Selection Nightmare- Countries Denying Athletes their Olympic Dream – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running

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Consider this a plea.

A plea for countries that do not send full Olympic teams, when they are perfectly capable of it, to reconsider their policy. I realize that this will mostly fall on deaf ears, but for athletes in countries that don’t select teams, perhaps it will offer some solace. I have no dog in the fight, no athlete who didn’t get selected this year, but it’s something that’s been happening for decades, with no real resolution.

There’s a notion in athletics that if we create difficult standards, athletes will rise to the occasion. We simply need to raise the bar to a level that pushes athletes to strive to a new level. Every new head of athletics that comes in and tries to be a hard ass and draw a line in the sand for how good you have to be to make my team is demonstrating this perceived belief.

In some senses you can’t fault them. They believe they are helping. They have a mandate to bring home medals, as if that is all that matters.

The notion that these countries have is simple: High standards= athletes will have to rise to them.

When we step back, a few problems arise and they are based on a few assumptions this ‘theory’ relies on.

1. Athletes aren’t reaching standards because they aren’t driven/motivated to.

There’s a notion that people rise to the level of expectation that you provide. While this sounds good in theory, and has some merit, the problem is we are dealing with a very select group of athletes. We’re dealing with world-class performers trying to obtain something that only ~30 people in the world get to do, make an Olympic Team in their desired event. Given this, we’re dealing with athletes who have extremely high levels of motivation and drive already. It seems rather foolish to think, “Oh, these athletes don’t really care, we need to provide extra motivation for them from the outside.”

External rewards fail miserably compared to internal motivation. At this level, athletes are internally driven to reach their goal. Why in the world would many of these athletes who are fighting to get on teams spend their life pursuing a goal with so little financial incentive if they relied on external motivation to get them through things?

2. Artificially raising standards works

When I first got into college coaching, after working with pro’s, it would have been easy to say, ‘you guys suck, here are the new standards of what is good.’ Our school records sucked, our depth sucked, the expectations weren’t what they needed to be. But I didn’t say, even though our school record is 8:20ish in the 3k, you need to run 8:05 or better to be considered good. You can’t proclaim what good is, then expect athletes to change their mental framework instantly. Instead, we started where we were at and gradually, from top to bottom, tried to improve. A few years later we had a school record of 7:59 and we had a walk on kid drop under our old school record.

The point is simple. Artificial standards coming from some mysterious governing body don’t work. There’s no meaning to them. There’s no connection. Standards of excellence happen naturally and organically as athletes and teams raise their expectations by taking care of the process to get better.

We can’t force an increase in standards. We have to develop it. Don’t take my lowly college team as proof. When Bill Walsh took over the San Fransisco 49er’s, a losing team, he didn’t say, okay team, we are going to win 12 games this year and make the super bowl or we fail. He developed the culture and set standards for how practice was performed. He took care of the process of developing excellence, not the outcome. As the title of his should make this point clear: The Score Takes Care of Itself

If you want to get better, you don’t say you have to achieve X, you figure out how to give athletes and coaches the ability to maximize their potential. You create support surrounding the team to get better. Their interest in performing better is the same as your interest, as a country, in having them perform. Yet, so many times, it seems like athletes/coaches and governing bodies are at complete odds with one another.

Let’s face it. If the artificial standard worked, then Canada would have been a powerhouse during the early 2000’s with their A++ standards, and the UK and Australia would have risen to dominance with similar policies during the time frames….None of this happened. In fact, many went into a black hole of distance running, reliant on 1 or 2 stars with zero depth to supplant it once those stars were gone…

The Nature of Goals
The reason this occurs is a mismatch in expectations and reality. If we look at goal setting theory, the best goals: “should be set high enough to encourage high performance but low enough to be attainable ” If there’s a large mismatch between perceived achievability and the standard or excellence, motivation plummets. Our goal backfires.

Not only that, but other research suggests that “setting goals that are too high not only jeopardizes motivation and commitment but also can create a culture of corruption, dishonesty, and cutting corners “(Bennett, 2009). Similarly, Ordonez et al (2009), found that employees will cross ethical boundaries if they know they have to reach very difficult standards set by their employers.

Now, what kind of ethical boundaries could athletes breach in order to hit a standard?

Hmm, maybe that thing that plagues all of athletics, performance enhancing drugs.

In certain events, the Olympic standards were artificially inflated because of drug use at the top. If it wasn’t the Olympic standard, then Countries own individual A+ standards or standards for obtaining funding were certainly influenced by drug use. Drug users make the highly difficult seem ordinary. And governing bodies, with their heads in the sand, take these crazy performances as pure truth, setting unrealistic standards for all but a handful of clean athletes.

Look no further than the 2012 Olympic finals for the Women’s 1500m. Over half the field has been implicated with drug use. If I’m a women whose country relies on potential to medal or make the final, drugs have pushed the unbelievable to such depths that I could be 18th overall and be an actual finalist if everyone was clean!

There is a reason your athletes can’t make finals or finish with medals, and you are perpetuating the myth!

What’s the lesson? By setting standards ridiculously high, you, yes you, are encouraging performance enhancing drug use. It may seem outlandish, but look at the throws events where you have standards so high that not a single US athlete reached it (aka Men’s Hammer).

The IAAF realizes this problem and has reduced the Olympic standards and also created a statute that says if you are in the top X people, you make it. But individual countries continue to be hard headed.

The Nature of Control:

The US system works. The behemoth in the athletic world doesn’t take its best team to the Olympic games. We ‘miss out’ on medals because someone fell in the trials or had an off day. Yet, our performance as a whole country has risen to the occasion. In the year 2000, we sent one marathoner for each gender and whoever got the standard in the 5k got on the team essentially.

