Strengthening Athletes Strengths

I love my job!

I’ve said it before and I’m likely to say it again. There is so much about my job that I absolutely love. One aspect is the opportunity I have to work with so many fantastic people. The Dux Leadership Center has partnered with JMU Athletics to provide some leadership workshops to help the athletes in areas of their lives off the playing field. So, right now I’m preparing a workshop on Strengths for a group of 2nd-year athletes at JMU.

As I’ve thought about the materials and resources we might want to use during this workshop, I’ve really focused on how to customize this workshop to best help the athletes. As I’ve considered the messages they get from their coaches, their teammates, their parents, the fans, and so many others I couldn’t help but think about how often their hear nothing but the negative. They are constantly being told what they did wrong, how they should improve, and what they could be doing better.

I suspect that rarely, if ever, do they truly get to focus on what they are already doing well. I don’t see too many coaches, trainers, or teammates encouraging athletes to concentrate on their strengths and challenge them to get even better at them. Most are certain that real athletic excellence is found only by knowing all the weaknesses, fixing them, and thus improving overall performance. But, if history is much of a teacher, it’s easy to see that this is simply not true.

Take the Chinese Olympic Ping Pong team, for example. Their coach puts them through grueling, 8-hour long training routines where the focus is almost exclusively on improving the players’ respective strengths. Don’t get me wrong, weaknesses are not ignored. They simply aren’t the focus for achieving excellence. Weaknesses are fixed just enough to prevent failure. They don’t become the emphasis for success.

Instead, the players spend countless hours practicing and practicing and practicing their strengths. They learn to master and dominate those skills that are already strengths for them. As the coach says, “If you develop your strengths to the maximum, the strength becomes so great it overwhelms the weakness.”

You might be wondering if that approach can even work. Well, the Chinese team’s best player is known for having a poor backhand. The competition knows he doesn’t have an effective backhand. And yet, his forehand is so powerful, so dominant, that he cannot be beaten. And the same is true for the entire team. Over the years that the Olympics has included ping pong, the Chinese have won more than 50 medals, sometimes sweeping the bronze, silver, and gold in both the singles and the doubles competition in the same Olympiad. Their closest competitor, Korea, has a mere 17 medals.

I’m hoping to be able to convince the JMU athletes that fixing their weaknesses will only help them prevent failure. It won’t help them achieve excellence. The best path to achieving excellence is to strengthen their strengths.