What it Takes to Become an Olympic Athlete: 15 Essentials According to a Two-Time Olympian
BY NICK CATLIN
The journey to becoming an Olympic athlete, for most, is a lifelong pursuit. It might start as a distant dream born out of the inspirational performances of your idols at previous Games’, or perhaps after experiencing a first taste of your favourite sport at school or your local club. Either way, what invariably follows if you are to make it to the pinnacle, is years of sacrifice, dedication, heartbreak, and if you’re one of the lucky ones, triumph and jubilation!
But what does it actually take to become an Olympian? Is it all about natural ‘God given’ talent? Are some people really born with all the skills and attributes to succeed in their chosen field, or can anyone achieve sporting greatness provided they have the right attitude and are willing to spend the time mastering their trade?
In all honesty, it’s probably some kind of mixture of both factors, with a number of other key ingredients helping you along the way. What follows is my guide to the essentials which will give any aspiring athlete the best chance of realising their Olympic dreams.
1. Talent (Nature)
The exact role of nature in sporting success is a debate which has been ongoing for as long as I can remember. I am a firm believer that talent forms only the foundation for success in any walk of life, and sport is no exception. But it’s a pretty significant platform, without which, achieving greatness in your chosen pursuit simply isn’t going to happen. Granted, individuals with bucket loads of natural ability will struggle to maximise their potential if they do not apply themselves properly. But, for me, they are far more likely to succeed than those with zero talent and a commendable work ethic.
Don’t get me wrong, a willingness to train hard and a dedication to perfecting your trade can be the difference between being good and being great, but only if you have the natural talent to enhance in the first place.
There are undoubtedly some sports which require certain physical attributes, determined solely by genetic makeup, in order to be successful. There is a reason that the average player height in the NBA between 1985 and 2006 was roughly 6’7’’ and that there are only currently 5 players on franchise rosters under 6’ tall. (stats.nba.com). In fact, David Epstein, a writer at Sports Illustrated, makes some startling statistical conclusions about an individual’s probability of playing in the NBA dependent solely on their vertical prowess.
“For an American man aged between 20 and 40, standing between 6ft and 6ft2in the chances of playing professionally in the NBA are five in a million. If he’s 6ft2in to 6ft4in there is a still-distant 20 in a million chance. But if he’s 6ft10in to 7ft, the odds shorten to 32,000 in a million. And if he stands 7ft, there is a one-in-six chance he will currently be playing in the NBA.” (The Guardian)
Consequently, it would be fair to say that it doesn’t matter how much you practice your slam dunks, three pointers and ball handling, if you’re not well in excess of 6ft tall then you are at a significant disadvantage relative to your peers.
Much the same can be said for sprinting and power based disciplines. Scientists have discovered a gene (known as ACTN3) without which, it may be impossible for someone to reach the top of power based sports. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend in the gym, or out on the track, if you don’t possess a working ACTN3 protein, then you are at an almost insurmountable disadvantage when it comes to winning sprint gold at the Olympic Games.
And these genetic factors can also apply outside sports heavily reliant on height or power. Epstein suggests that at the highest level of sport, body shapes and sizes are becoming increasingly prescriptive. Elite female gymnasts are shrinking, swimmers torso’s are extending and boxers arms are lengthening whilst their legs shorten. All of these natural physical competencies lend themselves to success in specific sporting disciplines at the very highest level. (The Guardian)
2. Practice (Nurture)
So what about the other side of the coin…? There is no way the best sports people in the world reach the top of their game without putting the hours in with various sports equipment on the training field. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the incredibly popular and best selling book, Outliers, suggests that in order to achieve greatness in any field, whether it be sport, business, or academia, you must have committed at least 10,000 hours to practice. This theory has been advocated by a number of others and applied more directly to the sporting world by authors such as Matthew Syed and Daniel Coyle.
For me, the role of practice in becoming an Olympian, cannot be understated. Whether it needs to be as prescriptive as 10,000 hours, or whether training more, automatically translates into success, I am not so sure. What I am sure about is that much of my success in field hockey has been down to the time I have spent practising the basic skills. No more so than when I was still very young. This certainly wasn’t structured practice, and I have no idea whether I adhered to the all important 10,000 hour rule, but prior to the age of 10 I had spent a considerable time honing important basic skills through play. I didn’t know I was doing it and there wasn’t a coach telling me what to do or adjusting my technique. I learnt through trial and error and by watching those more experienced in the hockey environment in which I grew up in.
