Po­ten­tial for any­thing


Inside Sport - - Quarter Time - – An­drew Mar­mont

How do you de­fine hu­man po­ten­tial? Our top ath­letes con­tinue to change our no­tion of what’s achiev­able. Ja­son Tau­malolo, a gi­ant at 191cm and 117kg, caught a ball around his boot­laces dur­ing Tonga’s his­toric rugby league Test against Aus­tralia in Oc­to­ber, then stepped and swerved past his op­po­nents in the same breath. Then there's young Aussie Michael Dick­son, whose drop­punt and abil­ity to con­trol the bounce of the foot­ball has spun the Na­tional Foot­ball League on its head.

But what if we took our un­der­stand­ing of hu­man po­ten­tial, an­a­lysed the top per­form­ers in their fields, then used this data to ac­cel­er­ate our per­for­mance for gen­er­a­tions to come? It’s these kinds of ques­tions that Dr Andy Wal­she, ex­high per­for­mance di­rec­tor at Red Bull, has spent the last 25 years ex­plor­ing.

He was re­cently in town for a meet­ing of Aus­tralian sport’s top brass. It was the night aŽer Dar­ren Lock­yer, Wendy Botha, Harry Kewell, Gai Water­house, Robyn Ma­her, Drew Ginn, Sam Coffa and Al­lan Moffa– were in­ducted into the Sport Aus­tralia Hall of Fame.

Dr Wal­she has worked with hun­dreds of ath­letes at the top of their fields: climbers, sky­divers, surfers, skiers and snow­board­ers, as well as peo­ple in the arts and in mu­sic. Re­cently, he and his team helped Aus­trian sky­diver Fe­lix Baum­gart­ner pre­pare for and ex­e­cute a his­toric space­jump­ing mis­sion (known as Red Bull Stratos) at 128,000 feet.

“My time at Red Bull sort of broke down the tra­di­tional sports bar­ri­ers pre–y well,” Wal­she says. “And then I moved into mu­sic, and arts, and cul­ture pro­grams, and now it’s any­thing; any­one who is good at any­thing, we are in­ter­ested in. That’s how we learn.”

As he re­flects on all the cham­pi­ons he’s worked with over time, all have cer­tain traits in com­mon: they are good per­form­ers, but even be–er learn­ers.

“For­get what they’re do­ing. How do you make them a be–er learner? Give them a great sense of val­ues and de­velop their char­ac­ter. Those sorts of things tran­scend ev­ery­thing. In the tech­ni­cal­tac­ti­cal side, you’ve got to get more fo­cused. We can be fo­cused on the core hu­man el­e­ments and help­ing to un­der­stand that and how that ap­plies across the board.”

Work­ing at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport in a sci­ence and coach­ing ca­pac­ity, he watched how our ath­letes could go be­yond their lim­its. But then, when he

“I ended up with a com­mu­nity of ath­letes who are push­ing the lim­its, who have never had a coach, trainer, nu­tri­tion­ist or a shrink.”

moved over to head up Red Bull’s per­for­mance team, he saw a raw, very dif­fer­ent side of hu­man po­ten­tial. Re­move the bar­ri­ers and let peo­ple learn from their en­vi­ron­ment.

“What re­ally struck me as I came from the AIS model – they were ex­cel­lent, their sci­ence was ground­break­ing – was that I ended up with a com­mu­nity of ath­letes who are push­ing the lim­its, who have never had a coach, never had a trainer, never had a nu­tri­tion­ist or a shrink,” he says.

“And it just dawned on me that po­ten­tially we were miss­ing some­thing. Be­cause these ath­letes were able to nav­i­gate and learn from their en­vi­ron­ment. Struc­tur­ing the en­vi­ron­ment around the tal­ent, so the coach could lit­er­ally let it do the teach­ing, was a pow­er­ful les­son of that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Baum­gart­ner was a case in point. How do

you pre­pare for jump­ing out of a small blip, from a height 30km higher than Mount Ever­est? You can repli­cate that ex­pe­ri­ence. As a vastly ex­pe­ri­enced base jumper, the Aus­trian was an ac­com­plished and con­fi­dent per­former. But he had to over­come se­vere men­tal doubts.

Wal­she says this type of ath­lete had to be open to lis­ten­ing and learn­ing from every op­por­tu­nity. “Take a big-wave surfer as an ex­am­ple. It is hard to train on re­ally big waves be­cause they just don’t hap­pen. How do they de­velop those skills and char­ac­ter­is­tics that aren’t teach­able in the clas­sic sense? And how do they use the en­vi­ron­ment – like the surf – to do all the teach­ing? It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing model.”

Coaches will also need to change the way they ap­proach their trade. Pro­fes­sional teams use plenty of data and an­a­lyt­ics now. But imag­ine how tech­nol­ogy – things like ma­chine learn­ing – could as­sist our coaches in 20 years’ time?

“The coach of the fu­ture is go­ing to have to be that ex­pert learner,” Wal­she says. “They need to be very open to all the stuff that is go­ing on around them, but savvy enough to be able to de­ci­pher what’s real and what isn’t. They also have to be aware that their mod­els of coach­ing are prob­a­bly go­ing to change with re­spect to the in­for­ma­tion they’re us­ing.”

Us­ing data in big games could also be a help – or a hin­drance. But coaches also can’t turn into ro­bots: they need to keep a hu­man el­e­ment, too. “You go into a grand fi­nal. The ma­chine knows ev­ery­thing about every grand fi­nal for the last 30 years in terms of tac­tics and move­ment. You can’t re­mem­ber all that, so you can use it to ask, ‘Re­mind me about what hap­pened in the ’73 grand fi­nal.’ But you still need to make it your own. The coach of the fu­ture needs to un­der­stand all that and have the abil­ity to take mean­ing from it and ap­ply it. That’s the hu­man el­e­ment.”

In a room full of Aus­tralian sport’s 100 top chief ex­ec­u­tives and ad­min­is­tra­tors for The Chair’s Round Ta­ble for Sport – “Hack­ing Hu­man Po­ten­tial”, pre­sented by sports in­surer Sportscover, it feels like a line-in-the­sand mo­ment when think­ing about our sport­ing fu­ture. Tech­nol­ogy will con­tinue to ac­cel­er­ate in a fast way. It’s how we, as a sport­ing na­tion, ap­proach and an­tic­i­pate these shi•s to be be–er in our lives.

Wal­she is op­ti­mistic about the next phase in our evo­lu­tion as a coun­try of sports­peo­ple: “We have an op­por­tu­nity to di­rec­tion­ally shi• our evo­lu­tion, ei­ther pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively.

“I think the op­por­tu­nity is there to use tech­nol­ogy to aug­ment our un­der­stand­ing and help us drive that in a proac­tive and pos­i­tive way, and to take a lead­er­ship role in this whole mas­sive tech­nol­ogy arms race.”

Aus­tralian sport’s 100 top chief ex­ec­u­tives and ad­min­is­tra­tors gath­ered for The Chair’s Round Ta­ble for Sport – “Hack­ing Hu­man Po­ten­tial” pre­sented by Sportscover.

Andy Wal­she shares his tales from the sport­ing edge [ ]: with surfer Sally Fitzgib­bons, un­der­wa­ter with mo­tocross star Travis Pas­trana, and the team ef­fort be­hind Red Bull Stratos .

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