One of the toughest things for a coach to accept, and I don't believe it gets much better with experience, when an athlete just doesn't want to win that badly. One of my favorite lines about what makes a good coach is
"You have to be smart enough to know how to do it and dumb enough to believe it's important. "
The same is true of athletes. No matter how talented that child (or adult) is, no matter how much support from families, coaches, fans and the citizens of the Republic of Elbonia, if the athlete doesn't want it badly enough, if he or she isn't "willing to go down the stairs", you are all wasting your time trying to make that person into a champion.
When I look back on some of the people I have been mistaken about, it occurs to me that the signs were always there. It's very simple, really. You find time for what matters most to you.
Judo was my number one priority until 28 years ago when I had my first child. Before that, I spent every day at practice, ran track just as cross-training for judo, spent my junior year of college in Tokyo and if my work interfered with judo, I quit the job and found another one.
When my first baby was born, judo came second, but I really tried to manage both. As a result, Maria spent a lot of hours riding in her car seat next to me on the way to practice and tournaments while I talked to her and tried to work on her vocabulary and general information about life. She crawled around the mats most of her first two years. Seems to have worked out for her - she's got a pretty good career going as a sports writer. She was recently hired on the social media beat for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter at @burnsortiz .
Now, I would have to say that judo is third, after my family and my business. Work takes a lot of time lately and there have even been periods when I wouldn't get to judo for an entire month, something I could not have imagined when I was in my teens or early twenties.
So what does this say to me, or anyone else, as a coach? Simply this, if you have an athlete who is not making it to practice because he or she has to work, needs to study, or is on a pilgrimage to Mount Who to meet the Grinch - it really doesn't matter the excuse they give, the fact is this, it is not that important to them.
As coaches, we try to make excuses for athletes we have put years into developing - he's just burnt out, she is just having a hard time with her boyfriend, athletes in this country just don't get enough support and have to work. All those things happen - athletes get burnt out, they have relationship problems, need to make money, need to get an education - but those who really want it make to practice, do.
If I had not competed in judo, I would have made better grades in college, I probably would have gone to a more prestigious graduate school than the University of Minnesota for my MBA. I may well have gone straight into a Ph.D. program when I finished my masters - I'd gotten accepted into two of them - but instead I went to work, so I could make money and continue competing. I'm pretty sure that I would have gotten promoted faster in my career if I hadn't insisted on taking every weekend and evening for practice instead of work. Maybe I would have started a new technology company in my twenties instead of my fifties.
When I say things like that, people often respond, "You certainly had to make a lot of sacrifices."
I don't know if I would call them sacrifices so much as choices. Everyone's life is a product of the choices they made. At some point, for nearly every athlete, they are no longer "dumb enough to believe it's important". They start choosing other priorities over success in competition. Make no mistake about it, if you are missing training, you are not choosing winning.
Maria told me that her favorite quote from the Sloan Sports Analytics conference last week was something like,
"What we call 'talent' is often simply the willingness to practice."
I would say that the magic number is probably three. That is, the answer to the question,
"How many times can an athlete choose something else over practice or a tournament before you decide he or she isn't serious about winning?"
As in, three times a year. If you miss practice for a week because you had surgery, that counts as one.
If you have someone who is missing practice or a tournament over three times a year for any reason, then winning is not the first thought going through that athlete's head in the morning. He or she might still win a national championships, junior nationals or regional event or eventually become a good coach. Don't fool yourself, though, that this athlete is going to go any further than that, or that gradually, more and more people who do want it won't pass this person by. If I were you, I would be aware of that before running up my credit cards to go to events to coach this person, sponsoring him or her to camps or tournaments. If an athlete can't make it to 100% of the regular practices, I wouldn't be opening up my club at special times just for him or her to practice.
I've seen this scenario played out so many times and each time I have wondered why the athlete didn't have the honesty and courage to just say flat out,
"Winning isn't that important to me."
I still don't know the answer to that but what I DO know is this, they ARE telling you, by their behavior.