What Does It Take to Be a Champion?

Think about a person you consider an athletic champion.  Which words or phrases would you choose to describe that person? Strong?  Energized?  Relentless? Balanced?  Ambitious?  Some, or even all, of those words might apply.  And there are certainly many more words that describe it valiantly.

It’s a hot topic that is discussed pervasively.  All you need to do is an internet search and a plethora of information pops up.  In fact, books have been written about what it takes to be a successful athletic champion. And there is a professional speaking circuit for those willing to pay to listen.

The topic is also arguably subjective.  But are there commonalities that simplify the definition of what it takes to be a champion athlete?  Perhaps.

Recently, over chicken wings and few bottles of good beer, three professional coaches, one of whom is also a competitive athlete, took the dive into discussing this highly debated topic.

Two of the coaches agreed that the mental aspect, regardless of the sport, is the number one factor in becoming a champion.  The premise of the mental aspect is that with enough mental focus and a mental program, an individual can become a champion in his or her chosen sport.

Ordering another round of beers and snatching the last chicken wing in the basket, one of the coaches pushed back. Fundamentally believing that it is the athletic skill itself that is the number one aspect of being a champion, he argued that the mental bit, while essential, is secondary to core physical skill. In other words, he argued that an athlete can think about winning all day and all night, but if the work isn’t there the athlete will fail.

After getting to a point where the coaches were rehashing hash on the topic, and because of commitments like needing to go home to feed the dog and getting itchy to jump on the elliptical and burn off the calories from the beer and chicken wings, the three coaches abandoned the debate.  So they could reconvene to discuss, one coach volunteered to develop a simple survey to uncover what it is that turns athlete into a champion.

Level 3 and 4 archery coaches began the debate

The coaches agreed, that to give context to the survey,  a champion would be defined as an individual who wins a major sporting event, unchallenged as the victor.  For example, an athlete who wins an Ironman World Championship, a Gold Medal in an Olympic or Pan Am game, a National title or Professional Golf Association win would meet the criteria.

Through Facebook, a message was sent to recruit responses from 100 athletes and coaches. The same message was sent to everyone:

“I am asking 100 coaches and athletes a question where the responses will be compiled into a database.  I will write an essay based on the results.  I would greatly appreciate your brief responses. By brief, I mean your top three or four words that describe the answer.  The question is: What does it take to be a champion?

It was not anticipated that Facebook would block progress.  A firm notification was returned from the Facebook team believing the messages were coming from a robot.  While applause to Facebook for its vigilance to protect its customers is due, the interruption knocked back the messages sent from 100 to 54.  Still, 54 was an excellent sample set for an informal study and the coach was thrilled with a 100% response rate from the 54 who received the question..

There were 41 males and 13 females who responded from across the globe: United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Israel, France, England, Australia, Russia, Iran and Switzerland.

To make the survey information robust, the profiles of the respondents were captured.

Twelve sport disciplines were represented: golf, cycling, archery, running/marathon/ultramarathon (distance runners), football, shooting, swimming, triathlon, weightlifting, sailing, track/field (sprint, decathlon, heptathlon) and Karate. 

Of the 54 total responders, there were 23 world championships, two Olympic gold medals and four PGA wins.  And among the entire group of 54, there were 75 National titles.  Included in the 54 were eight athletes who consider themselves enthusiasts, but train for their sport nearly every day and compete on a regular basis.  Clearly, this was experience talking.

This was a solid cross section of people who could help define what it takes to be a champion athlete, and so began the arduous task of compiling and analyzing the response and profile data.

Feedback from the respondents resulted in a tally of 132 unique words and descriptors of what it takes to be a champion.  All words and descriptors were entered in a spreadsheet and sorted alphabetically.  From there, common words and descriptors began to emerge: work, confidence, determination, mental, emotional.

