African runners tally up 10,000-20,000km of base mileage over a period of a decade or more before they start Training to Compete, Training to Win. Athletes from nations across Africa accumulate this mileage simply running to/from school.
If we look around the globe we can see similar patterns…
In Nordic countries, children spend hours cross country skiing and skating and their athletes are sought after as hockey players, or for sports such as biathlon and cross country skiing. In Alpine countries, downhill skiing is a past-time and athletes from regions such as the Alps and the Rockies in North America sit atop podiums in slalom, GS, and downhill races.
Although the pattern has diminished to a degree (especially for summer sports, due to the mobility of athletes & coaches), athletes still tend to arise from nations or geographic regions where a sport is part of daily life, where a sport is special, is respected and supported by the community and in other cases, athletes arise where a sport is a means to other opportunities.
Across the Carribean, sprinters are respected. Across Europe, cyclists are respected. In South East Asian countries ping pong, badminton players, and martial artists are respected. Football (i.e. soccer) players are respected all around the world.
Children take on a sport because there is a history of excellence in their country, because athletes in the sport are celebrated, because the sport is a part of life in their community. The result is that before any formal training, before any structured workouts, these children amass thousands of hours practicing a sport because they play, and play, and play, with family, with friends, on their own.
8x World Ironman Triathlon Champion Paula Newby Fraser practiced ballet for a decade, then trained as a competitive swimmer, before turning to triathlon. 6x Ironman World Champion Mark Allen was an All-American swimmer before turning to the sport of triathlon. 6x Ironman World Champion Dave Scott grew up playing basketball, football, and water polo, then swam competitively before turning to the sport of triathlon.
3x Olympic gold medalist and 4x World Champion in the long jump and heptathlon, Jackie Joyner Kersee played basketball, danced, cheerled, alongside her training for track and field events.
The most decorated Olympian of all time Michael Phelps played lacrosse and baseball on top of swimming until it came time to decide to focus on one sport. One of the most decorated female US Olympians Natalie Coughlin was encouraged by her CAL swim team coach to take on any sport which challenged her as an athlete. Natalie ended up training in kick boxing, running, pilates, body surfing and weight training. Ed Moses played baseball and golf, and as a senior returned to swimming becoming within a year a top breaststroker in the US, eventually becoming both a World Record holder and Olympian in the 50m, 100m and 200m BR events.
Autobiographies and Biographies of World Champions and Olympians are consistent… from a young age (typically from 3-4 years old) they played in organized and/or unorganized sports, and participated in activities and games and household chores which served to build physical literacy, their physiology and their psychology. By the time these youngsters turn 12, 13 or 14, they already have a decade of training. This training is acquired playing, by having fun outdoors with family and friends, by participating in programs which taught them the FUNdamentals of movement, introduced them to the principles of training, and exposed them to training out of the love of being challenged (i.e. Training to Train).
The Williams sister – Venus and Serena – started playing tennis almost as soon as they could walk. Their parents played tennis with them after school, practicing for hours drills, skill work, and rallying. When they weren’t chasing the balls on the court with racquets, they were chasing balls off the court, retrieving them for their other sisters as they took their turn playing with mom and dad.
No different than the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods had parents who were intimately involved and crucial to his success: Tigers’ father introduced him to the physical aspect of the game getting Tiger to hit [at] golf balls as soon as he could simultaneously stand and hold a club. Tigers’ mother introduced him to the emotional dimension of life by taking Tiger to Buddhist monks so he would learn to meditate, to focus. By the time Tiger was 11 he was working with a sports psychologist on developing the mental skills required for consistent peak performance.
A Nike advert shows a young Rory McIlroy watching Tiger Woods play on TV; inspired, he picks up his own plastic clubs. Rory continues practicing, hitting balls into the washing machine, outside in the rain, late into the evening. Nothing special, just hours and hours of practice, hitting balls whenever, wherever. The advert ends with Rory playing alongside Tiger Woods.
Usain Bolt played tag and other running games in the jungle behind his home in Trelawny, Jamaica. Bolt accounts for his strength from his chores including keeping the house water barrels full. Keeping the barrels full was a weekly chore requiring numerous trips to and from the well hauling bucket after bucket. Bolt points to the humility his parents taught him growing up as the source of stability which has kept him grounded as Olympic and World Champion, as the World Record holder and the worlds fastest man. This humility allowed Bolt to refocus after the fame and fortune his 2008 Olympic performances brought him, to repeat his gold medal hat trick at the 2012 Olympics.
When these youngsters are introduced to structured workout sessions they accelerate in their skill acquisition and performance abilities at phenomenal rates. These youngsters are capable of undertaking immense training loads because their physiology and psychology has been already developed – with or without realizing it – over years of simple play, often lasting long past sunset, well past curfew, after the streetlights have come on. When training becomes challenging, these youngsters maintain their drive, do not cave under the weight of the workload again because the years of play prepared them to persevere, to remain relaxed and focused, to press on in an healthy manner because what they are doing is pressing deeper into the intricacies of an habit they now love: being challenged and figuring out how to overcome.
No one forces you to play. When training and competition become challenging, children with years of play maintain the attitude that its still play. As a result, they retain their drive, focus, are able to continue to improve, while enjoying both training and competition.
Play primed their physiology, and developed their psychology so that they could engage in training which others simply could not tolerate. Its not luck or genetics, its because they knowingly (as in the case of the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods) or unknowingly (as in the case of Usain Bolt, Jackie Joyner Kersee) trained for years and years.
Now juxtapose the base training African children build running to/from school, and the millions of meters a club swimmer completes between thes age of 7 and 17, the hours of riding that Europeans accumulate across the windy north or the mountainous south, to what is published online at triathlon, running, and cycling websites, at training websites, or from online coaches: the typical ‘base’ training recommendations are in multiples of weeks, maybe months.
A Runner’s World article suggests that a whopping 6 to 12 whole weeks builds a base! What bull!
How is it that amateur age group and masters athletes need 12 weeks of base training, when elite athletes have 12 years?
Without a base, competing or completing an event will have detrimental rather than beneficiary health effects. An athlete who has little to no base training will draw from their health in order to participate and complete the event. What’s the point in that? How does ending up sick, battling a cold, pulling a muscle, pushing so hard to finish that you end up unable to walk for a week indicate health? It doesn’t.
The fact that you can force yourself to finish a training session or a competition by relying on a cocktail of painkillers and NSAIDs before, followed up with a chaser of muscle relaxants and rehab appointments doesn’t mean you should. For what? A t-shirt, a participant medal and a finish line photo? What about the self inflicted harm and the contempt for your well-being?
If an active fun lifestyle that leads to wellness and health is the goal, then start in sport where its meant to be started… from the beginning, by playing.
Give yourself permission to play. To lose all sense of time, to fall passionately in love with a sport. Free yourself of all judgement, comparison, rules, timelines and expectations.
The starting point for those who seek their potential, who want to experience living as consistent peak performers is… play.
Start with simple and easy routines that are enjoyable, that offer new experiences of learning, and most importantly match your capabilities. Take it slow, take the time to enjoy yourself and the experience, make it fun and rewarding, and you will be amazed at how fast you achieve goals of peak power to body weight, of becoming flexible, nimble, supple, as strength and endurance develop from a commitment can become effortless, and delightful over time.