There is so much to admire about Roger Federer, almost too much, only for the fact that he appears genuine in everything we see through his media commitments and conduct on court, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.
It is from those times we get to hear him speak and watch him play that we get insights into his philosophy as an athlete. The fear when someone so imperious graces our time is that we look to identify what made him who he is so that we can copy it in some vain attempt to reproduce another in his image.
That futile exercise has seduced much of what sport science research has invested in over recent decades. To try to unlock the paths and processes of experts to inform the next generation can seem pointless at times. Some valuable insights have been identified, such as the importance of deliberate practice for the development of expertise.
But the cocktail that makes Roger Federer who he is is far too diverse and unique to ever be equalled let alone repeated. No doubt he has engaged in many thousands of hours of deliberate practice through his illustrious career. His interviews speak clearly of the application of himself to the process of getting better, year after year, regardless of how successful a season he has had.
One particular standout illustration of this point was revealed in an interview at the beginning of the 2014 season. Federer had just endured four defeats from four against Rafael Nadal during the 2013 season. He was speaking of the training camp in Dubai he had completed during the pre-season where he recruited hitting partners with similar playing characteristics to Nadal. Players who were left-handed with high top-spin forehands were lined up to play set after set of tennis. The only directive was to throw in as many such shots within actual matches to challenge his once impenetrable flat forehand and backhand. To help him cope with the high-looping, high bouncing spin shots that had become his kryptonite.
Ironically, the subsequent three seasons saw the pair meet only twice in competition, with honours shared. However, this year is a different story. Four matches played, four victories for Federer. In fact, before this season, in the 37 times they have met on tour since 2004, Federer has never strung more than two wins together against Nadal, let alone four.
But such deliberate practice cannot explain all of his success, recent or otherwise. When quizzed about his days as a junior player known as a lippy, brat-like figure stomping disrespectfully about the court and locker-room, we get glimpses of the gentle hand of his parents. He speaks of how they never overly intervened, choosing to pose questions instead, providing him with the time, space and autonomy to reflect on his actions to figure it out for himself. No doubt safe in the knowledge that if he needed a safe haven to unload, they were there for that too. Nothing quite beats unconditional support from a significant other, especially when you’re young.
Parents of sporting children have long asked what they should do to help their kids become all they can as athletes. For most it is harmless, over enthusiastic interest in providing their kids with the best opportunity life can offer. Of course, we should always be on watch for the parent who sees their kid as a ticket to riches or as an opportunity to right the wrongs that blocked their own path to super-stardom.
Again, the evidence requires a little context to guide the actions of parents seeking to help their kids succeed. For years the discussion has raged between early sport specialisation versus diversification. Are you better off specialising at a young age into a single-minded pursuit of your dreams? Or are you better off diversifying first by playing multiple sports in your formative years before focusing on the sport where you are strongest?
The Federer path was one of diversification with regular mention of multiple sports played as a kid in an openly sporty household. However, this does not make it an open and shut case for diversification. The suggested benefits from playing multiple sports as a child include the immeasurable nonsense of making kids more sociable. This is not to suggest that it doesn’t, it’s just that we have no proof that it does. It makes good anecdotal sense, nothing more.
All too often we attach ourselves to the romance of outliers to prove a point, to win an argument, one way or another. People will cite Pete Sampras or Rory McIlroy as examples of early sport specialisation. Choosing to ignore the hundreds of thousands of others who also specialised early and have since fallen by the wayside.
It is important to note that the difference between a kid who makes it as a professional athlete and one who does not is immeasurable. Take a look at any world class athletic environment and you will see the most wonderful spread of personalities, a kaleidoscope of differences. Not robots, not automatons and most remarkably not any two people who made it there through the same path.
For sure, there are some overlapping qualities and no one made it there without a lot of hard work and sacrifice. But save a thought for those who worked just as hard, maybe even harder and sacrificed just as much, if not more, and still didn’t make it. These are the athletes that sport leave behind.
If we continue to force-fit formulaic, rigid structures on the development of athletes based on what has gone before we will continue to marginalise their development and more importantly, potentially harm their relationship with sport and physical activity for the rest of their lives.
We appear to be constantly looking to replicate the success of others, failing to see that their success often came when they chose to identify what worked for them rather than trying to transplant what worked for others in their environment.
A few years back James Kerr wrote a fascinating book called Legacy about what he observed from his time with the All Blacks. The most valuable lesson from the book came from the introduction that outlined the circumstances that preceded the changes that led the players, coaches and management team to change their environment for them, not anyone else.
Unfortunately, it became the step-by-step guide for coaches the world over to recreate the All Blacks environment in their setting.
This is impossible to do.
The All Blacks themselves have already moved on from it.
No doubt, there are sound principles to take from Legacy, but the challenge for coaches is to try to repeat the processes that inspired the book, not the results that produced the book.
The point is that to create an environment where kids can explore and grow and dream of being world-class is very similar to the environment that adults also thrive in. I believe if we stop looking for the next Roger Federer and focus more on creating sporting environments that encourage exploration and expression, champions will emerge.
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