The Power of Crumminess


Here’s a little-appreciated fact about talent hotbeds: their facilities tend to be rundown. Rusty. Makeshift. Overcrowded.

In a word, crummy.

Exhibit A could be the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which has produced Michael Phelps and a squadron of other top national swimmers despite its considerably-less-than-lovely setting.  Or Anand Kumar’s tin-roof math class in India where an astounding 78 percent of the students are accepted to India’s Harvard, the Indian Institutes of Technology. Or any of another dozen other hotbeds where this precise atmosphere is repeated so often that it stops feeling like a coincidence, and starts to feel more like a fingerprint, or a mathematical equation: Crumminess + Crowdedness = Beautiful Talent.

This strikes most of us as surprising, because to the modern American/European mind, crumminess and crowdedness are considered deeply undesirable. We instinctively strive for groomed fields, top-level technology, comfortable surroundings — and enough space where each age group can gather in splendid isolation.

The question is, is talent developed better in roomy, well-appointed facilities? Or is there something else going on in these remote hotbeds? To put it simply, are there any advantages to being crummy and crowded?

We get an interesting data point from Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, a bona fide hotbed of downhill skiing talent (it’s produced 40-plus Olympians in its 30 years). Burke’s facility is far from rundown (though the classrooms and dorms tend toward the spartan), but it has two features that set it apart: an undersized ski hill, and an ancient, creaking beast of a ski lift that, by all appearances, should have been replaced long ago. It’s an old-fashioned poma lift, and it works like this: you stand on the snow, grab onto a bar/seat contraption, and get dragged uphill.

Most visitors who come to Burke see the old poma lift and presume that it’ll be replaced soon by something faster and more efficient. But the teachers and coaches of Burke would never think of it. To their minds, the poma lift might be their most valuable resource.

From the poma lift, young skiers get a catbird seat to watch the older, better skiers make turns. That physical closeness transforms the small ski hill into a rich kingdom of watching and learning, not to mention motivation. Kids on that poma lift receive the privilege of seeing up close who they might become, if they work hard.

We’re all acquainted with the phenomenon of the scruffy underdog from the remote country who rises up and defeats big, rich Goliath — we see it all the time in sports, music, and business.  And we naturally interpret their success as evidence of the superior hunger of poor countries. They want it more. They’re tougher. They’re quintessential underdogs.

But I think Burke and the other hotbeds gives us a new way to think about underdogs. Crumminess and crowdedness, used properly, can be advantages. The skiers from Burke only look like underdogs — in fact, they’re the overdogs, because they’ve designed the perfect space to create deeper, better practice and ignite more motivation.

So what do the rest of us do? Should we demolish our good facilities and replace them with crowded, tin-roofed structures? Well, not quite. I think it’s more useful to look closely at the useful elements from the hotbeds and try to copy them. A few ideas:

  • 1. Find ways to mix age groups. Isolation diminishes motivation. Nothing creates effort and intensity like staring at older talent, someone who you want to become. Putting groups together — even in passing, as on the poma lift — injects a burst of motivational electricity.
  • 2. Aim to make facilities spartan and simple. Research shows that luxurious surroundings diminish effort — and why not? It’s a signal to our unconscious minds that we’ve got it made — why should we keep taking risks and working hard?
  • 3. When given the choice, invest in people over facilities. Teachers are the real engine of the day-by-day learning process that drives any hotbed. The addition of one master teacher creates more talent than a million dollars’ worth of bricks and mortar.

P.S. — Okay, what do you think?  What would you do if you received a check for $50,000 tomorrow to help develop talent in your team/school? Please rank the following possibilities from most-effective to least-effective:

  • 1. Pay for new facilities/equipment
  • 2. Hire the single best teacher/coach you can find
  • 3. Bring in a top-notch series of camps/seminars for students and teachers
  • 4. Pay existing teachers/coaches more

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22 Responses to “The Power of Crumminess”

  1. Robin Clarkson says:

    Congratulations Daniel, your amazing insight does it again. What you continually say gives hope and inspiration to all from smaller areas and limited funding to strive ahead and achieve. It’s the old story, most people are busy chasing the illusive magic pill for success whereas the seed to success lies within.


  2. Walter says:

    A tad off topic but i remember Arnold and Lou Ferigno, and that gang of old school bodybuilders back in the day that trained in what they called “the dungeon”. Old school free weight, machines they welded together that looked unsafe, yet a nice Worlds Gym was just down the road. They refused to work out in what was a state of the art facility back then but stayed in their “dungeon” which Arnold called smelly and small. He said in the summer it was so hot some guys fainted and that small fans did nothing to move the air around. The guys that trained in that “dungeon” all went on to be world champions, including Franco Colombo, Tom Platz ect. Like Arnold said, “We didn’t have the spandex, hot tubs ext, just hard work and sweat!

