What Does It Take to Be the “Best When It Counts?”

Dr. Seiler surveys the history of sports training and Esports. Learn more about how modern sport has evolved into what it is today.

Dr. Stephen Seiler, a professor of sports science, explores the development and history of sports training, beginning with the ancient Greeks. In 37 minutes, Dr. Seiler surveys the incredible and fascinating history of different beliefs about training, how those beliefs affected training practices, and how we have arrived at today’s era of SMART goals, pyramids of needs, and the typical lifecycle of a modern athlete. Dr. Seiler’s talk draws from history, sport science, data program, entrepreneurship, and other fields to show the evolution of the process of what we today call “training”.

Reposted on Fast Talk Laboratories with permission of Dr. Stephen Seiler.

Video Transcript

Dr. Stephen Seiler 00:00 

Hi this is Dr. Stephen Seiler. If you’re watching this video then you are probably taking the course on basic training and sports principles for the esports program and I am a professor in exercise science or sports science and I’m going to talk to you about that training process because I’ve been working on it with athletes, with coaches, with different teams around the world for about 25 years and so the title of this lecture is kind of physical aspects of being best when it counts in sports. 

What is a Sport?

Dr. Stephen Seiler 00:39 

Now go to my screen, hopefully now you’re going to see a presentation and the first thing we might ask is ‘What’s a Sport?’. Obviously this is a very debated topic and esports have definitely challenged us again in terms of what’s a sport? What’s not a sport? Does it matter and so forth, but the Miriam Webster dictionary says it’s ‘a contest or a game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and they compete against each other.

Obviously lots of possibilities there and there are over 800 sports on a list I found of all the sports they could find, so lots of possibilities and of course there’s different categories of sports and how do you categorize?  

How to Categorize Different Sports?

Dr. Stephen Seiler 1:31 

Well you can say there’s individual sports, there’s team sports, there’s partner sports, there’s extreme sports within team sports, there’s different kinds of games, like invasion games and net games and target games and so forth. So there’s different ways of cutting up the pie. I kind of like this one here that you can read about in this link that’s in your presentation that you’ll have available and that is that there are invasion games, measurement sports like 100 meters dash or weight lifting, there are bat and ball games like cricket, there are judged sports like gymnastics or diving where there are judges that are putting a number to the quality of the performance. That would include skateboarding, things like that and then of course there are combined sports that involve some aspects of more than one. Now invasion games includes things like both boxing, but also rugby, football, basketball and so forth. So either a one-on-one invasion, trying to overwhelm the opponent in different ways take over their territory, that is incorporated into that idea of invasion and obviously a lot of the most popular esports games are invasion games in a digital format. 

Sports and eSports

Dr. Stephen Seiler 3:03 

Now, I don’t need to tell you this, but sports and esports are big business, okay and so it’s interesting to kind of follow the pathway and see how is traditional sport developed and how’s the training process develop there because esports is following that path very similarly it’s just happening much faster I would say.  

Sports Science

Dr. Stephen Seiler 3:32 

The reason I’m speaking to you today I am a professor in something called sports science with a specialization called sports physiology and a focus on talent development and performance development and endurance. People like me exist and our training exists because of the development of sport and because that the sports have developed the professionalization, the performance optimization process has developed to the extent that there is an ecosystem of support that’s being provided to athletes, you know in their clubs or at the national team level and so forth. This is just a set of different support categories that are provided by the Norwegian Olympic Federation for their athletes, everything from coaching the coaches to media help to strength training, talent development, technology and equipment these are their different departments, so it’s a big organization that we now have around the sport development process.  

First Professional Athletes

Dr. Stephen Seiler 4:42 

So, who are the first professional athletes? Think about that. Now what’s a professional? Well, it just means that they can make a living doing it. They can have a home and a car and they can support their family and they can do just their sport. Train, compete, get paid. Who are the first? Well maybe what about the Ancient Greeks. Were they amateurs or were they actually professional? Amateur just means for the love of and so the love of sport, the idea of just performing your sport, being a pure amateur for the love of the sport is kind of a mythology and you can read about that here in this link that you can copy and read, but the Olympics that the ancient or from antiquity, those Olympics lasted a thousand years or more from at least 776 BC through almost 400 AD. They were events like discus, long jump, javelin, running, wrestling, boxing as we see here on this vase, kind of our fist fighting. The gloves obviously were not very big. The pentathlon was five different events and so clearly there was there were sports that we would recognize still today.  