Being provided with the opportunity to play any sport I wanted to (within reason) from a very young age, and having older brothers paving the way and giving me a level to aspire to, were, without doubt, some of the most influential factors in my development as a hockey player and ultimately a double Olympian.
3. Support Network (friends and family)
Nobody succeeds at anything in life without the support of those people around them, in particular, their family and friends. When I was growing up, my parents would spend their entire weekends driving me and my brothers the length and breadth of the country in support of our sporting endeavours. Whether it was football and hockey in winter or cricket in the summer, until I reached the age when I could drive myself to practice or games, I was reliant on their unconditional support!
Without it, there is no way I would have had the exposure to hockey, and sport in general, from such a young age. This support, was not just limited to the practicalities of transport though. It also gave me the self confidence to succeed in pressurised situations as I grew older and the competition aspect of my sporting life became more serious.
Somewhere along the line your development as a sports person will be defined by formal coaching. For me, the hockey player I am today is the result, largely, of the coaching I was exposed to between the ages of 10 and 15. The attitude of 2 coaches in particular, during this period, and their approach to the way they believed the game should be played, helped shape the player I would become throughout those formative years.
More than any other period of my playing career, the time at which I was learning the most about the technical aspects of the sport, the coaching I received was influential. I am a firm believer, that in sports involving exceptional motor skills and coordination, like field hockey, tennis, soccer, and cricket for instance, the technical coaching you receive in the earliest stages of your sporting development, is the most important. Whilst you continue to learn about the game more generally throughout your career, the impact of this early period on your foundational technical ability and platform for technical success is huge!
When you reach the elite level of sport, coaching continues to be a significant factor in your development as an athlete. Coaches have the capacity to instill or take away confidence, to guide or to leave stranded, and to give knowledge and expertise or useless information. When any athlete, in any sport at the top level, whether it be at the Olympic Games, Wimbledon or the Masters, is triumphant, they will invariably mention the importance of their coaching team in their success.
The first words from British swimmer Ellie Simmonds after winning gold in the Paralympics 400m freestyle event at London 2012…? “I am exhausted, I just can’t wait to see my coach”. In a similar vein, GB Kayak Olympic gold medallist, Tim Baillie, referred to his win as “standing on the shoulders of others” when he thanked the coaches for getting him there.
Now this might sound a little odd to those who haven’t directly experienced what it takes to become the very best at what you do, but reaching Olympic status, and indeed the pinnacle of any sport, requires a little selfishness.
Particularly in individual sporting disciplines, but also in team pursuits, you have to be willing, at times at least, to focus all of your energy on yourself and only yourself. Whether it be making sure you’re eating and drinking the right things at the right times to supplement your training and performance schedule, or getting a few extra Zzz’s in when your partner is doing chores, success at the elite level can require you to put yourself before others.
This can be a particularly problematic area for younger athletes. When most of my friends at university were enjoying the social side of their undergraduate degrees, I was tucked up in bed getting the rest I needed before another day of tough training. I didn’t find these decisions overly difficult to make because I was 100% sure that I wanted to compete at the Olympic Games and I was able to reconcile with myself that much of my university experience wouldn’t be ‘typical’. For many others, however, the pull of going out with friends, and the draw of conformity can be too much to resist.
“To be successful, you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve.” (Michael Jordan)
Even the greatest athletes of all time in their respective sports will admit that luck has played some kind of role in their success stories. Whether it be avoiding serious injury throughout their careers, or perhaps the way they happened upon their chosen sport, lady luck can certainly be a factor in the sporting world.
My route into field hockey, for instance, was pretty much solely down to chance. Whilst both my parents had sporting interests and backgrounds, neither really played hockey, and as a family we were introduced to the sport via an enthusiastic PE teacher whilst living in Venezuela. You could hardly say that I was destined to end up an Olympic field hockey player.
Track cycling legend Chris Hoy, one of the most decorated British Olympians of all time, was fortunate enough to be born in Edinburgh, the only city in Scotland with a velodrome. Had he hailed, let’s say, from Glasgow or Dundee, perhaps his route into the world of cycling may never have come about.
British gold medallist rower, Tom James, has also been quick to emphasise the role of luck in his own Olympic success, admitting he was “lucky enough to find a sport which suits my genetics. I’d be awful at the 100m or the high jump. I can’t sprint to save my life so sports like tennis or football are out, whereas rowing suits my physiology. I’ve got big lungs, long arms… a VO2 max of 6.7 litres… I was lucky to find rowing at school.”
