Monday, March 27, 2006

Issue 359 - Fantastic Formula Following

I hope everything is ok where you are.

The Commonwealth Games have just finished in Melbourne Australia.
For those that don't know, they are similar to the Olympics, but only with countries that are in the Commonwealth.
They used to be called the Empire Games, a throwback to when the British Empire was in full pomp.

Anyhoo, I was watching the cycling road races, and the women's race, won by an Aussie, had a superb crash.
I swear I'm not the only one who enjoys watching accidents in sport, I reckon it's just that not many people admit it.
Oh yes, a touch of wheels, and they all went down like flies, one rider going right over the handlebars onto her head.
'Oooh, now that's gotta hurt,' I thought as I settled further into my comfy chair with a nice slice of cake.
The men's race was also won by an Australian, and it's this I want to talk about today, a double whammy of goal achievement.

Back in the 60s, the Olympics were dominated by the US, particularly in events like swimming.
2 main reasons for this.
Firstly, the simple fact of a huge 250 million population.
Secondly, the long-established college sports system there.
In the 70s though, a small country showed that it too could dominate events, and that country was East Germany.
They racked up medal after medal, world record after world record.
At the Montreal Olympics in 1976 Australia didn't win any medals at all, and for a sports mad country, something had to be done.

They made a commitment to improve matters, and decided a good place to start would be to analyse what the East Germans had done.
They discovered that the East Germans had decided which events they wanted to dominate, and had then decided what criteria youngsters would need to have to develop into winners.
They then tested the entire population of their schools to find those that were suitable.
When they had found them, they then set up purpose built facilities where the young athletes lives were directed solely towards winning, applying as much science as was possible at the time.

The Australians were about 10 years behind, but followed the formula.
They decided where they wanted to dominate, mainly swimming and cycling, and set up the Australian Institute of Sport.
They set up a testing programme for school children, and again applied state of the art science, with the sole aim of winning gold.
By the time the Olympics had finished in 2000 at Sydney, the Australians had gone from no medals at all in 1976, to a haul well over 50.

Of course when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, what many had suspected about the East German success was proved, that the athletes had been routinely drugged to improve performance., which went some way to explaining the abundance of hairy-armpitted sprinters.
Obviously the Aussies hadn't followed *that* part of the plan!

Now that the 2012 Games are coming to London, our Government has decided that we need to jump from around 10th to 5th in the medal table.
We are hurriedly setting up as many national schemes as we can.
The director of the Australian Institute thinks we may get there, because the sports science which wasn't available to them at the outset is freely available to us.
There's one big difference though, and it's that we don't have the school testing programme here, prefering to concentrate on talent spotting.


I'm not convinced.
It seems to me that the Australians followed goal achievement theory to perfection - they decided what they wanted to do, worked out what someone else had done before, left out the bad bits, copied and improved the good bits, and was it really a surprise when the success came?
We seem to have made the decision ok, discovered what others have done ok, but then decided to miss out one of the important elements.
This really is a classic mistake, because if the success doesn't come, and the question is asked 'did you follow the formula?' the answer will be 'er, well no.'

Let me use curling as an example...
I'm still enjoying the curling myself by the way, although it's not as easy as it may look on TV, something which you think I would have learnt from the vomit-inducing-bone-shaking American Football.
Or the hamstring-twanging long jump.
Or indeed the can't-even-get-over-a-decent-high-jump-mark pole vault.

So, the curling.
The British record at the Winter Olympics is not brilliant, and most of our success comes from Scottish athletes, where the majority of the British snow is.
It was a huge success for us in 2002 when the women curlers, all Scots, won the gold medal.
Teams at curling are generally put together by the individuals themselves, and they get to know each other's strengths.
That was the case in 2002, but by 2006 what had we done?
Changed the system that brought gold, to a new squad selection system.
The result of changing the formula that had worked before?
The women didn't win any medal at all.

D'oh double D'OH!!

That doesn't augur well for our 2012 ambition does it!

So that's the point today.
The Australians put in a lot of effort and money for sure, but by following a plan that had worked before, they achieved what they wanted, and sometimes goal achievement can really seem as simple as that.
Here in Britain though, the curling has given us an example of how changing away from a successful system can bring worse results, and that if you choose to follow a plan and then miss bits out, don't come running to me when it doesn't work.

In fact, I may well write the The British Olympic Association saying,
'Dear Sirs,
I note that you are attempting to repeat the success of the Australian Institute of Sport, but also note that you have left out an important step in the process.
Please be advised that if we get a poor haul of medals at the London 2012 Olypmics, don't come running to me, no doubt slowly.'

You've got to laugh havn't you!

Ok, have a good week,

'Til Next Time,
Health and Happiness,
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