Hope 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.
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.