September 9, 2019

Freakish Athlete – or just freakish dedication?

Written by:
Richard Davies

This blog is written at a crucial stage in the current Ashes series. Steve Smith’s double century is already starting to overshadow the heroics of Ben Stokes’ unbeaten and match winning century at Headingly. Newspaper column inches, social media and water-cooler conversations are rife with conversations about this pair of freakish individuals who’s talent outshines that of all those about them. This piece examines these two players and a few more examples of people described as ‘freaks of nature’.

There is one common theme that is appearing in discussions with all those who ‘know these players best’. In the case of Steve Smith, an interview with Marcus Labuschagne, relatively new to the Australian set up, described Steve Smith as someone who does nothing but bat. Steve Smith’s explanation is that he ‘just loves batting’, and this is the recurring theme expressed by all who know him.

He spends every conceivable hour he has to spare continuing to practice his batting. While conversations seem to dwell on him having extraordinary hand eye coordination as the reason why he can play any bowler so late, it is clear that he spends more time than any of his team members working on his craft. Michael Vaughan sees him as a wizard who seems to know what ball is coming before it is bowled. This trait is extremely similar to the last example in this piece.

In Ben Stokes’ case there was a very interesting conversation between Mark Woods (injured England bowler) and the Test Match Special correspondent. In this chat Mark Woods cited an excellent example of Stokes’ tireless work ethic: as part of the English Cricket contract agreements, players are assessed on a scale from 1 to 10 in different areas of their game. At a review in 2016, while Stokes scored very highly in nearly all aspects of batting, bowling and fielding he was rated as an 8 out of 10 for his fitness.

Stung by this ‘low’ score, he set about improving this rating and spent a huge amount of extra time with conditioning coaches and in the gym. He is now England’s fittest player. This is on top of the fact that he is often named as the player who always stays for extra net batting and bowling. He is also known for practicing those ‘1% catches’ – and consequently takes catches that commentators describe as those ‘only catches Stokes could make’.

I had the very good fortune to coach a team for whom Jamie Dwyer (5 times world hockey player of the year) played for 4 and a half years, and can confidently say he is the hardest working player I have ever worked with. I remember watching him score a goal against France that the tv commentator described as something like ‘a freakish goal that only Dwyer could score’. However, earlier that season, while more often than not  he wasn’t allowed to take part in full training with our club as Australian Hockey monitor all players’ running loads, he did come down to work on his game. He took a crate of balls, borrowed a goalkeeper and for almost an hour practised one particular shooting skill from a particular angle – this was the one that was then almost perfectly executed in the France game – it was no fluke!

Likewise, when he was kind enough to contribute some JDH equipment to a trip I was making to some schools in India, when I tried to catch up with him to sort out some details we arranged to meet at a hockey pitch at 730am. There I found him on his own working through some ball carrying skills before setting off to the Indian Hockey League flying out at 1pm that afternoon.

I recently had a conversation with my wife about Katherine Grainger – now rivalling Steve Redgrave as Britain’s greatest ever rower. She had not rowed before arriving at Edinburgh University. However, once she started, her dedication was exceptional. This is summed up nicely by her own description of being able to push everything else to one side while she made rowing the only priority in her life. It is no coincidence that she has so many Olympic medals, and is also remarkable as she sees her silver medal in Beijing as a huge disappointment that drove her on even harder. She had rowing partners that came and went, but she remained steadfast in her dedication, and with the exception of 2 years sabbatical after London 2012 did everything she could to improve her chances of further Olympic gold medals.

The last example I think is similarly related, but not a sporting and one I came across in a unit on decision making and analysis during my MBA. This was a study that included an interview with a Fire Chief in the US who had been involved in a ‘miraculous’ event in a fire he had attended. During this operation he had entered a burning building with his team where ‘something hadn’t felt right’. He immediately ordered all his firefighters out of the building about 15 seconds before two floors completely collapsed with no apparent warning – this would have almost certainly killed his entire team.

While he initially couldn’t explain his actions, under much further analysis, it became clear that the experience of this man was unparalleled. He had been involved in pretty much every conceivable situation a firefighter could come up against. He was also an extremely respected and experienced leader who was known for his hard work, planning and attention to detail.

What do all five of these people have in common?

Enormous dedication and extraordinary hard work. All are seen as the very top of their field, but most interestingly, when they are discussed in detail, no one can come up with someone of their skill set who works harder. Perhaps regarded as the seminal piece of research is that of K Anders Ericsson who found that 10 000 hours of deliberate practice was at the core of elite athletes’ success. The case of all 5 of the people examined in this blog would seem to back this up - 10 000 hours and then some!

Smith’s apparent prescience and ability to play the ball so late, Stokes’ unmatchable catches and Dwyer’s freak goals are only achievable by them, but I would argue that this is only because they are the only ones practicing them. This should give an exceptionally clear example to young male and female athletes as they strive to become the next standout man or woman in their sport.

They don’t need to be a freak of nature; they do, however, need to be a freak in their determination.

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