The Sporting Gene – What Can We Learn From Dan Evans?

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With the recent publication of David Epstein’s “The Sporting Gene” there has been lots of debate essentially over nature versus nurture in sport.  The emergence of books like “Bounce” (Matthew Syed), “Talent is Overrated” (Geoff Colvin) and “Outliers: The Story of Success” (Malcolm Gladwell) in recent years has given credence for top performers in sport needing to work hard. The articulation of the 10,000 hour rule, the need to practice for at least that amount of time to achieve elite performance have extolled the work ethic over talent.

Epstein’s look at the leading edge of sporting performance takes a contrary view, looking at the evidence that some people are better suited genetically to some sporting activity than others.  Of course the truth is probably somewhere in between – that is whatever talent you may have, without hard work it will not result in elite, tournament winning performances.

So what has this got to do with Dan Evans?  Well he has just had two great results in the first two rounds of the US Open.  Having beaten 11th seed Kai Nishikori in the first round, 179th ranked Evans yesterday came from a set down to beat Tomic in four in round two.

Evans has been described as one of those talented players who has not fulfilled his promise.  He has frequently attracted the wrong kind of publicity, having had his funding withdrawn by the LTA for partying during Wimbledon.

At the beginning of last August Evans was ranked just below 400.  It’s only this month that his ranking has broken into the top 200 for the first time.  Over the last year he has spent most of his time playing ITF Futures tournaments – almost the non-league of professional tennis. As someone put it – here was a player with bags of talent but little application.  So what has changed?

In two Davis Cup ties over the last year, against Slovakia and Russia, he has won three out of four ties, against higher ranked players, demonstrating his undoubted talent, including winning the deciding rubber against Russia, when Great Britain had been 2-0 down.

“It was good how it worked out,” said Evans. “Every match, when you win against someone who is much higher ranked, definitely gives you confidence.”

Since arriving in the States over six weeks ago he has worked with a team from the LTA, sharing coaching and fitness training duties.  Evans explains: “I trained really hard with the fitness trainer, I practised hard every day and I’ve actually reaped the rewards from that.  I was pretty disciplined over this trip; I haven’t been out or anything, so it’s pretty good.”

So a talented player with a reputation for enjoying himself has buckled down and is currently, as he says, reaping the rewards, with at least a $60,000 pay check and a third round match against Tommy Robredo to look forward to.

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Are you a team player?

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While most people, particularly in the UK, may have heard of Laura Trott, Olympic gold medal winning cyclist, probably few outside of those who are avid followers of cycling may have heard of Emily Collins.  Collins is a team mate of Trott on the Wiggle Honda professional cycling team.

Last Saturday, in the women’s race at the Ride London event, Emily Collins was one of the lead out riders, along with Dani King (herself an Olympic gold medal winner and world champion), who set Laura Trott up for victory.  Prior to that, during the race Collins had been one of the riders who had repeatedly attacked off the front of the peloton, stretching the competing teams.  Clearly, those who were watching, like those who have watched Mark Cavendish win sprints in recent years, remember the star rider but rarely remember the team members who were a fundamental part of achieving the victory.  Cavendish, after every victory, always praises the contribution of his teammates.  Indeed, conversely, despite earlier problems with his lead out train in this years Tour de France, when pipped by Marcel Kittel in stage 12 he praised his team mates for setting him up but admitted he had failed to deliver on that occasion.

While I’ve worked with many great people I have also worked with a couple of people over the years who are happy to take the glory from other peoples work, without attributing their teams contribution, yet are rarely to be seen when things go wrong! In ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins analysis of companies that make the transition from good or average to great and lasting corporations, he picks out a number of characteristics, where, in relation to their leaders, they are humble and put the company first. They are often not seen as charismatic but actively put others forward.

It’s worth asking what type of team player are you?