We didn’t panic and raise our standards to an unobtainable level. No, instead, you saw groups and support for distance runners start to pop up. And it wasn’t just for the elite of the elite. Marathoning came back in part because of efforts like the Hanson’s who showed blue collar runners could be pretty darn good. If these blue collar runners like Brian Sell could make the team, then our most talented runners figured they had as good a shot. The same thing happened on the track. While the studs make teams, you’re just as likely to see a Kim Conley, Ben Blankenship, Chrishuna Williams, Kate Grace, Hassan Mead, and others who never won an NCAA title, yet made teams this year. Venture down the list further and you find people who were also-rans on the NCAA national level who made finals and came close to making their dreams a reality.

Why does the US system work?
While we can debate the efficacy of it and the role size of the country and other metrics matters, one of the reasons is control. When standards are set, fairly and justly, athletes have a sense of control. For the US system, it is simple. Have the Olympic standard, whatever that is, and finish top 3 and you are in. If the top 3 don’t have the standard, then we will select whoever the top 3 are with it. There are no mysterious selectors in a room making a choice. There’s no, top-2 automatically qualify then we have a choice to take you or not. There’s no prove fitness to us and you go.

It’s simple. Athletes have control of their destiny. Entirely

When athletes feel they have control of their own destiny, self-efficacy and motivation is increased. This feeling that they have a fighting chance, that it’s under their control, leads to increased confidence and performance. On the flip side, what happens when people feel they have a low sense of control, when decisions are out of their hands, when politics rule the day? Self efficacy plummets.

Research shows that even if a goal or standard is well within reach, their self-efficacy still plummets. Think about that for a moment. EVEN if a standard is within reach, with no control, self-efficacy drops.

So what happens when we take control away from athletes and stick it in selectors hands? We’re deliberately sabotaging our athlete’s performance.

Standards and the sport:

No one is arguing we shouldn’t have standards of excellence. That we shouldn’t strive to make our teams as high quality as possible. But this elitist attitude of “the Olympics isn’t an all comers meet” is destroying our sport.

If you think that running an Olympic standard is not world-class, well, get off your high horse and come to the real world. No one tells the 6th player on an NBA team that he shouldn’t be in the championships because he isn’t good enough to start, even though his team qualified. No one tells the golfer who squeaked into the PGA championships at #156 that he isn’t going to be allowed to go because, even though he qualified, his chances of finishing in the top 50, let alone top 10, are minimal. No one tells the 128 players selected for Wimbledon that they can’t go.

Yet, in our sport, we routinely tell athletes who qualify and are good enough to be selected to go home. Instead we are going to take nobody. An athlete doesn’t fill their spot, simply a void.

And what happens when we do this? We push athletes out of the sport. Instead of raising this mythical bar, we frustrate athletes and leave them thinking “why in the world do I do this sport where I live in poverty and have no support from my country?” So we push jaded, disillusioned athletes out into the world as our ambassadors for our sport.

We miss out on the story lines of athletes triumphing against the odds to make the team. We lose out on publicity in local papers, stories inspiring children to be like Johnny who grew up in their town, and the story of Suzy making the Olympic team from XX track club to motivate the kids that they too could make the Olympics one day. Instead, we are left with a distraught athlete who despises the system and passes on the message of “Is it really worth it?” to all those they could be inspiring.

We are intentionally pushing people out of the sport. We’re telling them they aren’t good enough, when we truly have no idea our self. Time and again, you have stories of athletes coming out of nowhere to make Olympic teams, finals, or even medal. You have the stories of the Boris Berrian’s of the world going from McDonald’s to world champs or Brenda Martinez going from being rejected by every group to medaling at worlds. There’s the Chanelle Price story of winning indoors after being a child phenom in floundering in college, or the story of Erica Moore medaling at world indoors in the 800m after being a 400m hurdler in college. Then there’s the rise of Desi Linden who has made Olympic teams and was 4th at the Boston marathon after only running 16:17 for 5k in college. These might be outliers, but these are all people who experts would not have predicted they do anything when they were at their low points.

In countries where selection occurs, we have individuals who dare to think they have the almighty ability to predict the future. To know, who can be a medalist or make the finals or not. It’s ludicrous to be so delusional.

A Fair Shot:

In the US system, they’ve all been given a fair shot. They rise through the ranks, knowing what it takes. They don’t finish 3rd at the trials and be told that they aren’t a future medalist so they aren’t going, like is often the case in the UK and Canada. They don’t win their national championship, hit the Olympic standard 3 times and get denied a spot because they won’t medal, like has happened in the Netherlands.

If we had it the way of many countries and governing bodies, the Olympic games would consist of maybe 8-12 people only in every event. After all, those are the only athletes who have any realistic shot at bringing home a medal. In some events, that number might be as small as 5. If we use the US Olympic trials as a microcosm of the Olympics, we saw that numerous athletes who squeaked into the trials or weren’t favored to make teams, found their way into finals and even on teams. They were given the opportunity. The surprise and intrigue created drama that made the trials highly entertaining.

If we left it up to the governing bodies of many Athletics federation, all of the excitement for cheering for your hometown hero or countries representative, all of the intrigue and hope for underdogs: It would all be gone. Those are things that make sport interesting. Yet in track, we want to eliminate it all.

Only in the sport of track and field, do we routinely shoot ourselves in the foot and then pat ourselves on the back for doing so.

While I know the argument will be “that could never happen now a days, or that’s such an outlier it never could occur”, consider this: If he lived today in a country that selected solely based on medal potential, like many do, the Billy Mills story never would have happened.

And that’s sad.

 

 

 



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