Milo of Croton – Greek Olympic Wrestler

Dr. Stephen Seiler 6:12 

Milo of Croton was a wrestler. He competed in seven different Olympics. He won I believe five different competitions in the period 540 to 516 BC and I mentioned him because we have taken this story, which is almost certainly a myth from that era of Milo as a young man picking up a calf and then every day picking up that same animal and as the animal grew of course Milo had to get stronger to be able to lift and carry this bigger and bigger animal that ultimately was a huge bull. Well okay, did he really do that? No, but the idea of progression in training, of adaptation was something the Greeks were at least familiar with. There was an understanding of that process and that’s depicted in this characterization.  


Dr. Stephen Seiler 7:09 

Now, what about the gladiators? Were the gladiators professional or were they all just slaves that were being killed and it’s probably the answer is a bit of both, but the idea that it was always a fight to the death in the gladiatorial arena is almost certainly not true. They were invested in and they generally were not killed although it did happen and the sport was very dangerous and there were different groups, different categories, different rules just like in UFC today or mixed martial arts. Of course here they had different kinds of weapons and they were given names based on what set of weapons and armor they were allowed to have and they were of course part of the sport was to match different types against each other and so forth. 


Dr. Stephen Seiler 8:04 

Now another group of ancient sportsmen, sports people and it was essentially only men at that time, so it was sportsmen, were the charioteers of Rome, of the Roman period and they were definitely professional athletes. They definitely were revered by their fans and they made a good living and the circus maximum stadium in Rome, which was in operation at least 250 years, it had 150,000 capacity. So, this was big sports and we’re talking 2,000 years ago. So, the charioteers were well paid professional athletes and probably some of the Greek Olympians, many of them were as well. At least from this source that I found on the history of the Olympics, they’ve said it’s kind of a myth to think of the Olympians as amateurs of that day because if they won, then they could be given enough money, they would be set for life basically and what’s interesting is the Greek athletes of that time all also develop their own athletic guilds or player associations just as we have in the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and FIFA and so forth. To represent the players in the Olympics, the IOC. To make sure that their health, their work performing conditions or whatever are defensible and that has probably not happened yet in esports to the same extent. 

Start of Modern Olympics

Dr. Stephen Seiler 09:48

Now, Pierre de Cubaton and others around the turn of the century the previous turn of the century, they wanted to re-enact and restart the Olympics because they had not happened for 1500 years and so the first modern Olympics were in 1896. I’m not sure we would think of them as modern today, but athletes were definitely more amateur in their training in terms of how much they train and so forth. There are many stories about that, but they used the ancient stadium and they re-vamped it and this was the opening ceremony of the 1896 Olympics. I’ve been at this stadium, it’s still a wonderful place to visit. 

Jim Thorpe

Dr. Stephen Seiler 10:37 

Now I bring this guy up. This guy is named Jim Thorpe. Americans will be familiar with him, but Jim Thorpe was a famous athlete of the turn of the century. In 1912, he won two gold medals in the Olympics, he won both the pentathlon and the decathlon, so clearly he was an amazing all-purpose, all-around athletic talent. He was of the day. he was a big strapping man of 185’’ tall, 92 kilos. He also played American Football and this ultimately was unfortunate for him because it was just semi-professional, he made a few dollars and he was stripped of his gold medals because it was discovered that he had received money when playing for this semi-professional football team and ultimately long after he died those medals were given back to his family, but the idea of amateurism was very prevailing. Olympic athletes were supposed to be amateurs and Jim Thorpe had played some semi-professional football and unlike many others of the day, he didn’t change his name so that no one would notice, which was the common thing that they did, but he was also a great baseball player, a lacrosse athlete. He even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. So truly an all-around athlete of that era. 

