I have been around the strength/fitness and sports industry for quite a while. In the early to mid 1970s, it was junior high and senior high school sports participation. I went on to be a so-so track and field athlete (pole vaulter) at the University of Iowa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I coached throwers and jumpers during graduate school at Western Illinois University and then pole vaulters at Central Missouri State University as a part-time coach (1983-1984).
I then moved to the University of Florida in 1984 as an assistant strength and conditioning coach and weight-training instructor in the Physical Education Department. I assisted with the football and men’s basketball strength and conditioning programs, and had full control of women’s volleyball, women’s basketball, and men’s and women’s track and field.
In 1988 I assumed the role of head strength and conditioning coach, so Gator football and men’s basketball were the priorities, but I also oversaw women’s basketball. Moving forward to the positions of the head strength and conditioning coach at Southeast Missouri State University (1991-2001), the University of Illinois-Chicago (2001-2004), and Saint Louis University (2004-2008), I have worked with hundreds of male and female athletes in a variety of sports.
Since moving on from the collegiate scene, I now work with law enforcement officers and engage in personal training on the side (not just anyone – only those serious about getting results). The bottom line: I have worked with many athletes/people of varying abilities, from the not very talented, to professionals, to Olympians.
Needless to say, I have seen the full gamut of physical abilities and mental capacities: exceptional abilities (genetic freaks) to average and below-average abilities (genetic trash bags), the tall versus short, the fat versus lean, the strong versus weak, the highly-motivated to the I-don’t-give-a-crap unmotivated, and the go-for-the-throat to the “Oh, that hurts” toughness levels.
Knowing these “continuums,” there are three general qualities that can be used to assess athletes/people:
- Genetics/physical qualities – body type and physical abilities.
- Talent/skill – ability to perform sport skills and mesh within a team.
- Mentality – intelligence level, work ethic, and ability to handle pressure.
Various combinations of the general qualities create eight categories that all people will fall into:
- Good or great genetics/physical qualities + highly talented/skilled + mentally sound.
- Good or great genetics/physical qualities + highly talented/skilled + mentally weak.
- Good or great genetics/physical qualities + lacking talent/skills + mentally sound.
- Good or great genetics/physical qualities + lacking talent/skills + mentally weak.
- Average or below average genetics/physical qualities + highly talented/skilled + mentally sound.
- Average or below average genetics/physical qualities + highly talented/skilled + mentally weak.
- Average or below average genetics/physical qualities + lacking talent/skills + mentally sound.
- Average or below average genetics/physical qualities + lacking talent/skills + mentally weak.
My thoughts on each category:
- I would give my left index finger for these.
- Let me work with them!
- I could use them in some capacity.
- A tough nut to crack.
- I love this type – they will fill a role.
- We will find a place for them.
- Go out for the debate team. Athletics is not your cup of tea.
- They don’t exist, except in some fantasy on a computer game.
The ultimate combination is category one. An individual or team with outstanding physical ability, a high skill level, intelligence, and mental toughness would be hard to beat. Olympic gold medalists, FIFA World Cup, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series, and NBA Finals champions mostly fall into this category. Life would be great for all coaches who have category one athletes year in and year out. However, this is not reality. Even though the goal is to be at category one, one small deviation can mean defeat, and this usually comes down to the mental aspect. Therefore, there is hope for the other categories.
Great athletes normally have outstanding genetics/physical qualities relative to their sport, are very talented and skilled, and when the chips are on the line they are mentally “on.” However, a poor mental error or the inability to be mentally tough can doom even the best specimens.
Here is how to win championships:
- Obtain (recruit/draft/sign) genetically gifted athletes.
- Hone and refine their sport-skills and their ability to work within the team.
- COACH THEM PROPERLY, EDUCATE THEM, AND MAKE THEM MENTALLY TOUGH.
- Hope that luck is on your side, as many championships are won or lost due to uncontrollable issues ( think Jeffery Maier, the Tuck Rule, or U.S.A. versus Soviet Union in 1972 Olympic basketball).
If you are not a genetically-gifted athlete, skilled and/or mentally sound – or you cannot recruit/draft/sign those of that ilk – there is still hope. This is where the other categories enter the picture. There are plenty of these people out there. If you are one of these, here is how you can improve your chances of becoming a champion:
- Category 2: You’re genetically gifted, talented but mentally weak. Seek a sports psychologist.
- Category 3: Work on your skills. Hire a specialist. Practice, practice, practice.
- Category 4: You have innate ability. Time to work overtime on your skills and mental acumen.
- Category 5: Your type is plentiful. You can make a difference. Keep busting your butt in the weight room, in conditioning, and at practice sessions.
- Category 6: You are a rare breed. Look in the mirror and decide if you want your abilities to make a difference.
- Category 7: Cheerleader. Not much hope. Sorry.
- Category 8: Keep your season tickets and best of luck playing video games.
Whatever your situation, heed this advice if you want to become a champion:
Do everything you can to improve yourself – practice hard, refine your skills, study the game/your opponent, improve your strength, speed, conditioning, body composition, and become mentally sound. Essentially, do everything you can to improve yourself (sans drug use), work your butt off, and keep a positive attitude. If anything, you’ll at the least maximize whatever raw material you possess.
In conclusion, here is the easiest route to winning championships:
- Be genetically gifted
- Stay healthy
- Refine your skills
- Become mentally sound
- Hope for good luck