Creating Super Athletes: Russian Style

The NY Times ran an article on creating super athletes. The formula:

Intense Parents + Young Kids + Rigorous Technique + Toughness = Talent

Sounds about right.

The story profiles a Russian tennis club that’s developing world class tennis talent by starting them early and working them hard. However, the footnotes go on to mention that this process may not work in the United States:

How to Grow a Super-Athlete – New York Times

Replicating the Spartak system in the United States (or, for that matter, installing Dominican-style baseball academies or forcing young golfers to practice only at driving ranges) would likely not create a sudden wellspring of stars. The reasons that the United States is losing ground on the talent map have less to do with training mechanisms and more to do with bigger factors: a highly distractive youth culture, a focus on the glamour of winning rather than on the brickwork of building technique and a sporting environment that is gentler than those found in many of the world’s harder corners.

“You can’t keep breast-feeding them all the time,” Robert Lansdorp, a tennis coach in Los Angeles, told me. “You’ve got to make them an independent thinker.” Lansdorp, who is in his 60s, has coached Sharapova, along with the former No. 1-ranked players Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport, all three of whom grew up in the same area and played at the same run-of-the-mill tennis clubs near Los Angeles. “You don’t need a fancy academy,” he said. “You need fundamentals and discipline, and in this country nobody gives a damn about fundamentals and discipline.” Lansdorp also mentioned that he’d visited Spartak last year to teach a clinic. “It was a pretty different place,” he said. “But that Larisa, she sure knows her stuff.”

Of course, there are plenty of focused parents and athletes who are laser-focused on their sports. It explains why certain communities and clubs consistently generate Olympians while other communities with plenty of resources don’t reach those levels.