Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Science of Excellence

The Science of Excellence
by Dr. Randy Borum
First Published in Black Belt Magazine, August, 2008

Sport psychology is only one of the sport science disciplines to advance remarkably over the past 25 years. Mental skills training can improve any martial artist’s performance, whether for a beginner or an experienced practitioner. But the competitive “edge” is usually most significant at the elite levels of competition where fractions of a second and fractions of a point determine the winners.

Elite athletes are generally defined as those who compete professionally or on National and International teams. This designation suggests the individual has acquired a high level of expertise in his or her sport. Sport expertise is a topic of great interest to sport psychologists. But what creates “expertise”? Research shows that some of the key factors are: Lots of deliberate practice, high-level coaching, ongoing 360-degree view of the athlete, and a supportive yet challenging training environment.

Deliberate practice: Training and practice only facilitate expertise when certain conditions are met. It is true that expert martial artists probably practice more, than novices, but achieving optimal results from training time requires quality, not just quantity. For practice to produce maximum benefit, the martial artist first must be motivated to attend to the task and also be working actively to improve performance. It is also critical that the practitioner receive specific and immediate feedback about her or his performance and that the same or similar performance tasks be repeated frequently. Practice may not count when you are just bouncing with a beat, singing along, running through the day’s “to-do” list in your head. Deliberate practice requires that you maintain focus, monitor and modify your behaviors, and really work to improve your skill.

High-level coaching: Martial artists who seek to be the best often seek out the best possible instructors and coaching. Expert coaches tend to have higher levels of domain-specific knowledge in their art, and tend to plan and structure practice sessions more carefully. With regard to martial art knowledge, coaches at the elite level have in-depth knowledge of the tactical, technical and general aspects of the art and can adjust the type of instruction to the practitioner’s needs and skill level. With athletes who are more advanced, they tend to spend a greater proportion of time discussing tactical instruction, rather than reviewing fine points of the fundamentals. As for structuring practice, Joseph Baker and his colleagues from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada conclude that: “Meticulous planning of practice is one hallmark of coaching expertise. Voss (and colleagues) found that expert coaches spent more time planning practices and were more precise in their goals and objectives for the practice session than their non-expert counterparts.”

360-Degree athlete monitoring: It typically takes much more than desire to build an elite-level martial artist. It requires a systematic and ongoing assessment of all key domains of human performance and the resources to meet the needs. The sport of mixed martial arts, for example, is generating more and more professional fighters, but many of these athletes and their schools are not prepared to support elite-level training. Consider the US Olympic Training Center or the Australian Institute of Sports – these institutions have created an infrastructure to nurture excellence with the best knowledge and resources that the sport sciences have to offer. Their services include sports medicine, physical therapies, strength and conditioning, sport/performance psychology, nutrition, biomechanics, and physiological testing. Each athlete is assessed in each domain. Their status is monitored, and their training plan is modified accordingly within a long-range plan to prepare them to perform optimally during competition. Someone has to be looking at the “big picture” for every athlete all the time and have access to specialized resources to respond to specific needs. Life also overlaps with training, so that changes in family relationships, school, work, finances, or health can substantially affect an elite martial artist’s competitive performance. Hence, the need for 360-degree monitoring – viewing simultaneously all aspect of the athlete’s life, capacity, status, and behavior.

Optimal training environment: Constant surveillance over all aspects of the athlete’s training, life and status - with unrelenting pressure to perform - can be extremely stressful. Managing that pressure is one of the skills elite-level athletes must acquire. But coaches and others responsible for training also must be mindful and thoughtful about the culture or climate of the training environment. Studies indicate that athletes believe the coach is the primary force in creating the motivational climate of training. Research has also shown that elite-level athletes tend to prefer and respond best to a motivational climate that emphasizes mastery (learning, improving, gaining competence) over performance (outcomes, winning, gaining superiority). Elite athletes should be surrounded by others who are supporting their efforts to excel and who share their commitment to high-level learning. They want to be challenged, but they also want support. They want to get better, not just to be “broken.” Of course, consistent with the 360-degree view, elite level competitors must also be confident that their basic needs (and those of their families) will be met. It is difficult to focus fully on training when one is uncertain about the stability of her or his housing situation, financial preparedness, or pressing medical bills.

Wrestling, boxing, judo, taekwondo, and karate are all recognized Olympic sports with National team martial art practitioners competing at elite levels. Mixed martial arts is growing quickly as a professional sport, but often without the infrastructure or resources available to our Olympic athletes. Excellence is a team effort. Coaches and athletes must recognize and use the skills and expertise of sport science professionals to support, motivate, and nurture the next generation of elite martial artists.

1 comment:

Bruce Johnson said...

It truly is amazing the difference in the results one can achieve with this type of mindset in their personal training. This seems to be the case with athletes that achieve elite status no matter which sport or martial arts discipline they pursue. This demonstrates that there really is a science to achieving peak performance.