10 Surprising Truths from the World’s Most Successful Talent Hotbed

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imagesHope you all had a good and rejuvenating summer. We spent a big chunk of it up in Alaska, doing some hiking, fishing, working, and — as some of you noticed — not updating the blog. It was nice to have a vacation, but as the weeks have gone by, I found myself missing this place, and the conversations that happen here. All of which is to say, in the coming weeks on I’ll be posting more regularly — figure on weekly-ish. And to start us off we’ve got a rare treat.

Question: If you had the opportunity to get inside one of the world’s top talent hotbeds, which would you choose? You could make a good case for German soccer academies, or Finnish high schools, or any number of top music academies. But there’s one hotbed that might rank above them all, one hotbed that’s so ass-kickingly, fascinatingly dominant that they make the others seem positively lukewarm.

Chinese divers.

To say Chinese divers are dominant doesn’t quite cover it. At last month’s World Cup of Diving they won gold and silver in every single event they entered.  In other words, in nine events, no diver from any other country beat a single Chinese diver. This isn’t new: over the past four Olympics, they have won 24 of  a possible 32 gold medals.

So it was a rare treat when I recently came into contact with Rett Larson, who he has spent a good chunk of the last two and a half years at the very center of Chinese diving. Rett is performance manager for EXOS-China and lives part-time in Shanghai, where he helps oversee and organize the team’s training. And because he’s also an incredibly generous and insightful dude, he’s made this video (below) and written the accompanying text so that readers of this blog can get this exclusive peek inside their training facility.

So check out Rett’s video and, even more important, the accompanying list. There’s a lot to love about his list: how it cuts against conventional  wisdom; and how it describes a culture that consistently nudges performers to the edges of their envelope (for proof, scroll to the 2-minute mark in the video, and watch as a diver attempts a never-before-done dive, and ends up making what undoubtedly ranks as one of the most spectacular back-flops of all time).

Most of all, I love how these ideas and training designs can be applied to so much more than sports.

 

10 SURPRISING TRUTHS ABOUT THE WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL TALENT HOTBED, by Rett Larson

1. WE MIX AGES LIKE CRAZY: The juniors aren’t all lumped together like they are in most systems — instead, three-time Gold medalists train with top 10-year-olds.  Each diving coach might be responsible for five athletes – three Olympic veterans and two juniors.  The juniors get to mirror the elites all day, from training to eating to bedtimes. It also creates a sense of humility in the juniors, who have likely dominated in their provinces since they were six years old.

2. WE SPEND MOST OF OUR TIME WORKING ON SUPER-BASIC DIVES: The Chinese have a higher training volume than the rest of the world – often more than 100 dives per day.  But many of those dives are very basic.  The first ten dives of the day might all be starting with your butt on the edge of the platform and falling into a simple dive. That’s it — and that’s the point.

3. WE APPLAUD SPECTACULAR FAILURES: For the past decade China has won almost every competition by doing simple dives very, very well.  Their technical proficiency is incredible because they practice longer and harder than any other country.  But, they also know that they have to push themselves and innovate.  You’ll see in the video a male diver attempting to be the first human to do four flips from the 10-meter board starting from a handstand. He doesn’t make it — spectacularly. What you don’t see is the ovation he gets from the rest of the team after his failed attempt.

4. WE ARE OBSESSIVE ABOUT COACHING EVERY SINGLE REP: Each dive is given feedback, even the basic ones. A dozen coaches sit on the side of the pool and give immediate feedback on every dive that their athlete performs that day.

5. WE AVOID ALLOWING OUR ATHLETES TO SPECIALIZE IN ONE DISCIPLINE: The 10-meter platform divers won’t spend all day on the 10m board.  They’ll have dives on the 3m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and even the springboards depending on what their coach wants them to work on. Each day the athletes receive a laminated sheet with their daily dives listed.

6. WE ACCOMPLISH OUR MOST IMPORTANT WORK OUTSIDE OF THE POOL: Chinese divers perform dry-land training better than anyone else in the world. If you ask the coaches – this is what has led to China’s dominance.  As you’ll see in the video, their dryland training facilities are a Disneyland for divers.  Like their dives in the pool, each athlete has a laminated sheet of dryland exercises that take them from the trampoline to the foam pit to the mats or to the runway to practice approaches.  They move around the gym and are never on one piece of equipment for more than 20 minutes.

7. WE SEEK LOTS OF FEEDBACK FROM LOTS OF COACHES: As the athletes move around the dryland training area, they move into the zones of different coaches who offer a variety of corrections based on what their “coaching eye” sees.  Chinese coaches all share a basic methodology so there’s no worry of conflicting messages being sent.

