Dan John: What Makes an Athlete Elite?

Excerpted from his lecture of the same title.

In 2002, when the Olympics came to Salt Lake City, I came up with a simple list of five basic keys that indicate someone is an elite athlete. You might think it would be a simple standard, but the parents of our young athlete charges have trouble with this simplicity.

When a person is a professional basketball player, no one would question that this is an elite athlete. If you’re on an Olympic team, no one questions your elite status. But before you get there, what are the signs that you might achieve that?

Let me very simply unpack my five points and talk about some of the techniques we use—not so much in training because that’s going to start with the fundamental human movements and basic corrective work. We’re not going to do anything magical, but I’ll reveal how we address all of this in a package for someone who wants to bump up the game.

Let’s begin with the five clues of what makes an elite athlete.

1) The athlete is no longer on a steep learning curve and is no longer improving in quantum leaps from year-to-year or season-to-season. Lifts, for example, no longer double over two years. Improvement is slow, but still happening.

2) The athlete has a year-round approach to a single sport.

3) The athlete uses some form of an intense training camp or focused training of each year.

4) The athlete uses high levels of strength training before the competitive period, with the exception of Olympic lifters, powerlifters and anybody in those clear strength sports. For these non-strength sport people, as strength levels go down, performance should improve for most if they follow the principle.

5) Finally, and this is a big one: The athlete has made a personal choice to be elite.

Point One: That learning curve

One of the best magazine articles I’ve ever read was in Esquire by George Leonard and was a discussion of a thing called mastery. His book, Mastery, doesn’t present it as clearly, but in the original article, he talked about the road to mastery. He said it’s like an upward slope. You get better each and every day, and then there’s a plateau, where the key to the whole thing is how you deal with the plateau.

He called a lot of people “dabblers.” I’m sure you know people who are dabblers. You have a friend who has cross-country skis, rollerblades, racquetballs, tennis equipment, golf stuff and snowmobiles all in his garage . . . and he never uses any of them. For a while, he did them every single day. He played racquetball three days a week, then six days a week and then twice a day. Then he started rollerblading, got better rollerblades, and then he started cross-country skiing. He then started kayaking . . . or whatever.

You see this all over life too. People get into relationships—and we’re all guilty of this—those first weeks of a new relationship are amazing as you learn things about the person. Everything is fun and great and then things flatten out a bit.

Those people who move on at that point? Those are dabblers.

He also talked about obsessives who will do anything to get off the plateau, including multiple surgeries and smashing their heads against a wall. We all know obsessives (I think the person writing here is one of them).

His great insight, though, was that the master learns to fall in love with the plateau. The master learns to embrace and enjoy it, realizing that at the end of the plateau is another upward swing.

That’s something an elite athlete is quite good about. Elites are not on that steep learning curve anymore. They’re no longer doubling and tripling every year, but they know there’s improvement.

The first time I ever snatched under Dick Notmeyer’s guidance, I snatched 165 pounds. Three weeks later, I snatched bodyweight, 187 pounds. In that year, I got my snatch up to 231 pounds. The following year, I got up to 264, if I remember correctly. In college, I got up to 286 pounds. Seventeen years later, I broke that PR with a 314-pound snatch.

I hope you caught that little bit there—seventeen years later. That’s a long time to keep swinging at something. That’s a highlight of understanding what a plateau is.

I certainly didn’t understand what it was at the time. I kept trying crazy ideas. I kept doing a variety of lifts and programs, but what I should have done was relax and enjoy the process.

This goes counter to what we fall in love with as athletes—those quick improvements—but it’s a real insight to ponder.

Now let’s talk about Point Two: The athlete has a year-round approach to a single sport.

We’re at a time in American history where a lot of kids are specializing too early. They’re on teams that travel around and spend time in hotels. They eat a lot of popcorn. They eat a lot of free meals at the hotel. They carry big bunnies so they can sleep on the bus with them. They’re elite, but they’re not truly elite.

If you were an elite club eight-year-old girl, there should be strength training for a year-round approach. There should be sprint training. There should be other kinds of training, but today all they do is play, which is fine, except this principle is very important: The athlete has a year-round approach to a single sport.

Can playing other sports help? Absolutely. There’s no question that diversifying can help athletes. I had a great breakthrough in my discus-throwing career by picking up Highland Games competitions. It was one of the best insights in my career. Everyone I’ve talked to who is a discus or hammer thrower who started doing the Highland Games has come back to the track-and-field event and said, “This is what I should be doing. That is the mistake I’m making.” Specializing in one sport is a principle many take on too early in the process.

We’ve disposed of the off-season, but elite athletes need an off-season. I have a theory about why injury rates are so high in the NFL: Nobody takes time off.

The Super Bowl is not played until February. How are they supposed to stay in the greatest shape of their lives for six or seven months? I don’t know how it’s possible. Things break down. I think what breaks down the most is the emotions and the mind, but still, the physical injury rate in the NFL is unbelievable. Everyone gets hurt at least once in the season. I think they need an off-season to soften up.

I mean not just soften up physically, but also soften up the mind and emotions. You can’t keep pulling that rubber band over and over again. You have to let it go sometimes. And—to keep this metaphor going way too far—that’s why these guys snap.

As to Point Three: The athlete uses some form of an intense training camp or focused training each year.

I’m convinced an athlete needs two to three weeks of eating cafeteria food, having someone else take care of the heating, cooling and laundry, while training two, three and four times a day with absolute total commitment to the goal. The mistake we make is we put these poor people in these training camps and have them live there two or three years.

If you think you’re an elite athlete, you have to have total concentration and focus.

Point Four: The athlete uses high levels of strength training before the competitive periods. As strength levels go down, performance should improve—with the exception of competitive lifters.

This is one of the great lessons we learned back in the 1970s and we’ve forgotten it. Back in the early 1960s, they used to get as strong as they possibly could in the weight room, and then stop lifting. When you were strong enough, you would go throw.

I love this principle. I would love to get someone to try it. The thought process was this: Experiment a few times. If there are minimal numbers you need to be a good thrower, how many workouts does it take to get back to that level after 12 weeks of not lifting?

If we could determine a way that keeps athletes maybe three weight workouts from getting back to earlier strength levels, we’re talking about minimal training. During the season, they would practice the spot and maybe only lift one week or two weeks during the entire season.

As the strength backs off, as they begin to super-compensate for all that training, all of those other qualities they have begin to rise. The strength levels in the weight room are down, but the performances improve.

The biggest mistake I see is people try to get strong too late. You want to get as strong as you can as early as you can in the yearly cycle, and then not worry about strength anymore. It should be something that’s in your pocket for the rest of the year.

Point Five is that the athlete has made a personal choice to be elite. The athletes have to choose to go through all of this. They alone have to be the one to take all of this on. It has to come welling up from your soul that you want to spend the six hours a day it takes to train.

The goal of being an elite athlete has to be personal. It has to be all about you. It has to come from inside of you, and if that’s not the way it is—if it came from your parents and not from you—it’s not going to last through those long dark nights of the soul.

Is being elite worth it? Well, back to point five:

That’s a personal choice.

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