The words were then ranked based on the percentage of response between the athletes and coaches surveyed.  Two sets of interesting and potentially conflicting results were revealed:

  • Athletes used the word “determination” the highest, followed in order by “work”, “emotional”, “mental”, and “confidence” to describe what it takes to be a champion.
  • In highest place for coaches were words in the “emotional” category, followed by “determination” and “work” being equal, then “confidence” and “mental” respectively. Disciplines for the responding coaches included football (NCAA Div. II, SAC), track and field, triathlon, marathon running, cross country running and archery.
Coaches versus all athletes

So, what is “the” number one word to describe what it takes to be a champion athlete?  Determination, as presented by the athlete survey responses, or emotional, as presented by the coach survey responses?

The trio of coaches reconvened at the pub to discuss the results.  Additional questions were posited.  Is determination an emotion?  Does emotion evoke determination?  It could be argued that determination is a mental state that drives emotions like passion and commitment. An athlete can be physically extraordinary at his or her sport, but if there is no passion for the activity, what is the likelihood that individual will emerge as a champion?

Two of three coaches argued that the brain is a powerful thing and it can trick the body into elite performance.  One coach felt that when aggressive coaching is involved, the athlete’s mind can push the body into performing at an elite level.

Chicken wings were ordered and the survey results were studied in more depth. Thankfully the wings were served with a big pile of napkins, because the coaches needed to sketch out their theories on how the words garnered from the survey fundamentally aligned to what it takes to be a champion.

Ultimately, the trio agreed that based on the feedback from the 54 person survey, the first and most dominant factor in becoming a champion is determination.If an athlete is determined enough they’ll find a way to get the work done, to build confidence, control and use emotions, and develop a mental process to polish off perfection.

All responses: coaches, elites and enthusiasts.

“Work”, as one of the top three words selected by both athletes and coaches, is highly relevant.  Following “determination”, all 54 respondents indicated that “work” was the second word to answer the question ‘what does it take to be a champion’, followed in frequency of response by mental effort, emotional bearingand confidence, in that order.

There were two outlier responses, that have merit and are worthy of mentioning. These were: “being in the right place at the right time”and “great equipment.”

The first, ‘right place/right time’, can be considered luck or happen stance.  For example, if an undefeated champion is unable to compete one year, does that mean that the new champion for that year is a superior athlete?  What if in the following year the original undefeated athlete competes again and takes back the title?   There is no way to know. An athlete can only compete against those who show up.

Rankings by Elite Athletes compared to enthusiasts

The second outlier response, ‘great equipment’ can surely play a role when an athlete reaches an elite level and marginal gains become more important.  For the less aggressive or less accomplished athlete, great equipment, (i.e. expensive equipment), typically isn’t going to impact results as much as more training and practice.

As the last of the people in the pub began to leave, the trio of coaches decided to pay up and came to a somewhat conclusive agreement that determination and work, whether driven by emotion and/or great coaching, were the keys to becoming a champion. Do you agree?

“Who’s Ready for some 3D?”

A fellow I know posted on his Facebook page, “Who’s Ready for some 3D?”

He’d purchased his annual new bow and new arrows.  He signed with an archery equipment company as a “Pro Staff” member and made a public, Facebook, announcement of his elevated status. He’d posted a competitive schedule and pointed out he’d be traveling to compete on a specific tour. He is a top dog.

Shortly afterward he showed up at the local  indoor range and exclaimed excitedly his eagerness for upcoming 3D season to everyone within hearing distance.  He’s loud so the audible parameter was large.

While standing at the 18-meter line of the range someone took a smart phone picture of him for Facebook application. Within hours of his departure that photo would land on Facebook with a caption announcing his newly acquired gear was launching arrows to perfection.

While on the range his new bow and arrows in hand he began flinging arrows 18 meters down range. He’s chosen a vertical three spot to destroy.  He was wearing out the eight rings.

After thirty minutes he’d shot about 24 arrows.  (6 ends of 3 arrows) He collected his shinny gear and departed the range. Eager to post about his superior equipment.

