[Discussion of the creation of modern sports training: professional athletes, even NBA stars, typically did not ‘train’. Practice was about getting into shape and working with teammates, if even that much—one simply took one’s skills for granted. Coaches focused on strategy, not coaching.
A harbinger of the professionalization of professional athletes was basketball player Kermit Washington, on the verge of washing out of the NBA early on until he swallowed his pride and began tutoring with coach Pete Newell, who drilled Kermit on the basics repeatedly. Kermit eventually became an All-Star player and influenced other NBA players to engage in coaching and deliberate practice to improve their fundamentals. The modern paradigm is a ruthless quest for perfection in every dimension, quantified, and applying the latest science and technology to eek out even the slightest fraction of a second improvement; athletes are projects, with many different specialists examining them constantly for potential improvements, and as importantly, when not to practice lest they be injured.
And the results speak for themselves—performance has never been higher, the impossible is now done routinely by many professionals, this continuous improvement trend has spread to other domains too, including chess, classical music, business. Equally striking are domains which don’t see trends like this, particular American education.]
“You need to have the best PhDs onboard as well”, McClusky says. This technological and analytical arms race is producing the best athletes in history.
The arms race centers on an obsessive scrutiny of every aspect of training and performance. Trainers today emphasize sports-specific training over generalized conditioning: if you’re a baseball player, you work on rotational power; if you’re a sprinter, on straight-line explosive power. All sorts of tools have been developed to improve vision, reaction time, and the like. The Dynavision D2 machine is a large board filled with flashing lights, which ballplayers have to slap while reading letters and math equations that the board displays. Football players use Nike’s Vapor Strobe goggles, which periodically cloud for tenth-of-a-second intervals, in order to train their eyes to focus even in the middle of chaos. Training is also increasingly personalized. Players are working not just with their own individual conditioning coaches but also with their own individual skills coaches. In non-team sports, such as tennis and golf, coaches were rare until the seventies. Today, tennis players such as Novak Djokovic have not just a single coach but an entire entourage. In team sports, meanwhile, there’s been a proliferation of gurus. George Whitfield has built a career as a “quarterback whisperer”, turning college quarterbacks into NFL-ready prospects. Ron Wolforth, a pitching coach, is known for resurrecting pitchers’ careers—he recently transformed the Oakland A’s Scott Kazmir from a has-been into an All-Star by revamping his mechanics and motion. Then there’s the increasing use of biometric sensors, equipped with heart-rate monitors, G.P.S., and gyroscopes, to measure not just performance (how fast a player is accelerating or cutting) but also fatigue levels. And since many studies show that getting more sleep leads to better performance, teams are now worrying about that, too. The N.B.A.’s Dallas Mavericks have equipped players with Readiband monitors to measure how much, and how well, they’re sleeping.
All this effort may sound a bit nuts. But it’s how you end up with someone like Chris Hoy, the British cyclist who won two gold medals at the London Olympics in 2012, trailed by a team of scientists, nutritionists, and engineers. Hoy ate a carefully designed diet of five thousand calories a day. His daily workouts—two hours of lifting in the morning, three hours in the velodrome in the afternoon, and an easy one-hour recovery ride in the evening—had been crafted to maximize both his explosive power and his endurance. He had practiced in wind tunnels at the University of Southampton. He had worn biofeedback sensors that delivered exact data to his trainers about how his body was responding to practice. The eighty-thousand-dollar carbon-fibre bike he rode helped, too. Hoy was the ultimate product of an elaborate and finely tuned system designed to create the best cyclist possible. And—since his competitors weren’t slacking, either—he still won by only a fraction of a second.