potential. However, without a good 'program' during stage 2 of their careers, the athlete is doomed to plateau, get injured, become demotivated, and even become worse. It is in this stage where we lose a lot of gifted athletes - athletes that were promising juniors, that for some reason just couldn't make the jump into the senior ranks. This is often put down to bad luck, but truly there is always a quantifiable reason why the athlete does not continue to develop and improve. 
A common mistake that athletes and coaches make during this stage is they continue to do the work that got them there; assuming that the same program that got the athlete to run 10.30 will get the athlete to run 10.20 and 10.10 etc.  but the road that takes you from A to B, will never be the same as the one that takes you from B to C. 
The body does not work that way either.  It is a complex, dynamical system, with complicated causal links and non-linearity in dose-response. It is ever-changing. In fact, the athlete you coach on a Monday is not even the same one you coach on a Tuesday. The inexperienced or naive coach, though, will continue going to the well - continually expecting consistency in results. And instead of the athlete improving year on year, we often produce demotivated and injured athletes, who spend the remainder of their careers rueing their 'lack of luck'
It is essential that the most talented athletes (i.e. the ones who leave the junior ranks as the best performers) are working with the most talented coaches in the best-supported programs as early on in this stage as possible. Otherwise, we get stuck with a bunch of broken, disheartened athletes playing catch-up with their careers. 
For those that do find themselves in good programs, though, there is no reason why they cannot go from strength to strength - it is these athletes that become the Olympic Champions and world record holders. 

Stage 3: Lifestyle

A talented athlete in a good program can continue improving throughout the first part of their senior careers - most will hit a plateau in performance in their late 20s; but what is it that stops continued progress, and is there anything we can do to halt, delay, or aid in this process?
If an athlete is still competitive late into their careers, invariably they begin to pick up more and more external stresses: the successful ones will have more media and sponsor demands and more travel expectations; while both the successful and less successful will need to learn how to adapt to an ever-increasingly complex world. It is during this time when athletes begin to think about getting married and having children, and begin to experience pressures related to money and post-career situations (i.e. what to do with the rest of my life) - life truly begins to get in the way!
Besides assistance from an effective support team - including lifestyle advisors and sport psychologists - we, as coaches can help our athletes extend their careers in a number of ways. 
The body does not necessarily differentiate between stress related to training and stress related to other factors, so in times where we know the athlete has additional external stresses, for instance, we can help to control the overall systemic load by reducing training load. By being clever with how we structure training, coaches can truly add years to the athletes' careers. A strictly regimented and structured training program is no longer necessary, nor optimal. Instead, a more fluid and dynamic program - designed with the specific needs and stresses of the athlete in mind (and usually involving the athlete in the programming process) is most effective. A fluidity in both structure and detail can be very empowering to the veteran athlete, can help to sustain motivation, and will lead to a longer and more healthful career. 

Adam Gemilli is about to enter Stage 2. He is undoubtedly talented, by all accounts has an excellent head on his shoulders, is in a good program, with a good coach, and will assumedly enjoy excellent support services. I very much look forward to watching him moving through the stages, and hopefully developing into a fine world-class sprinter.