  3. djcoyle says:

    Walter: I love it: Ah-nuld speaks the truth!
    It makes me want to check out that old documentary, “Pumping Iron.”
    Thanks for making the connection, Dan

  4. Tim says:

    Dan, Thanks for this post. I’m an athletic performance coach and I have been bumping up against the limitations of the space we use to train our young players. But this post takes me back to your book and to the value of some recent experiences. We’ve been fortunate to work with great young soccer goalkeepers. We had the All State Tournament keepers in 2008 and 2009. So as we began our training in February of 2010 I joked with the group that we had two in a row and wondered who would be next. Lo and behold one of the girls who had trained with those older kids stepped up and was selected all state in 2010. This winter one of our college players was home from school training over the winter break and the middle school and younger high school kids who don’t know her were enthralled. The older high school kids chatted it up with her and the younger ones listened to every word. There was this sense on the part of those younger kids that ” I could be like her, I could do that. She’s one of us.” So, maybe there’s something good about our cramped weight room and working out under the bleachers in the hockey arena in the winter or having to walk across the street to the middle school fields in the summer. Building those circuits and that ignition in the form of the older kids. Couldn’t have planned it but maybe the astroturf isn’t always greener on the other side. Thanks again.

  5. gpo says:

    Where could this more true than the schoolyard basketball court. It would be outside with wind and either bad nets or no nets. Kids played whoever showed up. You might be playing guys 3 or 4 years your senior, but if you wanted to stay on the court you played your best and pushed yourself.

    Like you say hunger and passion can make up for a lot. I ordered your book and can’t wait for it to arrive.

  6. Greg says:

    Great article Dan,

    Based on the article and book, I’d rank in the following order:

    1) #2 Hire the single best teacher I can find – one master teacher creates more talent than a million dollar facility
    2) Bring in top notch camps/seminars – this allows different age groups to mix, and speakers can have that “if they can do it, I can impact.
    3) Pay existing coaches/teachers more – I’d bump this up if I knew these existing coaches/teachers were good at their jobs.
    4) Facilities.


  7. Garnet says:

    Great blog. The Arnold story reminds me of when I was weightlifting; I started at the hard core gym in town, all the guys there were muscleheads. Because of this the gym was successful, and the ‘natural’ next step was to move to a larger facility and create a very hip, coed fitness club. Most of the same people still went, but it was diluted with posers and those into a healthy lifestyle. That great smelly, obsessive, confined intensity was lost as was the feeling of belonging to that fringe tribe.

    1. Great coach
    2. Seminars – a very close second, since we all self coach
    3. Facilities
    4. Pay coaches more

  8. Tim says:

    1. Great coach/teacher
    2. Seminars
    3. Pay coaches more
    4. Facilities

    3&4 could easily be reversed. Money’s rarely a strong incentive and some research shows a strong correlation between higher pay and poorer performance. Just need to pay enough so that money’s not an issue. If that’s the case then better to invest in creating the right kind of physical plant.

  9. sparky says:

    Couldn’t agree more Dan. Deep practice in difficult, changing environments only serves to create a diverse set of techniques that will be called upon in competitive endeavours. The soccer players I’ve coached improved more when we weren’t on the perfectly manicured facilities.

  10. Johnny says:

    4-2-3-1: Reward your existing top quartile performers first!

  11. Craig says:

    Reminds me of the days training for speeding skating. Those of us at the Olympic training center, in Calgary, had every advantage. A host of coaches, sport psycologists, massage therapists, and equipment managers. The best facilities, the best ice (in the world), ice time whenever we wanted it, private locker rooms, etc. etc.
    But we consistently got our clocks cleaned by the teams training in Quebec. The ones who trained at ungodly morning hours, in a crappy cold and musty old ice rink, and no other advantages, whatsoever.
    No matter how much we tried, they always had a hunger we couldn’t match.

