I am not ordinarily a betting man. But when Swedish speed skater Claudia Wallin suggested we place bets on placings for the Dutch single distance championships, I couldn’t resist. Memories of chocolate bar prizes from high school footy tipping flooded back into my head (yes, everything is about food in my life). For the first two days, the betting was close and I had eked out a narrow lead thanks to almost guessing the correct finishing order of the top 5 men in the 5,000m race. On the final day of competition, however, Claudia snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by backing a handful of unknowns who ended up surprising everyone – including those in the press room where I was hanging out with my photographer’s press pass. But rather than feeling bitter at my defeat at the hands of a small Swedish girl, I’ve decided to try to take something positive away from the weekend (aside from all the free food that is served up in the press room).
In a sport where you travel around a 400m track made of ice at close to 60 km/h, balancing on a sliver of steel which is about 1mm thick, it is easy to forget that the people hidden inside the aerodynamic racing suits are just like you and me. Sure, they spend countless hours in the gym, on the bike, and on the ice refining their physical condition and technique, but come race day, they still have to put it all together. Now, I’m probably one of the most un-jock-like elite sports people ever to have existed, but I would actually be one of the first to jump to the defense of sport, and especially elite sport, for the life lessons that can be learned. Sadly, many of these lessons are often missed, and mostly because of a lot of the ridiculous misinformation that abounds about elite sport and what it entails.
Human beings are not machines. This is a mistake that is frequently made, even by very high-level coaches and athletes. If we really were machines, then the teams with the largest budgets would win all the time because they could afford all the best facilities, equipment, and athletes. In other words, they would just outspend everyone on the inputs, and could reasonably expect the best outcomes. This almost never happens. Of the three aforementioned underdogs who did well on the weekend, only one was from a fairly major professional outfit – Rhian Ket, of APPM. Even though APPM is a great up-and-coming team, it is still nowhere near the likes of TVM or DSB in terms of budget and, dare I say it – prestige. The other two had a number of personal sponsors, but nothing like the support of a full-blown team. Obviously the big teams did very well, but the fact that relatively unknown skaters could seemingly come out of nowhere and challenge (and in Ket’s case, win) the big names is clear indication that nobody has it all figured out – another very important take-home lesson for life.
In sports which haven’t been around for a long time, or in sports where the number of overall participants is small, it is not unusual for unknowns to very suddenly become very good. Developments in technique, coaching, and simply having a smaller talent pool to compete with allows for this kind of variation to be fairly normal, even expected. Take for example speed skating in Australia; there’s no way in hell that I would be on an olympic training squad if speed skating was as popular in Australia as cricket was. But in Holland, where speed skating really is as big here as cricket is in Australia (or baseball in the US, for those of you who don’t know what cricket is), such happenings are far more unusual. Almost everybody here skates and speed skating has been and organized sport for well over a hundred years. In that time, significant progress has been made in technique and coaching methods. As little as 20 years ago, skaters used to train three times a day and hardly ever rested. The belief that training harder and for longer guarantees success is one of the most ridiculous myths that gets passed around. Part of the reason for this is that, for the vast majority of the population, whose training volume is almost negligible, this rule of thumb holds. However, for athletes who train fairly regularly, there are decreasing returns to scale, and over-training, by definition, actually has harmful effects on performance.
What does it take to win? There are many obvious things – focus, commitment, concentration, time, and money. There are also many things which are difficult to teach or learn, such as knowing one’s own limitations, being able to feel what one’s own body is saying (i.e. “eat more”, or “take today off”). Between athletes and coaches, knowing when not to train is always a dilemma. Most good athletes are highly motivated people, and it is often one of the most difficult things for an athlete to do – to stop training. To do so effectively requires realizing that stopping now often results in not having to stop later, and often for a much longer period of time (usually from injury or exhaustion). In highly technical sports (most of them, but especially speed skating) the ability to relax, to clear your head of clutter, and to be able to “feel” the ice, is also important. So many things have to come together to create a winning performance that most of them really must happen out of habit rather than being consciously brought to bear. At the elite level, nobody is strong enough to win on the mere strength of their talent or physical conditioning.
It is also impossible to cram for sport. I have lost count of all of the important examinations and essays that I have gotten through by simply sitting down in a library somewhere with a large pile of books, and working continually and obsessively, sometimes for over 40 hours at a time (although I wouldn’t recommend going for more than 30 – your brain becomes too useless to even spot simple spelling errors). It is just about impossible to change the result of a race by training intensely the day before. Actually, that isn’t true – if you try that, you are likely to change the result – but not in your favor. Sport is absolutely unforgiving in that regard. When you step on the line, if you stuff up, nobody will care if you trained more or less than anyone else. There is a ridiculous notion circulating in our education system that so long as a student puts a lot of effort into their work, then they deserve a high mark. There are no such illusions in sport, and at the very highest level, the athlete who trains hardest doesn’t always win.
Last weekend, three unlikely heroes unexpectedly made it into the top 4 in their respective events at Dutch nationals (a top-4 finish gives the skater a berth to represent their country at world cup events). They were able, under extreme pressure (nationals are televised live, nation-wide), to string together a confusing and intricate tapestry of, perhaps not all, but enough of the pieces whose sum is a brilliant performance. They all had to skate huge personal best times to do it. Even in such a big sport, with such a deep field of talented skaters (qualification times for Dutch nationals are faster than those for world cups!), with big teams and bigger budgets, it is still possible for an underdog who “gets it together” to leapfrog up the order. Perhaps me and my fellow Australian teammates can draw inspiration and learn from this, in our quest to make it to the Vancouver Olympic Games.
(for those of you who are only interested in my) photos: