June 2018 Volume 15

What it Takes to Become an Olympic Athlete - A Review

Michael O. Walters
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“What it Takes to Become and Olympic Athlete: 15 Essentials According to a Two Time Olympian by Nick Catlin” published by Jen Reviews ( https://www.jenreviews.com/olympic-athlete/ ) examines talent, practice, support network, coaching, selfishness, luck, mental toughness, physical robustness, physiologists and physiotherapists, money, time, preparation, nutrition, and distractions.

The article hit some key points which I agree with. Even then, there are anomalies and additional factors I think worth examining.

Talent is obviously an important criterion for sports and academics. In terms of academics, different people have different capabilities. Some people are “sharp” and will sit in a lecture room and absorb the lectured material without any effort. Others will not get it and will have to work hard to understand basic concepts, if they do eventually understand.

Culture and religion may also impede the learning process. If one’s culture or religion teaches that some scientific concepts you learn in school are wrong, it is difficult to overcome such an obstacle. Similarly, if your culture teaches that women should not be active participants in sports, then women’s talent in sports may never be explored.

American Samoa produces excellent football players that do well in the American colleges and NFL and an American Samoan male is 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than an American non-American Samoan. ( https://www.forbes.com/sites/leighsteinberg/2015/05/21/how-can-tiny-samoa-dominate-the-nfl/#76786cccbfbb ).

They are known to be strong and yet very quick (physical robustness) insinuating something in their genetic makeup. Yet the people in neighboring Samoa with the same genetic makeup are not into football. American Samoa is American and football is important. The people in neighboring Samoa was a colony of New Zealand where the focus is on rugby, hence they do well in rugby.

Now with such speed and power for football in American Samoa, how come the women with the same genetic makeup are not great in any sports? You see, it is not a cultural thing for the women of American Samoa to be heavily involved in sports.

Obviously, talent is important but needs to be explored. Usain Bolt of Jamaica, the Olympic world record holder in the 100 and 200 meters, spent his younger days playing cricket and football (soccer) and never even thought much of track. It was his cricket coach who noticed Bolt’s talented speed and urged him to try track ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usain_Bolt ). He was very talented yes, but this is where a bit of luck came with the recognition and direction provided by the cricket coach.

“Practice makes perfect” is one of the most misleading things I have heard. For some people it may help, for others the talent is just not there. Practice ( prepare) all you want (time) but you will never by a Tiger Woods, Serena or Venus Williams. Speaking of these three, their dads started them from a very early age and practice they did. Did their dad’s see something in them from so young that they realized they only needed to cultivate it for perfection? I do not know the answer to this, but I can tell you that no matter how young you start some kids, they will never be professional in a specified sport. On the other-hand many of us may be excellent at some things if our parents start us early.

Maybe I will blame my parents for me not being a Tiger Woods. Perhaps if I had proper support network from my parents I would be. Yet some people are successful Olympians without much support network because of socio-economic factors. No parents or parents with cars to shuttle them to practice etc. Basically, these athletes are on their own but very highly motivated.

A gene named the ACTN3 protein is mentioned in the article as providing an advantage for track prowess, but how does that explain the differences in Olympic success from people of similar races or mixtures of races? Why have Jamaica done so well although there are other Caribbean Islands were the races are almost identical and the culture very similar with those of the same colonial powers?

The New York Times in an article “The secret of Jamaican Runners” identifies the Inter-Secondary Sports Association Boys and Girls Championship, an annual competition attended by 30,000 wildly enthusiastic fans as a major factor. Jamaica is perhaps the only country in the world where a track and field meet is the premier sporting event. ( https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/opinion/sunday/the-secret-of-jamaicas-runners.html ).

Money definitely helps in the ability to afford the best coaches and equipment. Yet the Kenyans have historically done well in long distance running on shoe-string budgets. Maybe this is an element of selfishness and the need to do the very best; in other words, beat all the competition. Usain Bolt demonstrated this by the big “ole” smile on his face as he crossed the finish line before the others with the selfish “I win, you lose” mentally; and that is what competition is all about.

Mental toughness , an important element is best demonstrated by Olympic gold medal winner, Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser Price. The look of determination on her face as she edges out the competition is unmistakable. If you do not have the determination to win, you won’t. This is an element that good coaching can instill in an athlete. Furthermore, money is an incentive for winning races. First you make your name known in the Olympics, then you are free to perform in lucrative track meets. A person who is poor has more of an incentive to win in comparison to one who is already rich.

Physiologists and Physiotherapists are correctly pointed out as an important element. Obviously, a body needs to be in top form physically. In recent years there have been more studies and applications to utilize physics to develop proper techniques. Proper nutrition is correctly pointed out as an element necessary for good performance and distractions are to be avoided.

An element not pointed out is discipline. Too often athletes do not do well because they do not have the discipline to listen to the coach and in general, prepare. Some think they are so good that they do not need the discipline.

One thing I noted is that the article did not include the word passion. It was the billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Mark Cuban who said, one of the great lies in life is follow your passions. Yes, to be successful, you must have a passion for the sport, yet the other factors like talent sometimes override your passion. Mark said he used to be very passionate to be a baseball player, but then he realized he had a 70-mile an hour fastball in comparison to the 90 plus miles per hour of professionals. He was also passionate about being a professional basketball player until he realized he only had a 7-inch vertical jump compared to NBA players with over 40 inches. ( https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/16/mark-cuban-follow-your-passion-is-bad-advice.html .

A very good article indeed, but we must not forget socio-economic factors, a strong motivator especially for people in the developing world.

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