By Kyle Peveto
Advocate staff writer
August 19, 2012
For two weeks the world has watched gifted athletes compete for gold medals, leaving viewers to marvel at the talent of swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Gabby Douglas.
But it’s more than talent that got them to London.
“There’s an awful lot of work that goes into being a great athlete, or for that matter, a great mathematician or a great writer,” said Rita Culross, professor of gifted education and women’s and gender studies at LSU.
Culross, an LSU professor who has studied the gifted for 30 years, wrote a paper on the development of Olympic-level talent for a conference on sports and culture at the Oxford Round Table last month just before the Olympic games overtook London.
Elite athletes are born with the correct body types and immense talents for their sports, she said, but they typically also possess above-average drive to compete and massive support systems from knowledgeable coaches and accommodating parents to nutritionists and psychologists.
Phelps’ calorie-burning workouts with longtime coach Bob Bowman, who has been his mentor since he was 11, and his super-supportive mother are often mentioned in the media.
Douglas’ mother saw her daughter’s potential and allowed her — at 14 — to move halfway across the country to live with another family and be close enough to train with coach Liang Chow, according to the New York Times.
“You’re not just looking at the innate talent of the individual, but you’re looking at the various environmental influences on that development — the family, the culture, the school, even the gender of the individual, as well as some of the psychological techniques that are used to enhance development,” Culross said by phone.
Culross’ area of study focuses on the development of the gifted, and she has followed highly intelligent students through their lives to monitor how they evolve from youngsters with potential into adulthood.
Currently on sabbatical from teaching at LSU, she is following up on a study she first completed 20 years ago of gifted high school students in Wisconsin.
During the past five years, while teaching her classes at LSU, she expanded her study of the gifted to include athletics.
She wrote her latest paper, “Talent Development and Talent Enhancement of the Olympic Athlete,” specifically for the Oxford Round Table at Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford. Experts in several fields gathered there to present papers on a variety of topics examining the confluence of sports and culture — including the history of sports nutrition and sports economics.
To write the paper, she reviewed studies of elite athletes and related it to the work of psychologist Jane Piirto, also known for her studies of the gifted and talented.
Culross found that gifted athletes often are competing against themselves to become their very best.
“Athletes at an elite level often set goals for themselves. They tend to be very intrinsically motivated,” she wrote in an email. “Their goals are focused around improving their performance ... rather than beating a particular opponent.”
To improve to their personal best and enhance their development, Culross said, athletes use visualization — mentally picturing the correct, winning form or outcome — and deliberate practice, which means practicing with a purpose — focusing intensely on form to get a few seconds faster in the pool or on the track.
“In gymnastics, for example, if you’re doing something like a vault, it goes so quickly that knowing whether or not your legs, your arms are in the proper position sometimes requires being able to break it down to see where your mistakes are and see where you might improve,” Culross said.
While elite athletes have the talent, physiology, drive and support system to find success, they also develop a focus few others have, said Erich Duchmann, a sports psychologist who contracts with LSU and owner of Family Therapy Clinic of Louisiana. Mentally, athletes deal with the same psychological issues all people face.
“It’s amazing how similar they really are to all of us,” Duchmann said. “They have the same fears and anxieties all of us have. What makes them different is that they have developed the ability to persevere more than us.”
Perseverance through failure and hard times is required for many Olympic athletes, who train in obscurity much of their lives to make it to the world stage.
Today’s athletes can turn Olympic gold in some events into mainstream success and riches. Michael Phelps has multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, as do sprinter Usain Bolt and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. In the past, athletes had no guarantee of anything beyond athletic success, a concept Culross thought of during her trip to Oxford when she visited the track where medical student and former Olympian Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4-minute mile in 1954.
The same was true when Bruce Jenner won the Olympic decathlon in the 1976 Olympics.
“When Bruce Jenner won the decathlon, other than being on the Wheaties box, there really weren’t the kinds of endorsements and life that came from being an athlete like there is now,” she said. “And that’s dramatically changed.”
While the rewards have changed for some athletes over the years, Culross said, the drive to compete has not.