Mr. “Who’s Ready for some 3D?” isn’t really a top dog.  In fact, I don’t recall him winning any of the local 3D events.  He spends a lot of money at the shop and the workers there treat him like royalty.

Pro Staff doesn’t mean professional archer.  Mr. “Who’s Ready for some 3D,” is a perfect example.  He wears a pro staff shirt but is far from a professional level archer.  The archery shop is allocated a number of positions to fill with local archers as promotional marketing plan for the manufacturer’s gear.  The shop selects archers that are loyal, spend money and will promote the shop to complete those “Pro Staff” allocations.  Mr. “Who’s Ready for some 3D?” is well liked spends an abundance of money at the shop and wins an allocation.  Don’t be fooled, Mr. “Who’s Ready for some 3D?” isn’t a pro.  If you paid for your manufacturer’s kit and gear neither are you.

To be a true top dog it takes a lot of commitment. Practice is a focal point in your life. Training is always ongoing. A hundred arrows per week won’t cut it. Practicing on the weekends won’t work. Do the work and win.  Then, the manufactures will come looking for you.

In 3D where you only have 20 to 30 targets you can get through the shots with minimal practice.  But, with all the variance in targets getting through them is the best to hope for.  Getting great at 3D means knowing the variance in target view at all the potential distance you will see for that target.  It takes a lot of time and thousands of arrows to become excellent at finding those 12(ASA) or 11 (IBO) circles with an arrow.

If you are practicing a little bit for a few months out of the year you are not really ready for some 3D and you should plan on digging around for that lost arrow on the range at your next event. Still, it is fun to be out with your friends.  Heck, consider golf.  You can put in the same amount of effort only with golf you can drink beer with your buddies while you play.

Increasing Poundage on a Recurve Bow

Shooting an Olympic recurve is demanding.  Unlike a compound bow there is no let off when the archer reaches their draw length.  The archer has to hold the poundage at full draw.  Increasing poundage can be useful and finding an ideal limb weight takes time.

Adult beginners can typically begin and enjoy shooting a recurve bow at lower poundage.  As they improve they’ll often want to increase their draw weight.  Younger archers take time to develop and their draw weight increases as they mature.

Initially an adult who begins at 25 pounds may see a rapid changes in poundage.  Many people can jump from 25 to 35 in 2 to 4 pound increments fairly fast.  Fairly fast is months versus years. Even so there will be people more comfortable remaining at lower poundage for much longer if not indefinitely.

Higher poundage does have some advantage.  At longer distances an arrow launched at 32 pounds will travel more slowly and with more arch than the same arrow launched at 42 pounds.  (Yes, I know the spine is different for 32 versus 42 pounds – this is an example for illustration) The faster arrow and flatter trajectory is affected less by wind.  With a higher weight many archers see an improved release.

Moving up in poundage is not simple.  An increase from 28 pounds to 30 pounds may feel easy where moving from 40 to 42 can feel exponentially more difficult.  If the archer shoots using a clicker the archer may notice the clicker is more difficult to trigger.

The clicker and anchor point are note solely impacted by the increase demand to draw to bow there is additional compressibility of the soft tissue between joints.  When changing limb weight the archer may find their clicker needs a slight adjustment of a millimeter to a few millimeters.

If you are considering increasing the poundage of your limbs and shoot a couple of hundred arrows per day don’t stay at that same volume with you increase weight.  Decease by half or more until you can control your bow.  This will aid to maintain form and reduce the risk of an injury.

Another 12 Months Passed Shooting an Olympic Recurve

Switching from compound bow to Olympic recurve has been challenging.  Seventeen months ago doesn’t seem so long a time. Lots of practice and training has been augmented by a degree of talent transfer.  There remains a long way to go.

Over the last twelve months I competed in 11 tournaments. The bigger events were skipped because of the Covid.  I won 10 of the 11 competitions. Of those I entered 4 were in the Masters division, either the 50 – 70 or 65 – 69.

