Al Smith

Al Smith

I don’t remember the first time mum pointed to a nearby lamppost and urged me to do “my fastest mile!” My toddler years have long since become a patchwork of vague recollections, twisted through years of family storytelling. What I can tell you with some certainty is that for as long as I can remember I’ve always considered myself to be a runner. This is not to say that I set out in early childhood to plot a path to Olympic glory (those ultimately unfulfilled aspirations would have to wait for the hormonal rages of my teenage years) or that plodding around the village recreation ground in middle age serves me any more than a reprieve from the ravages of time. But I feel as sure today as I did back then whilst rushing to break my fall in pursuit of mum’s affections that running is fundamental to my very being.

I had no notion of it at the time but those three simple words “my fastest mile“ were to set me on a lifetime’s quest to understand the journey to excellence in sport. A journey that has brought me full circle back to that early childhood instinct to be my best. That mum’s chosen target object was invariably some considerable way short of the designated 1609.3m required for official ratification of record times for the mile was of no consequence to my fledgling ambition. Unbeknownst to me, and probably to her, we had stumbled upon the novel strategy of constraining my learning challenge to an achievable stepping-stone in pursuit of the greater goal. An approach I now understand to be well described by the emerging field of constraints based learning theory. But theory aside that simple phrase implied that I had already established at that tender age that I needed to own a personal target in life that was both aspirational and of some relational value to the community of people who shared the world around me. That I chose to run is no great surprise but I have dad’s athletic endeavours to thank for my early engagement with the iconography of the mile.

Since hanging up my spikes in a tangle of childhood memories now consigned to trophy boxes and newspaper clippings, I’ve spent a career attempting to understand and had the great privilege to influence the journey to excellence of a small number of athletes across the Olympic sports. As a jobbing sports scientist my early conceptions of developing expertise in sport were rooted in a scientific education that had me firmly attached to a deterministic view of the world where performance could be explained by its physical and physiological underpinnings. To know the physical process and the physiology that shaped it was to have the measure of the outcome. However, I was always aware of the shortfall. On the other side of this view was the world of psychology with its more esoteric notions of personality and relatedness that likewise laid their own justifiable claim to providing a deeper understanding of performance and achievement.

With the benefit of experience I’ve come to understand and embrace the richness and complexity of human performance and the plethora of interacting factors that make each champion’s journey to excellence unique. However, my analytical mind remains restless in seeking to make sense of what I’ve learned and in recent years this pursuit has been given new purpose with the discovery of a conceptual framework for understanding human behaviour and development that brings together many of the disparate threads that I’ve grappled with over the years. Complex systems theory and its biological offspring ecological dynamic systems provide a philosophical framework that anchors people and their endeavours to the culture and context that shapes the constraints on their emerging behaviour. Through this lens I’ve been able to appreciate more fully the dynamic interactions that connect the aspirations of a formative young mind through the extended honing and refinement of skills and capacities to the ability to do extraordinary things in the name of sport.

And so I return to my own sporting journey and wonder at the origins and influence of those early experiences of chasing lampposts that urged me down the path to be a runner. However, it would appear that I didn’t need much encouragement as it transpired decades later when I asked mum where the idea had come from that it was my own furtive, formative mind that had dreamt it up all along.