April 20, 2015

Follow in the bare footsteps of the Kalenjin

Champion runners from the Kenyan tribe show how the interventions of modern sports science can be counterproductive if relied upon too soon. Cricketers, are you listening?

© AFP

What can the story of running shoes among Kenyan athletes teach us about cricket? More than I thought possible.

Nearly all top marathon runners are Kenyan. In fact, they are drawn from a particular Kenyan tribe, the Kalenjin, an ethnic group of around 5 million people living mostly at altitude in the Rift Valley.

Here is the really interesting thing. The majority of top marathon runners grow up running without shoes. The debate about whether other athletes should try to mimic barefoot-running technique remains contested and unresolved. However, it is overwhelmingly likely that the unshod childhoods of the Kalenjin does contribute to their pre-eminence as distance runners.*

And yet it is also true that as soon as Kalenjin athletes can afford running shoes, they do buy them. They know that the protection offered by modern shoes helps them to rack up the epic number of hours of training required to become a serious distance runner.

So there is a paradox about long-term potential and running shoes. If an athlete wears shoes too often and too early, when his natural technique and running style are still evolving, he significantly reduces his chances of becoming a champion distance runner. But if he doesn't wear them at all in the later stages of his athletic education he jeopardises his ability to train and perform optimally when it matters.

Put simply, the advantages of modernity and technology need to be first withheld and then embraced. Most Kenyan runners begin wearing trainers in their mid-teens. Some sports scientists argue that if they could hold off for another two or three years, they'd be even better as adult athletes. But no one knows for sure exactly when is the "right" time to start running in shoes. We glimpse the ideal athletic childhood, but its contours remain extremely hazy.

There is no conflict between homespun training methods and sports science. It is a question of the right amount at the right time.

Logically, there is a further complexity. Imagine two equally talented developing athletes, one with shoes, the other barefoot, neither yet at their athletic peak. Wearing shoes, by assisting training and recovery, would yield an advantage at the time. But that short-term advantage would leave behind a long-term disadvantage, by depriving the athlete of the legacy that barefoot runners enjoy when they begin wearing shoes at a later stage. In other words, building the right foundations during adolescence is more important than doing whatever it takes to win at the time.

Where is the cricket here? When I read about the strange influence of first learning barefoot then using the latest technology - in the admirable and thought-provoking book Two Hours by Ed Caesar, published this July - I wrote in the margin: just like cricket coaching.

A modern player seeking an edge over his opponents would be mad not to have access to the latest kit, technology, data, fitness coaching and rehab techniques. But if he comes to rely on the interventions and apparatus of coaches and trainers too early, when his game and character are still in flux, then he misses out of the biggest advantage of the lot: self-reliance and learning from trial and error. In other words, there is no conflict between homespun training methods and sports science. It is a question of the right amount at the right time. Indeed, the art of training always relies on subtly mixing technique and science alongside folk wisdom and feeling.

Consider the greatest of all cricketing educations. As a child, Don Bradman learnt to bat on his own - repeatedly hitting a golf ball against the curved brick base of his family water tank. The empirical method led him to a technique that no one had dared to try. His bat swing started way out to the side, rather than in a straight pendulum line from behind him. He had escaped the greatest risk that can befall any genius: an early overdose of prescriptive formal education.

Kevin Pietersen, in his pomp the most exciting England batsman of his era, was also self-taught to an unusual degree. It was ironic, in his recent autobiography, that Pietersen was so keen to describe in words that he knew better than "the system". In his earlier days, he made the point more eloquently with his bat. Having arrived from South Africa as an offspinning allrounder, he became one of the most thrilling batsmen in the world. Think of all the money and effort - the "pyramids of excellence" and "talent conveyor belts" - expended on manufacturing great English players. And one of the best of them was untouched - some would say undamaged - by the whole apparatus. He figured things out for himself.

Self-reliance and learning from trial and error are the beginnings of a good cricket education © Ben Hoskins/Stringer

Connected to the question of impairing natural development is the problem of over-training and specialising too early. The now debunked "10,000 hours theory" - which holds that genius is created by selecting a discipline as early as possible and then loading on mountains of practice - is being replaced by a far more subtle understanding of nurturing talent.

A study of professional baseball players showed that keeping up football and basketball in teenage years increased the likelihood of making it as a top baseball pro. In his fine book The Sports Gene, David Epstein assembles persuasive evidence that Roger Federer's sporting education (a mixture of badminton, basketball, football as well as tennis) is far more typical of great athletes than the Tiger Woods-style mono-focus that is so often held up as the model.

When the psychologists John Sloboda and Michael Howe studied gifted children at a musical academy, they found that extra lessons for younger musicians proved counterproductive: the kids just burned out. The best players, it turned out, had practised the least as children. Diversity was just as important. The exceptional players practised much less at their first instrument, but much more than the average players on their third instrument.

So if you want an Under-13s champion, yes, buy the latest kit, bully him to practise all hours, pick one sport and make him eliminate all the others. But you are merely reducing the likelihood of producing an adult champion.

Even professionals can aspire to retain the receptivity of children who are learning by playful sampling rather than through directed orthodoxy. I once organised the first phase of pre-season training for a cricket team. I tried to change the culture from one of compliance - if I don't do what I'm told, I'll get in trouble - towards self-regulation, the ability to feel and respond to your game as you push yourself and find out what works and what doesn't. The Kalenjin have mastered that, too. Even at the very top, the athletes continue to lead the training sessions. They take what they need to from science but they trust their intuition.

*A barefoot childhood is by no means the only factor. A recent study showed that the Kalenjin elite runners had 5% longer legs and 12% lighter legs than a sample of top Swedish runners. The Kalenjin also have an unusual mixture of sea-level ancestry (they moved from the low-lying Nile Valley to the elevated Rift Valley only a few centuries ago) and altitude living. Physiologically, they are valley people who live up the mountain. There are also, inevitably, a host of environmental factors.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

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