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Being a Well-trained Athlete Isn’t Enough

By Jim Taylor, Ph. D.

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently from athletes, coaches, and parents is: “What does it take to be a successful athlete?” For any athlete who wants to be their best, this is no easy question, yet one that is worth asking and worth even more to answer.

First, let me address how I define ‘successful athlete.’ Contrary to many people in the sports world, I don’t define the phrase in terms of objective criteria such as a college athletic scholarship, signing a professional contract, or being named to an Olympic team. These standards are so statistically unlikely that becoming a successful athlete would be absolutely meaningless to every young athlete except the very rare few. I define a successful athlete as being someone who fully realizes their abilities. That is, whatever inborn talent they have, they max it out through committed, long-term development.

With that said, being well trained is, as the scientific axiom goes, “a necessary, but sufficient condition” for athletic success. What that means is that you need to be well trained to be a successful athlete, but being well trained alone is enough to be a successful athlete.

What do I mean by ‘well trained?” Well, consider the areas of athletic performance that must be developed to fully maximize your abilities:

  • Physical
  • Technical and tactical skills
  • Mental
  • Nutrition
  • Sleep

You have to ask yourself a question: “Am I doing everything I can to fully develop these three areas?” If not, you need to make a real commitment to do the challenging work so you are well trained. If you are already well trained, you can go quite far in your athletic development. But I don’t believe you will become the best athlete you can be. If you believe you can be more successful than you currently are, you need to take the next step.

So, what is missing? One thing that I’ve always appreciated about the Olympic and professional athletes I’ve worked with is that, yes, of course, they are very well trained. But they are more than just physically fit, technically and tactically sound, and mentally prepared to perform their best. They are also well educated. By well educated, I don’t mean that they attend Harvard, Stanford, Cal Tech, or MIT.

When I refer to well-educated athletes, I mean that they have a deep understanding of what it takes to be the most successful athlete they can be. Whether LeBron James, Serene Williams, Tom Brady, Simone Biles, the list goes on, they are all not only active participants in their respective sports, but they are also “scholars” of their sports. They study it, analyze it, critique it, and evolve it.

Well-educated athletes do the training that is required of them, in other words, they know the what, when, where, and how of their training program. For example, they know what they will be doing for a strength workout today, when and where the workout will occur, and how to execute the various exercises that comprise the workout.

But, more importantly, they know the why of their efforts. That is, if you ask them the purpose of their training, whether physical, technical/tactical, or mental, they can explain why it’s important, the value it brings to their athletic development, and how it fits into their overall training program. For example, in committing to a mental imagery program, well-educated athletes not only know how to do imagery and how to create a structured imagery program, but they also understand why it works, how it works, and the specific benefits it can offer them.

Unfortunately, the typical athletic development program doesn’t offer many opportunities to become both well trained and well educated in sport efforts. I actually believe that schools and teams should offer a course on “What it Takes to be a Successful Athlete” that provides the foundation of knowledge for athlete development in a comprehensive and structured way. So, in all likelihood, it’s up to you to go beyond being a well-trained athlete and educate yourself on the different aspects of your sports development.

You start off becoming a well-educated athlete by not just accepting whatever your coaches tell you to do. Instead, tell your coaches that you want to know more about what you do in your sport training and why you do it. Ask them questions about the rationale and science behind the different components of your training program. Question more experienced athletes in your sport to gain their insights into the why of your training. And ask your coaches for resources so you can learn more about your development away from your sport.

Coaches, if you want to encourage your athletes to become well educated, prepare a reading or video list of resources from which they can learn more about their development. Also, when you introduce something new to their training regimen, devote a few minutes to describing the why of it. And be open to your athletes’ curiosity and questions; the more they actively engage in their athletic lives, the more invested and committed they will be.

There are many benefits to becoming a well-educated athlete. First, a problem with being an uneducated athlete is that you don’t know what you don’t know. So, you won’t be able to see what might be missing from your training regimen. With an extensive knowledge of what is required to be a successful athlete, you’ll be able to identify what you’re doing right, what gaps exist, and ways you can improve your training. You will also be able to ask informed questions of your coaches to ensure that what they want you to do is right for you.

Second, a well-educated athlete is also a sophisticated consumer, meaning that you don’t just accept different aspects of your training program at face value. Instead, you understand the reasoning behind your training and, as a result, can be sure that it is the best fit for your needs and goals. This refined approach to your development will enable you to match the training that is offered by your coaches with what you know about yourself as an athlete.

Third, the more you know about your training, the deeper the connection you will have with your efforts and the more ownership you will feel. This ownership will result in greater commitment and motivation to your goals and more sustained effort in your workouts.

Finally, when you are a well-educated athlete, you not only see the particular parts of your training in isolation, but also are able to integrate and synthesize them into a comprehensive whole. This broad perspective enables you to see the trajectory of your athletic development in its overarching totality and make adjustments in the present and are better plan for your long-term future in your sport.

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Jim Taylor, Ph.D. is sports psychologist who has worked with the US Olympic committee and with professional, Olympic, collegiate, and junior-elite athletes in, football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, swimming, tennis, golf, ski racing, and many other sports. He is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Sports Management program at the University of San Francisco. A former internationally ranked alpine ski racer, Jim is a certified tennis coach, a 2nd degree black belt and certified instructor in karate, a marathon runner, and an Ironman triathlete. To see more articles, vlogs, books, online courses and programs by Dr. Taylor, go to http://www.drjimtaylor.com/4.0/

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