Tweet Living in Bath, with access to the Bath University Sports Training Village, it is easy to take for granted that as a private citizen you actually belong to a kind of sporting aristocracy. There are really no better sports facilities in the country. It’s new, it cost £23 million, and all sports are concentrated […]

UK Sport is highlighting its talent transfer scheme in an effort to boost the country’s medal chances in the 2012 London Olympics. Some people have dismissed this as a tactical move, not dealing with the core long-term issues of lack of British success, particularly in athletics. But it has a lot of merit. As UK Sport says:-

“to date many transfers have succeeded due to a stroke of luck and personal intrigue rather than judgement. The Talent Transfer Programme aims to change that, introducing a more proactive, systematic approach to searching out those athletes already ‘primed’ for podium success.”

UK Sport highlights the example of Shelley Rudman, a former 400m hurdler who switched to skeleton bob and won silver at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics. Shelley trains at Bath University.

In marathon running, one of the more famous examples of transfer was that of Jack Foster, a Liverpool-born New Zealander who switched from competitive cycling where he’d failed to excel by his early 30s. Foster won the 1974 Commonwealth silver medal for New Zealand aged a few months short of his 42nd birthday. He set a Masters (over 40) world record of 2:11:18s – a time that would have earned 12th place in last year’s London marathon, and would have won the first race in 1981.

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There is a great book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called Fooled by Randomness, which examines the role of luck in all areas of life, particularly business and investing.

Taleb is a professor of mathematics and a derivatives trader. Not much to do with sport. But his business is complexity. There is something in statistics called “survivorship bias”. There is a danger that what we measure excludes those that have fallen by the wayside, distorting our view of the world.

Sport is a bit like that when it comes to injury and overtraining. The winner is the best on the day, and not necessarily the best over time. What we certainly don’t see at all are the no-shows, the non-runners, the might-have-beens. Imagine England’s rugby performance over the past few years if Jonny Wilkinson had not been injured.

Taleb is a fitness fanatic and keen cyclist. He says he is not interested in competitive sports, so he does not offer much to help an athlete understand success, except to offer the proverbial observation that a baseball hitter is normally cursed when he appears on the front of Sports Illustrated as it is normally followed by a reversal in fortune. (Mathematically, the previous winning streak was in fact an unsustainable run of luck).

In competitive sport, luck is not very likely to take an average athlete to a gold medal. But bad luck will certainly remove good prospects from the population of potential winners. Reducing that component of luck is what athletes strive for. In my own more modest marathon ambitions, I’m trying to do the same. Except there is not any pressure to win, just a pressure to turn up. That is not a small pressure, and if you are raising money for a charity, that pressure builds the nearer you get to the day. I ran my first marathon injured and while still recovering from a virus, dangerously toughing it out so as not to let down those who’d sponsored me.

Continue reading ‘luck, latent talent and training’

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Tweet Colin Jackson’s intervention last week that Britain’s 2012 gold medal prospects were not encouraging touched that ever-raw nerve of the British press, the anticipation of failure. Accompanying Jackson’s comments were reports that British athletes are more prone to injury than overseas competitors. Overtraining leading to exhaustion creates injury. Is there a chronic problem of […]


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