Training on the Thames

Dr. Stephen Seiler 12:08 

That era was different. This is a one of the first books about training. This is from 1866, so even 50 years prior to Thorpe’s payday period, but this was describing the best practice for rowers on the Thames River in London in 1866 and they would get up at 7 a.m. and go out and run maybe 200 meters. That’s not very long or very far and then in the afternoon they would row up to the starting line and back on the Thames River so that might have been four miles or about six kilometers, six seven kilometers and that was their training session and that might have, with some good will, lasted in total an hour, 75 minutes and maybe they did this three or four days a week and that would have been an appropriate training load for these amateur athletes, who again would not have competed against the so-called professional watermen, men that made a living rowing on the Thames delivering goods and so forth. They were not even allowed to compete against these aristocratic amateurs. 

The Cold War

Dr. Stephen Seiler 13:32 

So that was kind of the nature of training and sports in the Olympics leading up for many years, it was more of an aesthetic of amateurism and then things changed and I would say they kind of reached a turning point in the 1952 Olympics. The Summer Olympics held in Helsinki and this was post-World War II, clearly the Cold War had taken its effect. We were seeing this polarization of countries around these two fundamental political mindsets of democracy versus communism and countries aligned with these different oxies and you started to see this also in sports and so in some ways it was positive that sports became a geopolitical proxy. A competitive arena that didn’t involve bombs and guns, but it did involve heated rivalries and duels between different countries like the United States and the Soviet Union and so in the 52 olympics, the final of the 3,000 meter steeple chase was kind of really represented this because the two main protagonists, one was Vladimir Kazantsev from the Soviet Union. You see him on the left in that black and white picture. Horace Ashenfelter on the right. They’re coming out of the last water obstacle and because Kazantsev trips up a little bit, it gives Horace Ashenfelter just enough of a lead that he wins the gold medal in the 3,000 meter steeplechase. What’s interesting is that Kazantsev was a KGB Operative, Ashenfelter worked for the FBI in the United States, so it really did kind of highlight this Cold War reality and it’s tipped off the beginning of a modern era in sport where the training loads, the professionalism, the development of national teams and so forth became much more like what we would see today.  

The Modern Era

Dr. Stephen Seiler 15:47 

You had this storm, perfect storm of conditions. The better quantification of performance with stop watches and other tools you had the cold war and you had television which represented a huge interest arena for the fans, but also a source of income, source of money and so where there’s money there is going to be a professionalization and this happened in sport and the training loads have increased. Here’s a study I did with a rowing expert in Norway. We were looking at how the training loads of Norwegian metal winners had changed from the 70s to the 80s to the 90s and this was the general trend is that generally an increase in less of an off-season and now from the 90s and on we saw just a year-round training load that was essentially the same. 


Dr. Stephen Seiler 16:43 

Now, training here it’s just showing a number that represents a pace on a rowing machine just to say trying to improve some physical performance ability. It usually involves training the brain, might involve training the heart, training muscles, training different aspects of muscles like mitochondria like muscle fibers and making them bigger or more enduring or so forth and we think of this as always positive, but in reality, training is a balance. It’s a balance between stimulating adaptation, but also doing damage. Stress because training hard is stressful, training hard does things to the body and so for example training can damage tendons and muscles and ligaments. It can create immunosuppression, where it’s easier to get sick. It can create psychological fatigue. It can do lots of different things to athletes that make their health actually worse particularly when they’re training a lot. So, it is this balancing project process that becomes more and more challenging as you train more and try to maximize performance. 