7. Mental Toughness
An athlete’s physical condition and technical ability are not the only factors which contribute to their success at the top level. They must also have the mental strength to perform under pressure, bounce back from adversity and maintain a consistent level of self belief.
Research into the idea of mental toughness over the last decade has established that it is a concept with several components that help to contribute to the overall success of an athlete. Without it, even the most precocious talents can fall by the wayside and struggle to reach their potential. Soccer player, Ravel Morrison, for instance, was described by Sir Alex Ferguson as the best academy player he had ever seen and according to Rio Ferdinand, a player who was idolised by his fellow youth players, including Paul Pogba. Yet we have never seen Morrison play at the levels that have been expected of him. Why? He clearly has the physical and technical capacity to be an exceptional footballer, and in Manchester United the perfect environment in which to develop and hone those skills. Perhaps a lack of mental toughness is the answer…? (thesportsman.com)
Mental toughness can be learned. Perhaps some athletes possess it in greater levels naturally but it is an area which can be trained in the same way as physical conditioning and technical skill. This is why, individual athletes and sports teams at the highest level are investing huge sums of money in sports psychology, always looking for that little bit extra which may give them the edge over their rivals.
In the build up to both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the Great Britain men’s field hockey team which I was part of engaged in hours of individual and group psychology sessions. These were aimed at achieving a variety of goals, from preparing us to deal with the unique pressures associated with a home Olympics (for London), of penalty shootouts and how best we could develop a cohesive and unified team culture. This work required just as much concentration and commitment as technical and tactical sessions and took time to have an impact. But, when faced with a penalty shootout competition in the 2014 Commonwealth Games Bronze medal match the team was mentally prepared for the situation and we triumphed, having lost to the same team on penalties 8 months previously. If that isn’t mental toughness, then I don’t know what is.
8. Physical Robustness
Avoiding serious injury can have a lot to do with luck, as discussed above. There is little, for instance, you can do to prevent concussion and trauma injuries (which are more common than you might think in field hockey). In the build up to Rio 2016, one of our squad members was sidelined for almost a year with concussion and during the 2010 World Cup in India one of our defenders suffered an open dislocation of the ankle and fractured tibia and fibula! Now, these incidents were simply unfortunate, wrong place, wrong time.
But, there are a number of injuries which the diligent and committed athlete can take precautions against. One of the most notable successes of our Great Britain hockey training programme over the last 10 years or so has been the incredibly low frequency of soft tissue muscle injuries. In a sport in which your lower back and hamstrings are placed under enormous strain on a day to day basis, this is quite an achievement. As an athlete, the longer you can stay healthy and injury free, the more time you can spend in training and competition and the more gains you can make in technical and physical areas in particular.
9. Physiologists and Physiotherapists
Probably the most important factor behind our ability to keep players on the pitch more often than not, was the combination of the work we undertook in the gym and on the physio table. Prevention, rather than reaction is undoubtedly king when it comes to remaining injury free. Much of the conditioning programmes planned by our strength and conditioning coaches were focused on maintaining physical robustness, particularly during heavy training and competition phases. Access to physiotherapy and soft tissue massage as well as specialist sports doctors throughout the week helped to support this process immensely.
In my opinion, professional soccer players experience a disproportionate number of muscle injuries relative to the resources at their disposal. In fact, over 4,000 days were missed by Premier League players as a result of hamstring injuries during the 2016/17 season, more than any other form of injury (physioroom.com).
Why? Because the sport is archaic, stuck in the past. The strength and conditioning programmes of the top club sides in the world can often be decided by the manager. Rarely does this person have the knowledge and expertise to make an informed decision. Those clubs who have entrusted these decisions to experienced professionals have experienced dramatic improvements in the availability of their most precious commodities. Much, for instance, has been made of the approach of Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham Hotspur to physical preparation. The forward thinking approach of the manager and the trust in those with superior knowledge has enabled Spurs to become arguably the fittest and most robust team in the premier league.
In fact, during the 2015/16 Premier League campaign, Spurs covered more ground collectively than any other team in the competition, clocking up a total of almost 118 km. In addition, during the 2016/17 campaign, only eventual title winners Chelsea experienced fewer total days lost to injury than Tottenham. (physioroom.com)
It’s pretty tough to reach the pinnacle of any field without some kind of financial support. Sport, and in particular becoming an Olympian, is no different. Much of the action which takes place at an Olympic Games is undertaken by ‘amateur’ athletes, generally without the significant resources available to the giants of professional sport like NBA and NFL franchises in the USA or Premier League football clubs in the UK.