There were mixed reasons for competing my age group.  Most often it was because I hadn’t been able to practice at the distance of the younger division.  I don’t have a 90-meter range and for a long time a downed tree blocked my 70-meter range.  One other event I could only compete in my age group.

In the 6 tournaments where I competed against the younger division I won all but one where I took 3rd.  That was the USA Archery Georgia State 18-Meter Indoor tournament.  The others: Georgia NFAA Indoor, Georgia USAA Field, Georgia USAA Target, Georgia USAA 25-Meter Indoor and Southern Fall Shootout I won.

Over the course of the switch I’ve shot 43,730 arrows, broke a riser in two, increased poundage from 32 to 42 and added a clicker.  I can attest it has been a lot of work.

Vacation Can Be Tough

Vacation is fun or so they say.  However, it you are a competitive athlete time off can be tough.

It doesn’t matter what the sport is when athletes pause for recovery it can be difficult.  There is a feeling that time is wasting and opponents are getting better while you are relaxing.   That really isn’t the case. By that the case being that an opponent is getting better while the vacationing athlete is losing form.   Breaks are necessary.  It allows the body to recover and the mental stress to abate.  Non-stop training leads to injury and burnout.

Too many breaks is another matter. Pretty much that means, when you are taking lots of breaks, you are an enthusiast. Being an enthusiast is fine.  Most athletes fall into this class. The sport is more of a hobby.  Some folks call these individuals weekend warriors.  Again, this is the class of athlete that is the foundation of sport.

Top athletes are different.  Not simply that they train differently often times they are genetically different.  In football those professional athletes are bigger, faster stronger and have an ability to see rapidly moving patterns on a field. In baseball their speed and reflex ability is breathtaking.  In archery the top athletes can shoot hundreds to thousands of arrows (weekly) without damaging shoulder joints and have a keen sense of feeling a target and loosing an arrow. All of those top athletes still need to plan for recovery.

Jerry Rice the greatest of all time at his position was not the most gifted player of that position. He did however plan specific times for recovery and had a very specific off-season training plan.  Archery can be done year round.  As archers, we really don’t have much of a down season.  Once indoor season ends outdoor season begins.

This essentially non-stop sport requires scheduled period to recover.  In your yearly training plan you do need to have select periods where you don’t pick up a bow.  It is hard to do but it will help you recover and last as a competitive archer.

Sleep and Archery

Archery isn’t a sport requiring high level of cardiopulmonary fitness.  It does require an elevated degree of neurocognition.  Archery demands a physically repeated action that does stress upper body muscles and skeletal structure.  It also necessitates the ability to balance with minimal sway placing additional demands on an athlete’s core and lower body support. Sleep reinforces sport recovery and improves performance.(1)

The disciple required to excel in sport is enormous.  The daily activities during training, travel and competition all can decrease the ability to train properly, focus and compete.

Training along with poor restorative sleep can lead injury.  Overtraining is associated with injury and lower performance levels.  Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality does reduce performance and leads to injury.

One of the easiest, albeit infrequently considered, ways to improve performances is understanding that quality sleep supports develop as an athlete. Then, taking the steps to improve sleep.

This is true for archery.  In a convenient sample of training scores, simulated tournaments over 30 days sleep quality was recorded along with performance levels.

Nights where sleep was poor were documented, as were the higher quality sleep cycles.  These were based on hours of sleep, good sleep being greater than seven hours, and poor sleep less than seven hours. (Personal data n=1)

The mean number of hours slept for a quality scores was 7.8 hours versus 6.3 hours for poor quality sleep. Those nights with better sleep yielded a mean score of (vertical 3 sport 18 or 25 meters Olympic recurve bow for both conditions) 549 versus 532, quality sleep vs. poor quality sleep, respectively.  The difference of 17 points is significant (3.09%). A high score of 568 was achieved at both 18 and 25 meters for quality sleep nights. Those higher scores had a range of 568 to 540 points.  The poor quality sleep had a high score of 540 (at 25 and 18 meters) and a low score of 527 (25 meters) was revealed.

