From The Talent Code To The Secret Race - A Conversation With Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle
It has been a busy month for Daniel Coyle. When you co-write the definitive book that tells the inside story of how a 7-time Tour de France champion cheated his way to the top step of the Champs-Élysées podium, your life becomes a little hectic. Coyle helped Tyler Hamilton, long-time teammate of Lance Armstrong, document the incredible details of the United States Postal Service racing team during Armstrong’s seemingly invincible years in their book, "The Secret Race". 

From CNN to Charlie Rose to the Today show, Hamilton and Coyle have helped audiences understand the background and motivation that led to the ultimate confessional last week; Lance the Sinner telling all to Mother Oprah.

The side benefit for Coyle to all of this media exposure is the realization of viewers that he writes about topics other than cycling and doping.  Well known in the coaching and education communities for his New York Times bestseller, "The Talent Code", and its follow-up "The Little Book of Talent", he is the voice of the growing belief that you are not necessarily just the genetic product of your parents' athletic or artistic skills.  Practice does matter and practice can provide a path to improvement, if not complete mastery.

Despite his whirlwind month, Dan was kind enough to discuss this new paradigm in sports training and the process of becoming great.  I hope you enjoy the highlights of our conversation.
First, what was your biggest takeaway from the sad but intriguing story of Lance Armstrong’s journey?

Daniel Coyle: “For one of my previous books, I spent two years in Girona, Spain, the home of the USPS team, during a Tour de France season.  While you knew when Armstrong was in town, there was always this secretiveness to his existence.  He was known as Batman for the way people would catch occasional glimpses of him in public.”
“Cycling is a demanding sport, but its less about motor skills and deals more with creating a rider’s engine or his power production plant.  The rider with the most energy and power would most often win the race.  Doping and other performance enhancing drugs were the next step towards producing more power. For me and many others, doping took the pure joy out of the sport and reduced it to a lab of biochemistry experiments.”

Tell us a little about your writing career to date and your dual-topics of talent development and the cycling life?

DC:  “When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor and was on the path to medical school.  However, my favorite day of the week was when Sports Illustrated would show up in my parents’ mailbox.  I became lost in the stories of sports achievement and wanted to be able to write those stories someday.”
“Later, I found out I didn’t really have the fire in the belly for medicine and was able to land a job as an intern at Outside magazine.  Back in those pre-Internet days, the writers would fax their stories in and I would type them, word for word, into the publishing system.  It gave me a chance to read a lot of great writing and taught me about story telling.”
“I was attracted to writing about great performers, whether it be athletes, business leaders or entertainers to find out how they got better at their craft.”

From your first book in 1995 about coaching baseball in the Chicago projects to your latest book, have you learned first-hand how performers and artists improve their craft?

DC: “That’s the really interesting part.  There is this great illusion of looking at performance from the outside as being easy and just a one-time journey with an end. There is no mountaintop of performance. The physics of skill do not permit coasting on a plateau.”
“I recently read a great New York Times piece about Jerry Seinfeld and his endless quest to get better as a comedian.  Whether it be Seinfeld or Albert Pujols or the great writer Philip Roth, they are all doing the same daily, humble, effortful steps to improve their craft.”
“For me, I am always trying to improve.  I have a collection of 3x5 index cards where I’ve written down great sentences from other writers as examples to learn from.”

The sub-title of of your 2009 book, The Talent Code, is “Greatness isn’t born, it's grown.  Here’s how.”  With that simple assertion, you threw yourself right in the middle of the genetics vs. practice debate of how expertise is achieved.  In the last three years, have you seen any new research or evidence that changes your opinion that training can trump innate skills?

DC: “No, if anything we’ve seen more research and support for this concept of structured, deliberate practice being able to improve performance. There is also a new language and vocabulary for talking about training that is beginning to understand the important role of the brain in learning.  The talent hotbeds that I describe in the book have already learned this concept.”
“There is a great new book, How Children Succeed, that emphasizes the role of emotional fortitude in great learners.  Character, grit, perseverance and self-control are critical to the learning curve.”

What is the role of brain research and technology in this world of performance training?

DC: “We’ve learned that brains are not static, they are in a constant process of change throughout our lives.  I like to use the analogy of re-shingling a roof.  Performers need to be always updating and reinforcing their core foundation and adding new layers of knowledge.”
“Technology tools can help to a point but we need to ask to what extent can they accurately represent the real world of sports.  Can a 2D or even 3D virtual world teach pattern recognition and spatial awareness as well as the real thing?  If we can validate the results of these new tools, it will offer a brave new world that will make training more efficient.”
“The key to all of the new cognitive research coming out will be to help coaches translate it and accept it.  The coaching culture is resistant to change and is often a one-way conversation with the athlete.  The high-performance training centers have learned this hard lesson and have adapted to this reality.”

