The Probability Of Success


The workshop was over, the goodbyes and handshakes finished, and participants were beginning to scatter to the winds. There had been many other groups sharing the facility and I always find it interesting that I don’t really see them when I’m concentrating on a presentation. As I shouldered my equipment and walked away from the jumps area I noticed a small group of teenage athletes, sprinters perhaps, lining up to do what appeared to be hurdle drills. I walked on by and took in a bit more detail; it was a common hip mobility drill using hurdles crammed together so that the weight bar touched the previous hurdle’s uprights. Hmmm, I mused, pretty good drill to use; has a lot of potential for many events and many sports actually (blah, blah, my mind still in workshop mode)…

It was the rhythm of the drill that caught my peripheral vision. When the drill is well done the athlete stays tall and the trail leg becomes the next lead leg in an exaggerated walk-over. The movements are quite slow and controlled, but there is always movement. What I witnessed was a halting, lurching, swaying activity with flailing arms. Essentially each trail leg stayed as a trail leg. I turned away. Then I turned back again as I heard the coach exhort and clap, ‘Good! Good!...Well done!’ I was perplexed. What could be good about doing a hip mobility drill so badly? Then I realised that he was applauding hurdle clearance and paying no mind to the imitations of an albatross trying to get off the ground. I turned away for the last time.

As I walked to my car I had a flash memory and gut reaction to the first time I tried hurdles. It was in a PE class of over 40 boys and we were ushered out to the track where three full flights of hurdles had been set up in alternate lanes at the regulation height and distance for our age. Our instruction was to clear the hurdles and if possible use three strides between each barrier. Another teacher served as the arm waving starter as we lined up in three’s. Out of a class of over 40 only three made it to the finish line and I was the only one to use three strides. I knew I looked and certainly felt ungainly with my flapping arms and long bounding strides. Most of the group simply ran out of the lanes after one or two hurdles and a few crashed. There was no feedback; only some scribbles on a clipboard. Embarrassed silence gripped us all. The class was finished with a 2 lap, timed race with scribbled results on the clipboard.

The thing was I actually liked hurdling! I liked the rhythm and the challenge of technique. So, over the next few years I dragged hurdles into the hallways after classes and did hurdle drills in order to perfect the lead and trail leg actions (or so I thought).

The funny thing was that a part of me never forgot that first encounter. Even when competing at fairly high levels years later, in both high and long hurdles, I suffered an anxiety illusion. I was convinced that the last three hurdles were much much higher. The albatross with the flapping arms and bounding strides followed me through to my last race.

The young athletes I witnessed doing ‘the albatross’ were, in my view, minimising their chances of long term success. Even if they would ultimately be jumpers or badminton players. My early experience and subsequent practice emphasised hurdle clearance rather than speed. The situation I witnessed years later emphasised hurdle clearance rather than hip mobility. While I received no feedback from an external source, these athletes received immediate affirming feedback from the side. The conflicting emotions resulting from a movement feeling ‘not quite right’ at a gut level that is receiving authoritative verification that it is correct is not a great place to be. These athletes will carry that discord forwards into other activities and may learn to mistrust their gut instincts. They were learning to prefer the external voice or the numbers that confirm task completion ahead of correct technique that feels good.

For me that conflicted state has the power to negate experience and distort learning. Experience is something that happens inside of us as we notice and do things. We cycle little bits of reflection and sensation around to create our own affirmations and satisfaction. We use that experience to help us make choices in the future. The external feedback we receive has to fit into that loop rather than suppress or oppress it. So the athletes performing a mobility drill poorly were having a non-experience. If they do it repeatedly they will re-experience the sensations and create a habit. As I did when erroneously working solely on hurdle clearance I took that first occurrence forwards. There are no points in a decathlon for looking pretty. It’s all about speed and power in that game and hurdle clearance is how we get back onto the ground quickly to use more power.

The albatross is more than an analogy of movement. For me it became a metaphor that is similar to the old mariner belief in good or bad luck depending on how we treat the bird. The phrase of having an albatross around your neck meant not only bad luck but an inability to achieve success because of something you had done in the past that stayed with you. At the same time an albatross, while struggling to get off the ground, is a graceful and beautiful soaring bird once aloft. We humans look inept and clumsy when first learning to move within our sports, but once coordinated and developed can shift and travel with ease and beauty.

The difference between the albatross of grace and the albatross of despair may reside in a subtlety such as how we perform our developmental exercises. Beyond the physicality of doing a task to perform it correctly or doing it simply to complete it is a whole sociology and psychology of how we develop our self-responsibility and how we help others. In my view I am trying to encourage each athlete to be an expert in their sport experience. They are the ones who are having the growth, the AHA moments, and registering performances. I am also having experiences in relation to coaching and mentoring that help the athletes prepare their expertise, but I am not having their experiences.

What I listen for with athletes is the development of their voices. I need to know that somewhere in all of the repetitions and peaks-troughs there is a personal voice evolving able to articulate what they are doing, what it feels like, and why. This for me is a hallmark of self-responsibility: taking charge of their development and then expressing it and sharing it. The opposite of self-responsibility is, in my view, not irresponsibility but dependency. The athletes who only trust an external voice, the score, the weight, time, height or distance are dependent on others. They receive information and instruction, yet never learn to ask questions.

With respect to the group walking over hurdles badly the albatross prophecy has an extra twist. I can never say with any certainty that everyone in that group is doomed. In addition I can never utter, ‘Oh! I would never do something like that!’ I’ve noticed that most people are human. The possibility is that some athletes doing drills badly and receiving shallow affirmations will choose to trust their gut instinct. Against the odds they will reject the external feedback and find a different way of moving because they have a different way of thinking. The odds are that I’ve made a fundamental mistake or two in coaching in the past and will make a few more as new situations are encountered. The twist is that the albatross can be shouldered or allowed to fly depending on our choices rather than fate.

What I can hope for is a human ability to shift the odds in favour of betterment. Can we increase participation along with empowerment? Can we reduce the miscommunication and misinformation between coaches and athletes so that learning is mutually beneficial? Studies in human resiliency prove that we can. Even under the most adverse of conditions there will be some who will rise above circumstances that would otherwise predict a life of misery. We can all learn to be someone different than we were last week, last month, last year. Sport offers this opportunity. The albatross that is us can remain tied to the ground or feel the wind and learn to fly.

J. Erik Little