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What Makes an Elite Athlete

There are many components that contribute to athletic success. Many are inherently genetic: think for example, a basketball player. The player’s height, wingspan, hand size, etc, are all genetic, key determinants of success, and cannot be enhanced or improved through training. Other key determinants like the vertical jump, can be improved through training. So of course that means basketball players are training hard and smart to enhance their verticals, which is why they’re such great jumpers right? Maybe some are, but statistically, most aren’t. Take for example the recent 2018 NBA combine. The top vertical jump was a paltry 34.5” (to put that in context, this year we had 7 kids jump 34” or more). The fact is that many basketball players aren’t necessarily great jumpers, as that they’re tall; have excellent wingspan; and can palm a basketball with ease, all genetic factors and all critical for being able to dunk a basketball.

Consider a different sport: think how much a pitcher in baseball’s ability to throw hard (extreme external rotation of the shoulder), throw sharp breaking balls (hand size, length of fingers), and what a hitter describes as “his fastball just gets on top of you” (height, wingspan), are all determined by genetics. In a 10 year longitudinal study Wilk, Reinold, Crenshaw et. al found that out of 1400 pro baseball pitchers, without exception, all had shoulder range of motion of 190 degrees or greater.

I’d love to say athletic success is as simple as pull someone off the street, give them the right training and coaching, and viola they become an elite athlete, but that is not the case. The fact of the matter is genetics is the greatest determinant of athletic success. For athletes to make the elite level, it’s a combination of genetic gifts and traits; applied to the correct sport AND position; proper development of the technical and tactical aspects of their sport; physical development; and mental acuity that then results in an athlete “making it”. There are even the talented of the talent, the Hall of Fame type‘s, that are so gifted that they can often eschew one or more of the above qualities and STILL play at the elite level: an example of this was Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who broke the NCAA D1 touchdown record while in college, and was drafted in the second round of the NFL draft. However, he washed out of the NFL very quickly, and admitted in an interview after that he himself was much to blame. The reason? He admitted to a drinking problem, to the point that he had performed much of his incredible college career while hungover or intoxicated.

The fact is that 99% of athletes are neither the Hall of Fame talent, or even the “D1” talent. They’re average height, average build, average speed, average strength, average velocity. They never were the freshman playing varsity, or the kid the other kids always talk about. They lack the genetic traits that make sport easy at the low levels for the gifted. The problem they have though is they peek at what the talent is doing, and think that also applies to them. Ball relates that at Wisconsin many of his teammates also started to engage in heavy drinking because they figured, well Montee does it and he’s the best running back in the nation, so obviously drinking doesn’t impair athletic performance. And as he says, while he had the talent to still be great (at the collegiate level) despite all the drinking, for them it was a quick road to ruin. Even as top athletes at a top D1, they didn’t have close to the genetic gifting he had to overcome such a poor lifestyle choice.

Talent is talent anywhere. It can do nonsensical lactic training like running poles, it can do yoga routines, it can do physical therapy. It can sometimes even do nothing altogether. Genetic gifts allow them to float up the levels, ESPECIALLY the lower levels. However, what the average kids must realize is that for them it’s a different road. They can still get there, but they can’t float. They can’t do dumb dumb training. They can’t take time off working on the skill of their sport. They have to be RELENTLESS. It certainly can be done though; here’s a few examples just from our facility:

-Erich started as a high school senior pitcher, 82mph with a lot of elbow pain. Now 93-96mph and injury free for 6 straight years, he was taken in the 4th round of the MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs.

-Brandon started as a high school junior JV player, with the stated goal of “finally making the varsity this year”. He made the varsity and hit 14 HR’s his junior year, signed to Stanford, and subsequently finished 8th on Stanford’s all time HR list. He was then taken in the MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

-Brendan started as a college freshman out of baseball entirely. He didn’t even play baseball for 4 years, playing only his senior year at a small D3. He hit 99mph and signed with the Cleveland Indians, where the last MiLB season he had a sub 2 ERA and was promoted across 3 levels.

For the average athlete, it will be a process. It won’t come as easy as it does for the talent. Each level will bring new challenges, new things to learn, and new physical improvements required. But by combining the right training, in the right environment, with persistent work on their sport skill, aka being RELENTLESS; will get the average athlete there.

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