8. WE USE VIDEO AS MUCH AS HUMANLY (AND TECHNICALLY) POSSIBLE: In both the dryland facility and the pool there are closed circuit cameras that catch the dives being performed.  After the athletes get out of the pool and receive feedback from the coach, they can look up on the huge monitors and see the dives for themselves.

9. WE SEEK WAYS TO ESTABLISH TEAM IDENTITY THROUGH SACRIFICE: No other Olympic team in the complex trains before 9 a.m. — but three days a week, our team rises early to train at six — because it’s a sacrifice. There’s no need to train at 6am instead of 9am.  They do it because it’s inconvenient, and it creates an air of “we work harder than anyone else.”

10. WE HAVE WAA-AAY MORE FUN THAN YOU MIGHT GUESS: Dryland training is a place where there is frequent playing around and laughing.  The coaches let the athletes be kids.  Now I’m not saying that it’s like a frat party (this is Communist China, after all), but compared to many teams I’ve worked with over the last 2.5 years in China, they have a good time.

***

Quite a list, isn’t it?

Here’s the fascinating part: fully half of the ten principles (numbers 1, 3, 5, 9 and 10) have zero to do with training methods and everything to do with the organizational culture. Mixing ages, applauding failure, avoiding specialization, embracing sacrifice, and having fun are not training techniques — they are shared values that apply far beyond just diving. They are powerful signals that create a cohesive, high-performing tribe of people.

All of which leaves room for one more question: how does Rett’s list compare with the principles of other high-performing places (like, maybe, yours)? What’s missing? What might be added?

PS – if there’s anybody else out there who might want to offer a similar “insider’s tour” of their training, please let me know.


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21 Responses to “10 Surprising Truths from the World’s Most Successful Talent Hotbed”

  1. EXOS coach says:

    Rhett is one special man, coach, and human!

  2. "T" Nunnari says:

    Welcome back, I like the #1 rule mix age groups. I train 7-18yrld Baseball players. I have been mixing age levels for years…I call it mentor-ship program. My elite younger players will hit with my HS players…and through your blog we create some competition out of it which gets very competitive. There is a deeper level of Focus and hence Quality Reps. You could probably also suggest socialization as well improves, especially when you make it competitive.

  3. trace vincent says:

    Daniel the only one I’m wondering is coaching every single rep. I thought sometimes its good to let them play and not over coach like kids playing wiffle ball in the backyard. i know it’s great to coach with detail. Just curious if that is what there dry land training is.

  4. djcoyle says:

    Good question, Trace — and I’d love to hear Rett’s take on it.
    My two cents: the “coach on every rep” principle comes from the fact that diving is somewhat unique. Unlike most team sports, which are filled with soft skills of recognition and reaction, diving is almost entirely a hard skill — that is, the variables don’t change. The goal is to do the right dive from the same height the same way every single time. So they practice that way — coaching every rep — rather than in the “let them play” way. Like you I wonder if they get more play in dryland sessions. Because that trapeze thing looks really, really fun….

  5. John says:

    Daniel,

    Thanks for the great article. I was wondering…

    In your article you said “I love how these ideas and training designs can be applied to so much than sports”.

    In my opinion, one of the most exciting place these ideas can be applied is in the area of academic learning.

    In the world of sports, people say Usain Bolt is world-class sprinter or Lebron James is great basketball player or Arnold Schwarzenegger was phenomenal bodybuilder. However in the “world of the intellect”, we say Garry Kasparov is a genius, Daniel H. Pink is a genius, Albert Einstein was a genius.

    When it comes to the intellect we conveniently group these people under the term intelligent. If fitness is how well you can use your body, intelligence is how well you can use your mind.

    At its core the term intelligent is meaningless. It would be like calling Usain Bolt, Lebron James and Arnold great athletes when there is nothing in common between them. As you are well aware there is very transfer of skill from sprinting to basketball or bodybuilding. In the similar way there is very little alike between chess, writing, and quantum physics.

    In future, I hope we will move beyond these ridiculous labels of intelligent and smart and come to understand the intellect as more nuanced. If we did that we would probably not have a lawyer (Barack Obama) running a country. To me the transfer between those two professions seem as different as marathon running and bodybuilding.

    Thanks for reading :)

  6. Ryan Hockman says:

    Interesting read.

    I have questions.

    When it comes to studying Chinese diving success, how do we factor in the overall Chinese political/cultural influence on their (and other sports) program? Is there anything to learn here unless we are in a similar circumstance?

  7. Rett Larson says:

    Hey Trace,
    The primary difference (as I see it) between diving and other sports like soccer is that it’s hard to get a lot of self-feedback. You’re only performing your skill for fractions of seconds, and most of that time you’re twisting and spinning rapidly. The divers can feel certain things, but they can’t feel as much as their coaches (or a slow motion camera) can see. For that reason, the coach feedback loop is essential for improving such a highly technical sport.
    I definitely agree that sitting back and letting athletes play/achieve/fail on their own is really important, but diving is just a little different.

