Potential for anything
MODERN SPORT STARS CAN DO INCREDIBLE THINGS. BUT THE NEXT GENERATION OF HALL-OF-FAMERS WILL HAVE ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE THAT WILL PUSH PERFORMANCE BEYOND KNOWN LIMITS, ACCORDING TO ONE EXPERT.
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 aer 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 prey 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 beer learners.
“Forget what they’re doing. How do you make them a beer 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 shis to be beer 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 .