Thanks, Dan, we're looking forward to the next step on your writing journey.
Here is a terrific little video of what you will learn in Coyle's "Little Book of Talent".

Cyclists' Sore Seats Signal Serious Symptoms

For any guy who has endured more than thirty minutes on a road bicycle seat, there is usually some concern over the strange numbness that occurs in places that should not go numb. Well, a new study has some good and bad news.

Spanish researchers have found that active male cyclists have lower quality sperm to the point of infertility risk. Among other things, they blame the painful "function over form" design of the wedge bicycle seat.

The good news is that unless you're training to be in the next Tour de France with Lance Armstrong, your time on the saddle shouldn't do any long-term damage.

A team led by professor Diana Vaamonde, from the University of Cordoba Medical School, tracked the workout regimen of 15 Spanish triathletes, with an average age of 33 who had been training for at least eight years, while also monitoring their sperm morphology.

For those in the test group that covered more than 180 miles per week on their bikes, the percentage of normal looking sperm dropped from a group average of 10 percent to 4 percent, a rate where infertility problems begin. Increased swimming or running did not affect sperm quality.

"We found a statistically adverse correlation between sperm morphology and the volume of cycling training undertaken per week," Vaamonde said. "We believe that all the factors inherent in this sports activity, especially with regards to the cycling part, may affect sperm quality," she added. "Moreover, we think that normal physiological homeostasis – the body’s ability to regulate its own environment – may become irreversibly altered, therefore resulting in complex anomalies."

Vaamonde cited three possible reasons for the results: the increased heat during exercise, the friction and pressure against the seat causing microtrauma on the testes, and the overall rigor of intense exercise.

The study was released last week in Amsterdam at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE).

The Spanish researchers were following up on research from 2002 that showed similar results for mountain bikers. In that study, Austrian researcher Ferdinand Frauscher tested 40 active (two hours per day) mountain bikers with 30 non-bikers. He found that the bikers had about half the sperm count of the non-bikers. Frauscher explained (as only a medical doctor can) the possible reasons: "The exact causes for the decreased sperm motility are unclear. We believe that repeated mechanical trauma to the testicles results in some degree of vascular damage, and may thereby cause a reduction in sperm motility." Ouch.

For casual bike riders, the risk is still quite low. Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, told BBC News, "It is important to stress that even if the association between cycling and poor sperm morphology is correct, men training for triathlons are spending much more time in the saddle than the average social cycler or someone who might cycle to and from work."

For those that are still not okay with the "saddle sores," there are always the anatomically correct seats and the padded biker shorts, not to mention recumbent bikes. Beyond that, maybe a nice jog would be better.

Retirement Rebound - The Return of Torres, Favre and Armstrong

Maybe its the fear of turning 40. Maybe its the feeling of unfinished business. Maybe its the fire in the belly that has not quite extinguished. For retired elite athletes, the itch is always there to make a return after experiencing "life after sport". For some, it becomes too strong to ignore. 

This year has seen the return of at least three champions, Dara Torres, Lance Armstrong and Brett Favre. As they explain their individual reasons for coming back, some similarities emerge that have more to do with psychological needs than practical needs. In a recent Miami Herald article, Torres explained her comeback to competitive swimming at age 41, "For me, it's not like I sat around and watched swimming on TV and thought, `Oh, I wish I was still competing'. It was more gradual. But all of a sudden, something goes off inside you and you start seriously thinking about a comeback. You'd think the competitive fire would die down with maturity, but I've actually gotten worse. I wasn't satisfied with silver medals. I hate to lose now more than I did in my 20s. I'm still trying to figure out why.''

Drawing inspiration from Torres, Lance Armstrong has decided to make a comeback at age 37 with a declared goal to win his eighth Tour de France. In a recent Vanity Fair article, he described his rationale, “Look at the Olympics. You have a swimmer like Dara Torres. Even in the 50-meter event [freestyle], the 41-year-old mother proved you can do it. The woman who won the marathon [Constantina Tomescu-Dita, of Romania] was 38. Older athletes are performing very well. Ask serious sports physiologists and they’ll tell you age is a wives’ tale. Athletes at 30, 35 mentally get tired. They’ve done their sport for 20, 25 years and they’re like, I’ve had enough. But there’s no evidence to support that when you’re 38 you’re any slower than when you were 32."

