– David G. Joyce –
The written and spoken Chinese language is so intricate and detailed that the dedication required to master it is thought to be responsible for the development of parts of the cerebral cortex that make many Chinese people particularly adept at music and mathematics, both of which require dedication, repetition and observance of process. I have witnessed the same attributes in abundance in Chinese athletes and coaches; attributes that have formed the basis behind the nation’s meteoric rise up the Olympic medal tally in the last 3 decades.
Across the last two summer Olympic campaigns Team China won 188 medals, including 89 of a golden hue. This is 7 more gold medals that the USA in same period. To demonstrate just how impressive this is, China had never won a gold medal prior to 1984. The medal tally summit has been climbed, but, as we all know, getting to the top is often not as difficult as staying there.
China’s desire to establish camp at the peak of world sport, combined with a rapidly expanding world view that extends beyond her own borders has led her to the point of seeking knowledge and experience from people further afield than the Land of the Dragon.
I was fortunate enough work with Team China leading up to the London Olympics. My role was a dual one in that I lead the sports medicine service across the top 9 sports, but also have a role as a sports science / performance specialist designing and delivering strength programmes to the national swimming and rowing teams.
I had just completed a couple of successful seasons in professional football in the Premier League and on the Continent and was looking to return to the UK and when I was first approached about this role, I found myself thinking “what on earth could I add to a national setup that had just swept all before them in the last games?” I have been very lucky to have been part of National set-ups in my native Australia and my adopted homeland of Great Britain (for the Beijing Olympics in 2008), but the prospect of heading to China this close to the Olympics was daunting to say the least.
It was an awesome opportunity to learn from within such a successful system and to hopefully contribute some of the knowledge and experience that I’ve collected over the years. Having trained with and competed against Chinese teams on many occasions in the past, I at least had some insight into their sporting culture and training methodologies.
The Chinese system was initially modelled on that of the former Soviet Union and this means high volume training with the potential of a high attrition rate. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it actually doesn’t do the sophistication of the system anywhere near the justice it deserves.
The coaching philosophy prevalent in China concentrates on skill development. The emphasis of training is always on technique and not losing this technique under increasing duress. Coaches add the duress by manipulating primarily the variables of volume, speed and fatigue levels. Training is approached from a motor learning, rather than a physiological or mechanical perspective, unlike many Western systems.
Success in many sports is contingent on being technically and tactically superior to the opponent. Such sports include table tennis, gymnastics, badminton, shooting, archery, diving and fencing. Athletic competencies (aerobic fitness, strength, power etc) vary little between competitors at the elite level, competition success is based on technical superiority. A quick look at China’s medallists from the last two Olympics confirms that these skilled sports lie at the heart of her success. Whilst it is undeniable that each of these sports requires good levels of physical fitness, this is clearly not the decisive factor. When we profile football, it is evident that it is the same.
The Chinese coaches expand this skill teaching to every sport though, even ones where the primary determinant of success is traditionally thought to be physiological. The two sports that spring to mind here are rowing and swimming. The emphasis in these programmes is on maximizing efficiency, something that can only be achieved with a perfect technique. At all times, we seek to minimize energy leakage from poor body position in or on the water.
The approach to gaining aerobic capacity improvements therefore is by placing the athlete under ever increasing physical duress. For example, the technical coaches behind one of our swimming world record holders demand that he maintains perfect form whether completing a lap in 34 seconds or in 29 seconds. The aerobic capacity improvements that come about are almost a happy co-incidence, but certainly not the primary goal of training.
I have seen the same with strength and power training with the weightlifting programme. At the last Olympics, they won 8 gold medals. This was not because they pursued a programme of gaining strength by any means possible, but because they pursued technical excellence under the bar. The aim of adding more weight is not to attain larger muscle mass per se (this is the side effect rather than the goal), but to challenge technique under increasing demand.
I can sum up this philosophy thus: the system here doesn’t believe in improving fitness just for the sake of it. The aim of fitness is to be able to produce the skills required of the sport thousands of times without decay in technique. This has been the fundamental mind shift for me in terms of my own training physical training and rehabilitation philosophies.