Sleep has been shown to improve performance of skilled athletes. (2) In this data set archery is not an exception.

Reference:

(1) Simpson NS, Gibbs EL, Metheson GO: Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: implications and recommendations for elite athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2017 Mar; 27(3): 266-274

(2) Cheri D Mah, Kenneth E MahEric J KezirianWilliam C Dement.The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep 2011 Jul 1; 34(7): 943-50

The Georgia Golden Olympics

The 2021 Georgia Golden Olympics were held in Warner-Robins, Georgia. I entered for two reasons: Qualify for the 2022 National Senior Games and visit my sister who lives in Warner-Robins.

The highlight of the trip was seeing my sister.  It is always a pleasure to visit her.

The tournament was a mess.  It had rained the night before and the field was a bit swampy.  That really wasn’t an issue.  I’d expected the rain and had waterproof boots to wear.

The problem was the organizers had expected the event a week later.  All the archers arrived and there wasn’t a target in sight.

When it was clear there was a miscommunication a few of the archers found some target butts and targets.  There were on 6 butts and thirty archers.

We made due at 60 yards by cramming five archers per target.  Not a problem at 60 yards. At 50 yards it wasn’t going to work.  Every one shooting was so good that there wasn’t room in the yellow rings to hold all the arrows without breaking many of them. In addition, as tight as the arrows were at 60 yards, scoring – following each arrow from nock to pile was more difficult that you’d think.  Thirty arrows squeezed into a 12.5 cm ring is a lot.

We ended up having to run a line where the arrows would be shot then pulled then run the next line and pull the arrows.  Arrows had to be pulled after each end. IT made for a long and hungry day.

I’d brought enough food for a four-hour tournament.  Roughly 800 calories worth of solid food and four drinks for another 1000 calories.  It ran out sooner than expected.  It was rough.  It is hard to focus when you are hungry.

A friend gave me a breakfast bar and it was enough.  At least it didn’t rain on us.

Georgia Golden Olympics

“You can’t help getting older, we just don’t have to get old, “ George Burns.

I’ve signed up to compete in the Georgia Golden Olympics. In Georgia there are many excellent archers over 50.  No matter how much one practices there is no way to guess at who might win in a competition among the more mature archers here.  It really comes down to who makes the least number of mistakes.

I nearly doubled-up and entered the bicycling time trials.  Then I looked at the most recent winners’ time at a distance where I was considering competing.  I can’t beat that time.

The most recent winners are amazing.  There speeds are equal to those put out by Professional Cyclists for the same distance.  I would have never guessed a 67 year old could compete against a 30 year old Professional Cyclist.  Heck, when I was 30 years old those current Golden boys would have beaten me over the same distance time trial.

At the peak of my cycling racing I trained with and raced against Olympians, World Champions and Professionals that competed in the Tour de France.  I raced all over the US and in Europe.  So, I was pretty fit.  Still, I would not have beaten the top 65+ Golden Olympic cyclists in the time trial I was considering.

Now, I was never the greatest time trialist.  But, I won a lot of time trials.  Once I was even the USA Cycling Georgia State Time Trial Champion.  I even broke the top 10 in a Velodrome Time Trial when I was 50 racing on a cheap $500.00 bicycle.

Reviewing some of the older longer Tour de France Prologue times these Golden boys would have done themselves proud against the top cyclists in the World. As much as I’d enjoy racing my bike there simply no way I can compete against such supernatural Golden power.

From the National Senior Games Rule Book:

“The NSGA does not currently test for banned or performance enhancing drugs. If an athlete is found to be using drugs by any other agency or governing body, they will also be banned from NSGA competitions until the sanction or banned is removed. The NSGA will communicate with NGB’s for a current list of athletes.”

Now, I think I understand.

2021 USA Archery Outdoor National Championship

When I signed up for the 2021 USA Archery Outdoor National Championship it was early.  I was worried that the Championship might reach capacity the way the 2021 Gator Cup attained its limit.

