DERVAL O'ROURKE: What makes the elite better than the rest?

For the recent visit of the All Blacks to the Aviva Stadium, I was on a radio panel with Irish legend David Wallace and Kiwi and Ulster player Nick Williams.

The New Zealand rugby team are considered among the best athletes in the world and I was delighted to have an opportunity to watch them live.

After the final whistle we tried to articulate our views on the final minutes of the game. Both guys praised the All Blacks for their ability to believe in themselves right up to the final whistle. It’s hard to get away from their sheer mental fortitude. As the dust settled on the gut-wrenching result, it’s interesting to ask what makes true sporting excellence?

I’m curious whether there’s an X factor that makes some people better athletes than others. When I’m warming up, I like to listen to Macklemore’s Ten Thousand Hours. It’s all about putting in the time and getting the results — an ode to the theory that all it takes is ten thousand hours to make someone an expert in a given field. There is something reassuringly straightforward in believing all the training will automatically equate to top results but if that’s all it takes, surely a lot of people would put in the hours and become Olympic champions or World Cup winners? Unfortunately things are not that simple. Too often we see baffled sportspeople having put in the hours, being interviewed after coming up short.

The role of nature versus nurture in the development of elite athletes is a topic of major discussion. I recently read David Epstein’s book, The Sport Gene, and he quashes the notion that all it takes is 10,000 hours. It’s naive to think elite sport is only a matter of genetics and a capacity to work hard. It seems there’s no definitive way of knowing what makes some teams or athletes great and others not. It’s a combination of a lot of factors such as training methods, skill-set, coaching, work ethic, support systems, desire, pain tolerance and more. Some of these are practical matters but some people might be more genetically disposed to some of these factors.

I like to give myself credit for having an ability to work hard but maybe I’m just naturally more pre-disposed to do so. My training partner, Ailis McSweeney, has an incredible ability to tolerate pain. Maybe these essential traits are inherent and play a part in our success.

Another key aspect of success is developing technically at a young age. In New Zealand, they start rugby young and concentrate on skills; by the time their players are in their teens, they’re way ahead of most players of a similar age. In athletics, this can be seen in many of the European countries’ approaches to technical events. The biggest wake-up call for me as a junior was seeing athletes the same age far more advanced in their skills. At the World Junior Championships in 2000, I finished 15th and the girls who took home medals were far better at crossing hurdles. Their advantage was years of deliberate practice and technical ability.

I learned quickly I had plenty of catching up to do and needed to start clocking up hours crossing hurdles. Now I see a big improvement in the standard of Irish junior athletes starting to come through.

I love to analyse my competitors and their races. Is it talent, training, coaching, mental strength or other elements that make them world class? In 2010, I lost the final of the European Outdoor Championships by two hundredths of a second. That’s about the width of the newspaper you’re reading. Afterwards, I was awake most of the night and watched the race about 50 times, trying to figure out where exactly I went wrong. In the end I came up with a tough answer — I didn’t do much wrong, I just lost to a marginally better performance. In that moment, someone else put all the pieces together slightly better than I did. That was hard and often the final component for long-term sporting success is the mental aspect.

The desire to win, and the psychology behind it, is an area elite sport pays huge attention to. The All Blacks work with mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka and the Irish rugby team employ performance psychologist Enda McNulty. Both teams give huge credit to the positive input this has had on their game. Personally, when I stand on a start-line, the only option is to believe in myself 100%. I’m sure in most sports there has to be a voice in your head that says, yes, you can do it, even when the chips are down. You need to back yourself to the final whistle with huge mental strength.

The performances of athletes are often criticised. There are always those with opinions on how races should be run or kicks should be taken but in reality, it’s hard to understand the pressure on a sportsperson in the heat of the moment. Try being in front of thousands of spectators, live on television and needing to do something that if it’s even one percent off perfection, will directly impact the result. I know that’s what we are supposed to do, is get those moments right but that doesn’t always happen. Pressure will, at times, just weigh that little bit heavier, which is why sports psychology and the people you surround yourself with are essential.

In highly pressurised moments, it’s crucial to have a strategy and stick to it. My coach gives me mantras, sometimes they’re as simple as “faster feet” and it’s much easier to perform focusing on these than on what’s on the line. Do I know what makes sporting legends? Unfortunately not, it isn’t one single thing but a combination of many factors that combine in one moment to make sporting perfection.


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