My other mind shift has been analysing my actual role as a performance coach. I now do not so much seek to improve the physical capacities that an athlete will display during competition, but to be able to improve their physical capacities to such an extent that they are bullet proofed, able to withstand the rigors of skill training. It is this training that is the real decisive factor in sporting success. My job, therefore, is to build a machine so robust that it can withstand the hours of training that technical perfection training demands.
This approach should is not just applicable to Olympic sports though. Having worked extensively in both, I can now see that football and rugby in particularly could benefit from such a paradigm shift.
Let me give you an example – the National Diving squad. This is a team that is won just about everything in London. Each week, they train upwards of 20 hours on dry land followed by a further 20 hours in the pool. Each-and-every-week! Most days, the platform divers will complete 150 dives from the 10m tower. Whilst the thought of 150 water entries is difficult to contemplate, we have to also consider the fact that they have to climb the stairs to the 10m platform 150 times as well. To put this in perspective, in competition, the men have 6 dives per round; the women only 5. Our job therefore is to get them fit for training. Competition, in fact, is a bit of a holiday for these guys!
Focused, repetitive, mindful practice involving thousands of repetitions of skills is vital to engrain motor patterns to a stage of automaticity, robust enough under the fiercest of competition pressure. It is in this aspect that China is unsurpassed. This form of training requires total commitment and hours of training each day. This process of so deeply grooving even the most challenging technical tasks (seen every day in the gymnastics hall and diving pools, for example) means that under the most fierce of competitive spotlights, they are as routine as walking. This helps bulletproof not just the skill, but also the psyche. It’s why many of the Chinese athletes almost look detached when competing.
I can now safely say that I have a greater understanding of what it takes to be the best in the world. It takes this training approach combined with a real competition for places, a significant incentive for success and an even greater cost for poor performance. The system here is ruthlessly performance-based and does not reward mediocrity. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This approach to training is not without its disadvantages, though.
Unsurprisingly, this approach to training is that it has a very high attrition rate. Injuries are commonplace and it is arguable whether or not the athletes that make it to the top are the most talented. It may just be that they are the ones whose body is naturally robust enough to tolerate the training load without breaking down. It is a “burning 1000 matches to light one fire” approach and one that we have been working to correct.
We have had success by individualising injury prevention programmes based on an athlete’s profile. I seek to determine the generic risk profile (based on the injury profile of the sport), the specific risk profile (based on the athlete’s injury history, movement competencies and structural integrity). We can therefore ascertain the risk factors and then implement corrective strategies to reduce injury rates.
Playing one thousand table tennis forehands every day will perfect the technique, but also place great demands on structures not designed for this load. We’ve made huge inroads into their injury rates by periodising training loads, increasing the emphasis on recovery. We’ve also increased the emphasis on getting the athletes to explore other, unaccustomed movements. There is pretty sound neuroscience evidence behind this approach and it’s been key in us helping significantly reducing injury rates whilst maintaining training loads (rest from training is not really an option here).
China has the advantage of an unwavering work ethic and a population base whereby ‘broken’ athletes can be replaced. Its technical training programme is still ahead of the rest of the world in many sports. This gap is rapidly closing, however with other nations (USA, Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany) understanding the utility of skill training. Whilst these nations lack the population base of China, they still have a vast talent pool and have the added advantage of more mature and sophisticated foundations in physical training / sports science and sports medicine.
The marginal gains from work ethic are being eroded and China needs to embrace a more Western approach to physical training and sports medicine if she is to stay as the dominant force in world sport.
I have returned to Australia post Olympics to work as Head of Athletic Performance for Western Force in the Super Rugby competition, but the experience of being one of the very few foreigners ever to work inside the Team China gold medal factory has shaped me forever. In my mind, the most effective model of training, injury prevention and rehabilitation, irrespective of sport melds the Chinese training philosophies with Western sports science and sports medicine know how. This is what we seek to do at the Force and is one of the factors behind our own rise as a major player in our competition.
David is the Head of Athletic Performance for Western Force in the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition – the toughest club rugby competition in the world. He holds Masters degrees in both sports medicine and Strength and Conditioning and lectures on the Masters of S+C at Edith Cowan University. He was fortunate to work with an amazing group of coaches and athletes in China, thanks to Team EXOS. He is the editor and author of High Performance Training For Sports (Human Kinetics).