I also set a minimum average per arrow I’d need to shoot before I competed.  I’ve exceeded that pre-selected average a couple for times during practice sessions designed to record and monitor my points per arrow.  The bad thing is my average per arrow has not reached my goal.

It wasn’t close.  I missed by 0.5 points per arrow.  That is a lot of points over 144 arrows. It means my average score lands me in 8th place at the Nationals. (Based on past three years scores for the event.)

I’d nearly talked myself into going, having fun, and hoping for one of those zone days where I’d shoot closer to the better points per average of my curve.  On a really good day I might win or at least be in the top three.  My best area of my score curve suggests I could win by 12 points.  My personal best has me winning by 20 points.  My average has me finishing 8th.

In preparation I researched the scores over the past three years.  I checked scores on the archers entered.  And I looked at the cost benefit to competing when I’m not yet fully prepared.

The cost, to me, would have been $1285.00 for everything.  That seems like a lot of money to pay for 8th place.  That is, of course, me shooting my average and everyone else shooting within 2 standard deviations of their most recent scores.  Worse case, using the lower scores from my curve would land me in 10th place.  The cost benefit didn’t reach the point where going was worth the investment.  If I’d achieved my goal set for points per arrow average I’d have not withdrawn.

Georgia Cup 2021 versus Tropical Storm Claudette

The Georgia Cup is an outdoor archery tournament. In the past, I’ve competed as a compound bow shooter.  This year I shot an Olympic recurve.  It was also my first event as a Master archer in recurve.  It was the weekend when Tropical Storm Claudette dropped in on the Peach State.

Since switching to Olympic recurve I’ve competed in the adult seniors group.  That is the age division for archers under 50 and those 50 or older who want to enter that division.  Initially, I’d enter as a senior and not a Master, those archers 50 or older.

The difference in the distance is that the seniors shoot 70 meters and Masters shoot 60 meters.  I changed divisions when a storm, not Claudette, intersected with the 10 extra meters I need to shoot 70 meters.  The unnamed storm rearranged the range limiting me to 60 meters.

The Georgia Cup was my first tournament shooting in the 50 and older category.  From a social perspective it was more fun.

There’s a lot of waiting in archery.  In prior events there really hasn’t been a whole lot to talk about with the younger archers.  Most of the competitors I’ve shot against since switching have been younger than my children.

I found with the less young folks there was ample conversation between ends, pulling arrows, and waiting during the exchange from the qualifying round and the elimination rounds.

Originally, the two rounds were being held over two days.  However, Tropical Storm Claudette required a contingency plan moved into action and both were shot on the same day. It made for a long day.

Arriving at 8:00 am I was ready to head home by 4:00 PM.  At 4:00 PM I was still shooting in the elimination rounds.

In those, I still ended up shooting against kids.  Cadets shoot at 60 meters, the next step up being seniors at 70 meters, and both groups, Cadets and Masters, had been bracketed together.

I had a bye before shooting my first elimination.  Before it was over the cadets were referring to me as Grandpa.  Each opponent was Korean so I took it as an endearment not a slight.  The fact their parents also referred to me as Grandpa made it seem okay.

Throughout the day Tropical Storm Claudette did its best to disrupt the play.  It was nasty.  There was wind and rain all day.  As might be expected it was cloudy and at times dark.

Despite the deeply overcast conditions I wore sunglasses.  Not to look cool.  The time clock with retina scorching LEDs was perfectly arranged 15 meters in front of my target.  Without the extremely nice polarizing lenses of those glasses I’d have not seen the target as well. Having a time clock frying your eyes and counting down during a wind and rainstorm are less than ideal conditions for shooting.

There really wasn’t any point in complaining.  It didn’t matter much, thanks to the sunglasses.  I ended up winning even though I didn’t score my average for the distance.

As it turned out, Sunday, the day weather forecasters had predicted the worse weather conditions was a miss.  Sunday turned out to be pretty nice with less wind and lighter rain.