  8. Simon says:

    Great post Daniel!

    It struck me that the immediate coach feedback along with the video feedback along with the ‘applaud of failures’ has elements of Kathy Pryor’s ‘clicker training’ e.g. instant positive reinforcement (Kathy trained Killer Whales to jump at Sea Worldl – check out ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ if you’ve not read already). You get the best out of people by continous positive reinforcement.

    By the way read ‘The Secret Race’ – different tone to ‘Lance Armstrong’s War’ but a great read – the arrogance of Armstrong’s unbelievable. I think you captured Tyler Hamilton’s voice really well and the book leaves the reader with utter contempt for Armstrong.

    When’s your next book out?

  9. Brian Zipp says:

    Every sports coach needs to watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L39UEmescNA

  10. Alex says:

    Hi Dan,

    I was wondering what is the venue where the Chinese divers train? Is it National Training Centre in Beijing?

    Kind regards,

    Alex

  11. Ken says:

    Great ideas as always. I have a quick question, what is your take on a 7 year old of great ability playing with tops kids a year older for the whole season of hockey, would I be better off keeping him back with kids his own age (he is born in late Aug with Jan to Dec age groups)?

    Thanks

  12. Doc says:

    26 of the 44 presidents have been lawyers. We have also had a peanut farmer, other farmers, soldiers, educators, an engineer, a tailor, an architect and media publishers and a B class actor as presidents so I don’t understand the relevance of the comment about President Obama. This is a great blog site for sports and I hope politics won’t be introduced into it unless it is germane to the topic. If I misunderstood your intent I apologize. Other than that I think the point was a valid one.

  13. Rett Larson says:

    Hey Alex,
    Yes, the divers train at the National Sports Training Center in Beijing, right down the street from the Temple of Heaven and the famous HongQiao (black) market. As you can see, the diving facility is pretty impressive. There are actually two nearly identical dry land training areas in their building.
    Many of China’s most successful sports train out of the NSTC – gymnastics, badminton, table tennis, swimming, volleyball and about 5 others train on this campus.

    Rett

  14. Terry says:

    Ken, about the 7 year old playing with the older kids.

    The best approach is similar to what they speak of in the article. Play with Both age groups. When they play with their own age group they will build confidence and not be afraid to make mistakes. When they play with the older age group, they will be challenged and will need to us size and smarts to have success (you wont be physically bigger/stronger, so you have to use true skill). This is the reason small town players in Canada are successful.

    The only thing to watch for is that the player constantly improves his skill and is not allowed to coast on specific abilities that don’t translate to success at the higher levels. An example of this is the child who has great ability and gets 20 breakaways a game or the man-child who scores goals from the blueline with his big slapshot. These may lead to wins and confidence but they give false hope since these are not skills that will translate to success at the higher levels.

  15. Happy to have you over at the EXOS facility in AZ anytime for an inside look. The culture and attitude that Rhett has established in China permeates the walls of each of our facilities. Love you work and I strive to utilize principles of human nature and influence daily in conjunction with training all of our athletes.

    Contact me anytime if you are interested!

  16. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Brett — I really appreciate that.
    Where are you in AZ?

  17. Jose says:

    Visit a school of rock school! You will find lots of kids playing music like you won´t believe. Contact Mark Biondi at mbiondi@schoolofrock.com

  18. Scott Donie says:

    I am an Olympic diver myself. What these divers do is extraordinary. The atmosphere they have created is obviously very special. The sheer numbers of people involved make it really tough for the rest of the world to stay competitive. They are also an incredibly tough group mentally. When I was competing against China I would come across divers of unbelievable physical talent. Easily enough talent to win Olympic medals. Sometimes I would see divers like this at one competition and then never see them again. I have always wondered what the rate of burn out is amongst their athletes. It is a tough system and the ones who survive (the stars of their system) are absolutely undeniable. I know some of them personally and competed against them. Thanks for this video. Really amazing stuff.

  19. Steve Foley says:

    Rett,

    Any chance EXOS could build a state of the art dry land training center in US for USA Diving so we can challenge the Chinese divers again? Dry land is lacking big time in the USA and part of the reason we have declined in international performance over the past 15 years. It would be great to get back on equal terms with the diving masters from China.

  20. Up My Game says:

    This is terrific. It is frustrating though that you see frameworks like this and the success they’ve brought yet it is so hard for us to break out of the traditional methods and practices we see in our coaching. And we wonder why youth don’t stay involved, young athletes suffer more serious injuries at younger ages…all we can do is keep trying to change the dialogue and posts like this will hopefully help.

    Thanks for this!

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