The 90/9/1% Principle

13 05 2009

Provided courtesy of F4 Technical Adviser, Bobby McGee

The 90/9/1% Principle

Training to Racing

25 plus years in the coaching business have taught me many things which have been useful in assisting athletes to achieve performances that reflect their conditioning & ability. I have always found it exasperating when I work with an athlete that has obvious ability that is copiously displayed in training & then repeatedly delivers performances way below their obvious capabilities.

There are no grounds for looking at physical causes for these sub par performances, especially if the homework has been done as regards dress rehearsal workouts & time trials that have proven the efficacy of training, taper, equipment, nutrition, hydration strategies, etc.

Obviously the challenge lies in solving the riddles of the athlete’s mental, emotional & even spiritual make up. These issues I have addressed in my book Magical Running. This process of uncovering what is hindering an athlete from performing to their physical ability & then creating a new approach through disciplined habituation of effective mindsets & beliefs is lengthy & laborious. While this is certainly an essential & ultimately worthwhile endeavor that stretches beyond the bounds of sport, I felt that their might be a short cut so to speak. Perhaps some athletes simply needed a Satori, a moment of instant awakening, in which they realized the power of letting go of their paradigm concerning their ability & fully took on what their training displayed. This would allow them access to their true potential & they would make the connection between training success & competition confidence.

The idea is based loosely (& empirically) on my close observations of all levels of athlete over a quarter of a century:

  • 90% of athletes achieve at a level that is below their predicted performance based on training & trials
  • 9% of athletes equal their training-indicated ability during competition &
  • 1% of athletes transcend their observed ability in training when they compete

Taking a brief look at these 3 groups is warranted when athlete & coach choose to use this idea to “move to the next level”.

Every sport – no matter what it is, has a myriad ways in which performance can be predicted. Granted in the world of pure skills this is a little more complicated, but ALL training/conditioning is predicated on the principle that repeated efforts lead to automatic mastery of a skill that is then brought to the playing field with a high degree of expectation that this skill can be performed with equal success. In my field of endurance sports there are many examples of evaluations, training sets & time trials that are statistically almost infallible in their ability to predict performance when all other variables are the same.

Top coaches know exactly what their athletes are capable of. In fact, over the last several years I no longer seek out physiological marvels, when looking for an athlete with the potential to be a world beater, but an individual who has physical potential, (but not necessarily the highest possible); an athlete with obvious drive, passion, courage & a winning temperament. This individual has that special can do attitude that indicates that they are unstoppable in their desire to get to the very top. So intense is this character-type that they are sometimes deemed obnoxious, selfish & egotistical.

So many athletes just know that they have not achieved what they were capable of. Often this athlete has a tale that involves one magic (but often arbitrary) day during which they stumbled upon a performance that briefly indicated their “true” ability. They may even have sporadically shown this ability – but seldom when it counted. This is the athlete that must face the truth. Once acknowledgment takes place, then the athlete must develop (or have) a relationship with an expert (in sport psychology & or a coach of some experience). By being willing & vulnerable this athlete must then discover what is holding them back & create & habituate mindsets, attitudes & mental strategies to overcome self limiting thinking & achieve results according to training/ability. The process is called moving from being a 90 percenter, to being a 9 percenter. Often a discussion or 10 of this nature may be sufficient to elicit change—the athlete feels relieved to be out & can address the challenge(s).

9 percenters are lovely to coach & if talented enough can win consistently. They mostly perform according to expectation. They operate on an even keel, are seldom flustered & manage pre-competition stresses well. The only downside for an athlete like this is that they “know” their limits. If they are not good enough in the level of competition they have chosen & their training is sufficiently prolonged & optimal then they may quit/retire – knowing they are not likely to get any better. In most sports there is always something more that can be done & coaches of 9 percenters must be creative & informed so as to be able to take this athlete further.

Ah, now finally the 1 percenter – this athlete is rare. I have been involved in the coaching of very few. They are a joy to work with. They train hard, are consistent, have all the mental skills & character traits required to be a champion; their attitude is superb. What they can achieve in competition is not discernible from their training—they supersede it greatly! They train in control, they are emotionally even about training & racing. They do not race in training. These athletes LOVE competition & are fierce competitors. They have great competitive instincts & can roll with the punches. They are adaptable & often display great longevity in their chosen sport. They seldom seem overly “beat up” after competition. They are often tactically brilliant – probably stems from their grace under pressure & calm demeanor no matter the circumstances. No competition seems more or less stressful than another; country regionals or Olympic final; they have the tools & the composure.

By sharing this 90/9/1% phenomenon with an athlete you make available to them a new set of goals & targets to aspire to. You make them aware that what they might feel is well hidden about their “weaknesses” is obvious to those who care & work with them &, if willing to do the work, they are on the threshold of breaking through.

May your 90 percenters soon be 9 percenters & may you discover 1 percenters from these.

…and always with Grace, Gratitude & Guts

Bobby McGee

©BMES 2007

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