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Exclusive interview: Lighting the way on path to sporting greatness

IT is the question of sport that has launched a growing genre in non-fiction, has built a variety of industries, has consumed the best minds and tested the most willing bodies.

Daniel Hesse at work at the IGM Academy in Florida
Daniel Hesse at work at the IGM Academy in Florida

Can sporting greatness be created?

Any answer to this poser creates further questions, of course. They are being answered with expert evidence from athletes, psychologists, nutritionist and trainers. One of the most persuasive testimonies comes from a Morton supporter. David Hesse, at just 38, is a former Kelvinside Academy pupil, who is now an influential part of one of the most high-profile sporting academies in the world.

The IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, is a private athletic training facility for both aspiring and professional athletes. It attracts more than 12,000 athletes from 80 countries every year. Those who have taken advantage of its expertise include Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova and Heather Watson from tennis, Sean O'Hair and Paula Creamer from golf, and Tim Howard and Craig Bellamy from football.

Hesse, the boy from Kilmacolm, is the director of athletic and personal development at the IMG Academy. He oversees 35 staff through strength and conditioning, nutrition sport psychology, leadership, vision training, and sports medicine. "We take raw talent," says Hesse, "and help develop it to grow as sporting champions at every level of the sporting ladder."

This basic premise is the one that dominates the narrative of academies and coaches across the world. But, first, there is another story to tell first, that of Hesse. Almost unwittingly, his life illustrates the determination, focus, talent, ambition and gut instinct that are the necessary components of sporting greatness.

He would insist his achievements are more ordinary but he has a fascinating cv. At Edinburgh University, he captained the football team against the likes of Spartans and Whitehill Welfare. He also graduated with an MA in psychology before completing an MSc in organisational psychology at Sheffield University.

He then became a management consultant for seven years but says: "Working for big business and big government helped me realise that I had a passion for maximising the growth of individuals not shareholder capital."

This led him, at the age of 31, to attend Loughborough College to study sport and exercise psychology. An internship with IMG followed before Hesse worked with the Scottish Institute of Sport - now sportscotland Insitute of Sport - for more than two years.

He was subsequently poached by IMG to help their performance division grow and was made personal development director last year. The ascent appears dizzying but Hesse has learned solid lessons.

"Too few athletes realise their potential," he says. His job, indeed his vocation, is to increase the percentage of winners.

He identifies the building blocks to fulfilment. These include "creating a performance environment", basically giving the athlete the facilities and the scientific and medical support. But motivation is key. "You cannot work with a resistant athlete," he says. "One of the biggest challenges we face is athletes understanding the significance of the opportunity."

This sporting chance in Florida, he says, is "holistic". He adds: "We believe in developing the total athlete, someone who can succeed on the sports field and in life."

The curriculum at the academy is exhaustive. "Our athletes may be in school from 7-11am, followed by three or four hours of technical instruction, then speed and movement or strength and conditioning sessions. There are also special classes in sports nutrition, mental toughness, vision training and yoga."

Both professional and aspiring athletes use the facilities, the latter to try win scholarships at universities. Hesse says the over-riding ethos is collaboration. This goes beyond specialist coaches. Parents have to be educated too. "We need to enable the parents to help build confidence, motivation, commitment and resilience in their children," he says. So what has Hesse learned from athletes? What traits do the high performers share? "They have a growth mindset," he says. "They squeeze every ounce of potential out of their bodies and minds. They realise they need to reflect on their performance strategies, they accept rather than reject feedback, they learn though the success of others rather than resent it, and they understand that effort and hard work are the keys to success not "god-given" talent.

"They have integrity - they make the right decisions when no one is watching. It could be choosing pasta over pizza when out having dinner with friends, or it could be knowing when to shut down the laptop/iPad to get some sleep. They are aware of potential distractions - the most valuable resource a developmental athlete has is time. The athletes who do best recognise what distracts them from their purpose and from their goals. Whether it's friends, social media, parents." If greatness is just about realising potential, Hesse admits that in its purest terms it is about doing so consistently.

"Greatness can only be achieved if your standards are exceptional in the first place. Many athletes can have moments of exceptional performance, but they won't be considered great unless they can maintain these standards for a period of time and in the face of extreme pressure and competition.

"There are many golfers who have set course records in a major but not held on to win, many boxers who landed a lucky knockout punch only to get found out in their next fight and many football teams who raise their games to perform 'giant killing' acts only to lose in the next round of the cup. It is about delivering when it matters most."

So can it all be delivered in Scotland? This is a particularly pertinent question at a time when development centres and performance schools are being run by the SFA, when a national performance centre is being set up in Edinburgh and when an academy under the joint patronage of Andy Murray and Colin Montgomerie is planned for Park of Keir, near Dunblane.

"There is no reason why Scottish athletes can not reach the top echelons of sport," he says. He talks of "systemic factors" including facilities but is encouraged by the level of investment in Scotland.

He has a particular focus on educating parents and coaches to help the athlete negotiate a difficult climb to fulfillment. "The athletic journey is going to be full of highs and lows," he says. "Too many programmes exclude the parents but they can form the most important factor in accelerating the development athlete." He also points out the Scottish athlete may have to become willing to accept an important area of support.

"One of the key differences I have noticed between the USA and home, is the willingness of young athletes to embrace and develop the mental side of their game,' he says. "Over here, there is nothing out of the ordinary in working with a sport psychologist to build the strategies and behaviours that will help success. It's an accepted part of becoming better as an athlete. Back home, too often the prevailing view was that you only work with a sport psychologist when you have a problem. There is a still a stigma about embracing support to help build the skills to deal with the mental side of the game."

His experience in the USA has led him to reflect on the essentials needed to support the aspiring athlete in Scotland, whether he or she wants to simply enjoy sport for life as an amateur or scale the heights of professional sport.

Hesse maintains that the IMG model in Florida has a conspicuous advantage in that it is residential. He points out that obviously facilities, governance and management are important but he adds: "Many of the programmes in Scotland are non-residential. The most precious resource, the most valuable commodity for an athlete is their time. One of the critical success factors in any programme is protecting the time of the athletes, making sure the different components of the programme are not working against each other.

"For example, if athletes are still in education we need to make sure we minimise lost time due to transporting to and from the training facility. We need to make sure that the coaches don't keep the athletes behind for extra training when other services such as rehab or education are scheduled."

The philosophy is that time and talent wait for no man or woman. This is as true of Hesse, the Morton fan, or as it is of Bolt, the Manchester United fan. The sporting world is wide. The path to greatness is narrow but well-defined.

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