In field hockey for instance, the Olympic training programmes for both men and women are funded by an organisation called UK sport. This government body receives funding through the National Lottery and distributes this cash to Olympic sports and athletes to help them train, compete and ultimately achieve medal success on the world stage.
Without this financial support, there is no way that a sport like field hockey, in the UK, would be able to fund its own Olympic programme. The money I received from UK sport during my international career enabled me to train as a full time athlete. Whilst we’re not talking about huge sums, it meant that I was able to concentrate solely on my sporting endeavours as opposed to worrying about part time work to supplement my income. As hockey players, we have been some of the lucky ones. There are hundreds, if not thousands of athletes all over the world striving to be the best they can be and achieve their Olympic goals on far more restricted budgets and often having to juggle their training and competition commitments with part time or even full time work. Can you imagine Wayne Rooney juggling his Premier League football career over the last decade with shifts at his local pub or supermarket…?!
People very rarely succeed in anything in life overnight. Becoming an Olympian is no different. As journalist and ex Olympic table tennis player Matthew Syed suggested in an article for the BBC at the time of the Rio Games , “if success is a sprint, then why bother to carry on when we haven’t reached the top in the first few weeks? Might as well give up and try something else. If we recognise that success is a marathon, however, we are able to draw upon deeper reserves of energy and inspiration, and we have a much greater capacity to deal with setbacks, challenges and failures that are an inevitable part of life and learning, and can sustain our motivation for far longer.” (bbc.com)
The moral of the story? Failure and setback doesn’t have to be the end of the journey. Some of the most inspirational stories in sport, and indeed the Olympics, are those of redemption and never giving in!
I don’t generally buy in to cliches and buzzwords or phrases. But if there is one that I genuinely believe is vital to success in sport, it would be “failing to prepare is preparing to fail’. Whether it be technically, physically, mentally or tactically, putting in the ground work can be a significant factor in an athletes success story.
As an Olympic field hockey team, for instance, we spent a lot of time analysing video footage, both as individuals, and collectively. Whether it was watching clips of our own performance, of potential opposition performances, penalty corners or penalty shootouts, this was all part of our tactical preparation!
How you choose to fuel your body can have enormous implications on physical performance. Fail to take in enough total calories, protein, carbohydrates etc. at the right times and you can reduce your body’s capacity to produce force, to recover and to stay healthy.
Most elite athletes are lucky enough to have access to professional nutritionists as part of their support network. In hockey for instance, we were able to discuss optimal performance and training nutrition with an expert and plan what and when we ate certain food types. Regular body composition testing meant that we could keep tabs on our levels of body fat and adjust our diet and calorie intake accordingly.
This was an aspect of full time sport I found incredibly difficult. The temptation when your sport is your life is to want to maximise every hour of the day for improving some aspect or another of your performance. However, rest, and in particular sleepcan be one of the most important and often overlooked aspects of the journey to becoming an elite athlete. If you don’t give your body the opportunity to recover properly from your physical exertions then it will not adapt efficiently and you can become burnt out.
I was lucky enough to have access to a sleep specialist during the last couple of years of my international hockey career. He was able to offer valuable advice on how to best deal with jetlag (pretty important when you spend a lot of your time on long haul flights), as well as tips on how to improve the quality of your day to day sleep.
Professional sport can be a pretty all consuming pursuit. Obsessive athletes are often those who achieve greatness in their chosen field, but constantly thinking about your training and performances can also have a negative effect.
When I was competing internationally, I found my best performances came when I had ample distractions away from the field of play. For me these were academic. Perhaps my best performances in an England and Great Britain shirt came in 2014 when I was combining my hockey career with part time study for a Law degree.
In fact, at both the Hockey World League finals in January of that year, and at the World Cup in the summer, I studied for and sat 2 law exams. For many, this would be unwanted stress at a time when they should be focusing on their sporting performances. For me, and I imagine there are others like me, it provided a welcome release from the mental stresses of performing under the pressure of international competition. So much so, that I was, in fact, voted the UK player of the 2014 Hockey World Cup by journalist group, The Hockey Writers Club.
This article was previously published on Jenreviews. Click on this link to see more.