Thorpe, Medal Targets and Pressure

Somewhere in my newborn haze, there was some furor over Ian Thorpe. Namely, Thorpe advocated for ditching medal targets. To paraphrase his argument, he believes the medal targets are counterproductive to team success at the Olympics.

He's right, for sure. His comments triggered considerable backlash, mainly through the eyes of pseudo-masculine sports people who used Thorpe's comments to vent their frustration about how "not tough" everyone is these days.

That many of the same people probably parrot coaching talking points about "focus on the process" shouldn't be lost. Medal targets are at best a distraction from focus on what it might actually take to be that successful.

To me, though, that's just the surface level of the argument. There's something out there that would satisfy both Thorpe and his cohort and the "mental toughness" crowd. Rather than pillorying Thorpe, perhaps we ought to really listen to what he is saying.

if it's true that there is too much pressure, and perhaps most of that pressure is inevitable, how can we better prepare those that we coach to meet that pressure? We would be wise to listen to Thorpe, who has probably had some of the most pressure filled swimming of the last two decades, rivaled only by Mr. Phelps.

That pressure got the best of him, and prematurely ended what should have been a 1A and 1B rivalry with Phelps. And it's not just Thorpe, Australia has come undone in successive Olympics due to being ill-prepared to face the pressure of the event.

Instead of focusing on medal targets, perhaps the massive administrative bloat that is Australian swimming could invest some of their managerial resources into evidence-based solutions for building up resiliency, emotional regulation and optimism amongst their athletes.

Australia has always punched above their population's weight by being extremely passionate about swimming, but also by innovating. Forbes Carlisle spent a lifetime slightly ahead of the curve. They famously figured out shaving a whole Olympic cycle before everybody else. 

Even in the field of gear. Thorpe got away with wearing a body suit for his entire career without anyone quite figuring out to do the same. Once they did, the suits were quickly banned.

Once again, Thorpe is offering his country (even if he doesn't know it) an area where they can innovate and get a leg up. They can either shout him down, or actually listen and make the changes that will make a debate over medal targets irrelevant.