  12. Mark says:

    If you’ve already got the right people “on the bus” pay them more and invest in infra-structure. If the training is lacking bring in the new guy and build a great program.
    Scenario 1: 4, 1, 3, 2
    Scenario 2: 2, 3, 1, 4

  13. Alfredo Zolin says:

    Hi. Great blog.
    I live in Denmark where comfort is always around. So tempting,so tempting…Yet a performance environment should not be designed for comfort but for effort and small improvements. The trick is that in spite of the temptations all around, the coach should bring the word “effort” into a vivid thing before, during and after practice. Get the best out of the environment you are given and look for details that encourage the youngsters to put effort and improvement as training goals. A bit more effort and improvement each time translates into a huge improvement on the long run. I read that in Jamaica, the best running athletes train in the uggliest training facilities…the coach is conscious about this and does not want to improve the facilities. He says that this is something nobody has understood in the rich countries, where top training facilities are built everywhere without the users having earnet it yet. The same issue of scarcity goes for running athletes in Kenya. Interestingly, they gather the experienced (those with medals) together with the less experienced in an environment deprived of comfort…there is full focus on running, eating and slepping. That’s it. Here the role of the coach is probably less important than in collective sports, such as football (soccer), where individual skills are very important but the cognigtive skills are just as important, if not more. To make “inception” on the players and plant a positive mindset in which the players are not afraid of making mistakes and see no limits as how good they can get, is the coach’s toughest assignment and biggest dream.
    Alfredo (U14 soccer coach)

  14. Sean says:

    Hey Dan-great book! Loved every page…but I wanted to ask some questions. Have you ever noticed that whenever athletes seem to have another talent, it is always mostly music? How do you think they have the time to develop these talents when they have spent their whole life trying to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport? And also, how do you think athletes who seem to have a bad attitude, such as Demarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings, get to the highest level despite not seeming to have the work ethic and drive it takes for most to reach the pro ranks? Keep up the good work!

  15. Chuck says:

    Burke is definitely a hotbed but an even better ski example is Buck Hill. 350 vertical feet and just as many Olympic stories-Start with Gold Medalist Cindy Nelson and ending with Lindsey Vonn. They have no facilities just a 70 year old coach who consistently motivates and sends one great racer after another. Also the fact that Burke costs about $45,000-$55,000 a year kind goes against the whole spartan concept. These kids mostly come from super elite families who can afford this. There are a few on scholarship but most are paying through the nose.

    Anyway, here’s my thoughts 2,4,3,1

    But it’s hard to attract talent from parents without a stellar reputation if your facilities are weak.

  16. Chuck says:

    So throwing more money at everything isn’t the answer?

  17. Christine Feehan says:

    Former Burke Mountain Academy coach here. You can add Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow to your list of facilities that support this argument.

  18. Chris Rollins says:

    A few years ago I worked for a performing arts charter school in Western Massachusetts that was operating out of a creaky 100 year old brick and wood school building with several shabby outbuildings and rented space down the street. The school then rehabbed an industrial research building in the next town over with modern equipment and spacious surroundings next to a golf course. Result? Within a couple years both directors, the music program head and the theater guy all left and the tight feel of the original group evaporated ( along with my layoff for budget concerns ) Seemed like the time energy and money all went into the new facility and not into the staff- go figure!

  19. Peter Conrad says:

    Perhaps there is something else going on here. Master teachers are not followers, and expensive facilities come with a mandate that things be done in a certain way in order to maintain the “quality” of the educational experience. This happens all the time in education. When a teacher tries to stray from the common path, there is a backlash intended to bring the teacher back in line. It comes from the factory model of education. If no one up the line is mandating how things should be, then a master teacher is free to use skill and knowledge to build the same in the students. This is much different than a programmed approach where the teacher is easily replaceable.

  20. Hunter Dean says:

    Coming from New Zealand NZ 🙂 with a population of 4 million people…
    This theory fits, at the World cup soccer, the NZ coach was paid something like $40K NZD while the European coaches were taking home $500K Euro+

    We have world class, Rugby, Soccer, Netball, Triathlon, Distance Runners, Golfers, Race Horses etc etc…

    And if you look around any sports facility in NZ you’ll find at best its like an old hall where people all enjoy their game, but financially it’ll never match up to the bigger countries yet our performances do!

  21. Troy Watts says:

    Just to clarify on Burke, about 70% of its athletes receive some kind of scholarship, and it has been their stated intention to reach a point where admissions is totally need blind. In other words, only merit gets you in…

  22. Scott says:

    Hello Dan! Hope I am not bothering you with a question. First of all, I am struggling with my son’s spring premier soccer team (coach) here in Northern Michigan. They are asking us to spend way too much money on uniforms and matching warm-ups and all the things that go “bling”. I am a subscriber to (and product of) the Daniel Coyle Book of Talent Development, which says crummy keeps hunger way better than perfect. Have you seen anything since you posted that blog post “The Power of Crumminess” from 2011 that would dissuade you from that idea?

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