Is it the 40 factor? Brett Favre, who turns 39 in October, made his well-publicized return to the NFL last month wanting to return so badly that he accepted a trade to the New York Jets so that he could play. His public and emotional decision to retire in March, only to begin hinting at a comeback in early summer showed the internal struggle he had with stepping away from sports. 

You could hear the indecision in his retirement press conference, "I've given everything I possibly can give to this organization, to the game of football, and I don't think I've got anything left to give, and that's it.", Favre said. "I know I can play, but I don't think I want to. And that's really what it comes down to. Fishing for different answers and what ifs and will he come back and things like that, what matters is it's been a great career for me, and it's over. As hard as that is for me to say, it's over. There's only one way for me to play the game, and that's 100 percent. Mike and I had that conversation the other night, and I will wonder if I made the wrong decision. I'm sure on Sundays, I will say I could be doing that, I should be doing that. I'm not going to sit here like other players maybe have said in the past that I won't miss it, because I will. But I just don't think I can give anything else, aside from the three hours on Sundays, and in football you can't do that. It's a total commitment, and up to this point I have been totally committed." 

Some observers point to the end of the Packers' 2007-2008 season with a heart-wrenching Favre interception in overtime that sent the Giants to the Super Bowl instead of Green Bay. Being that close to the pinnacle of his sport must have been confidence that his skills had not diminished and once the fatigue of the past season had passed (by about June), that he was not ready to just ride the tractor in Mississippi for the next 40 years.

So, what do the sport psychologists make of these second thoughts? These three athletes are world famous, but what about the hundreds of professional athletes that have had to make the same decision without all of the front page stories and fanfare? Why does Chris Chelios, all-star and future Hall of Famer in the NHL, continue to avoid the retirement decision at age 45? 

Coaches aren't immune either. Bobby Bowden of Florida State and Joe Paterno of Penn State have refused to retire to the point of becoming an awkward story for their schools and fans. ''After all the adulation and excitement wear off and elite athletes come face to face with retirement and a more mundane life, they suffer a sense of loss, almost like a death,'' said sport psychologist John F. Murray. "If you're Lance Armstrong, you realize that what you are is a cyclist, that is your identity, and if you feel you have one or two more titles in you, why let it go? Why not tackle unresolved challenges? Competing at that level provides a high that is hard to match. How can you not be addicted to that?''

Beyond the professional ranks, thousands of college and Olympic athletes are left with the realization that they face similar decisions of when to "give up the dream" and move into the more practical world of finishing their education and finding a job. Their emotional attachment to their sport has developed over years of building an identity linked to their success on the field. 

Despite the statistics showing the "funnel effect" of the diminishing number of athletes getting to the "next level", younger athletes continue to believe they are the ones that will make it to the top. There is also the more emotional issue of unwillingly leaving a sport because of injury or simply not making the team due to diminished skills. Dr. Murray adds, "When your whole life has been geared toward athletic excellence, the prospects of retirement can be dreadful! This is commonplace at collegiate level where 99 per cent of the athletes do not go on to play their sport professionally. Counseling is a way to prepare athletes for the inevitable loss that occurs after the glory is over and only memories remain. As with any loss, people need effective ways to cope. Going at it all on your own might work for some, but I’ll submit that the vast majority of athletes benefit from early discussion and planning for retirement. There is definitely life after sport."

Some colleges and universities, as well as some professional teams, have started to offer formal "retirement planning" for athletes as their formal sport careers wind down. Life After Sports, a counseling firm started by Adrian McBride, a former college and NFL player, provides services to retiring college athletes to help them emotionally and practically adjust to a post-sports life. The University of North Carolina has set-up the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes to offer a home for academic research into these issues.

Additional academic research is also coming out on athlete retirement including two articles this year (see citations below) from the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. First, Katie Warriner and David Lavallee of the University of Wales interviewed former elite gymnasts regarding their retirement at a relatively young age from competitive sport. They found the loss of identity to be the biggest adjustment. Second, Patricia Lally and Gretchen Kerr looked at how parents cope with their children's "retirement" from sport, as they also go through withdrawl symptoms when the "end of the dream" finally comes and the lifelong ambition for their child's athletic success is over.

Who's next up for a retirement rebound? Just as Lance got inspiration from Torres and maybe Favre, the trend may continue. The Bulls could use Jordan or Pippen and Roger Clemens is never far away from a phone. Stay tuned!

Katie Warriner, David Lavallee (2008). The Retirement Experiences of Elite Female Gymnasts: Self Identity and the Physical Self Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20 (3), 301-317 DOI: 10.1080/10413200801998564

Patricia Lally, Gretchen Kerr (2008). The Effects of Athlete Retirement on Parents Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20 (1), 42-56 DOI: 10.1080/10413200701788172