Training Facilities

Dr. Stephen Seiler 17:56 

So, nowadays we have modern facilities that are dedicated. Here’s a gymnastics facility. Here’s a rowing facility for training. Here’s a facility in France, it looks like Golf and Football and so forth. We have lots of training camps where we send our athletes, whether it’s to altitude or to these dedicated facilities where they are only with each other and they are basically just eating, sleeping and training. We try to eliminate other life stresses, other things they need to do in the hopes that will improve the training process and even individual champions like Eliot Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder. He wants to train with others because it is psychologically supportive, he gets good matching and so forth and so the training camps are very normal and all of those characteristics, all of those developmental trends in sports were seen in esports with dedicated facilities, with gaming houses, with high-tech feedback so that they can see how they have performed and so forth. This is all happening in the esport competitive arena and it’s happened very fast because as far as I can tell, doing some internet research this is the person who’s considered quite possibly the first professional esports athlete, Dennis Fong and this was 1997. So that’s 25 years ago. So the entire kind of professional span of esports is a 25-year story compared to a 2,000 year story in other traditional sports. So things are moving very fast in esports. 

Sports Performance

Dr. Stephen Seiler 19:55 

In the sporting arena we have our different models for sports performance, where we’re looking at all the different contributing factors that add up to the performance ability and performance execution of athletes in general and obviously different components have greater importance depending on the nature of the sport because of the different physical characteristics, the physical demands of these different sports. 

Physical Demands 

Dr. Stephen Seiler 20:24 

In the esports it’s probably a bit narrower of a set of coordinative demands, but they are very that much present nevertheless, related to information processing like visual skills, acoustic skills, haptic meaning touch and kinesthetics, proprioception. Very fine-tuned motor skills of all the buttons that you guys are pushing and so forth at extremely high speeds and all of this is being done under very demanding conditions of stress of expectations and precision demands and time demands and so forth so this is more of a neurophysical and a cognitive set of skills, but there is a physical component. There’s physical fatigue and there’s clear evidence that physical training is positive for this set of demands and esports athletes are training physically. 

Model of Development

Dr. Stephen Seiler 21:24 

Now if we look at a model of development for sports athletes, the hockey kids and the shooters and the gymnasts and so forth, there’s a general flow from early age. Let’s call that zero to six, where just we want kids to move, we want to play. It’s not sports, it’s more play and then maybe already by six in gymnastics, it would maybe even be earlier, but they would begin to play with certain kinds of structures and apparatus and so forth, but it’s really important in that period that the kids are doing different activities. They are just using their bodies and they’re developing general or we would say gross coordination and then as they get a bit older they start to do a bit more structure training, they’re able to understand the rules of the games and so forth, but during those phases it’s very difficult to predict anything about which kid is going to end up being really good at something because they’re growing at different rates and so the kid that’s a fantastic phenom at 10 is maybe quite average at 16 and so that’s just normal and it’s very important to understand and then as they hit 15, 16 often we’ll see in typical sports we’ll see that the athletes will be encouraged to start to specialize. They’ll start to cut out some of the different activities they’re doing. My daughter was a she played soccer and track and field and did dance from the age of nine and she tried taekwondo for two days and that turned out not to be a big thing for her, but she sampled different things, she did many things at the same time, but then eventually it was competitive dance from 9 to 19 competing nationally and internationally. So very typical kind of movement towards a specialization and then of course some athletes will slowly work their way through the regional and national and international process of tournaments and rankings and so forth they will make regional and national and international teams and some of them will have careers as professional athletes representing their country or their trade team and eventually all of them will reach a point where their body or their brain says stop and that transition out of a sporting life into being a so-called regular person is challenging often for high performance athletes because they have had a very structured life built around a very simple set of tasks that they tried to do better than anybody else in the world for many years and then they have to move into what should we call it a regular life and so even now national sports performance organizations like Olympiatoppen or the US Olympic Federation will work with this transition to help their athletes get into a regular life again. 

Planning Process

Dr. Stephen Seiler 24:45 

So sports involves training and training in sports has become a process that’s well planned, at least when it’s done well and that planning process starts with goals and goals change, but goals. What is the goal of the training? What is the goal of that i’m trying to achieve and then it’s a realistic assessment of where I am as an athlete relative to the demands of my sport. That’s the starting point for goal setting and so we do things called demands analyses, where we look what are the demands of this sport? What are the endurance demands, the strength demands, the flexibility demands or whatever they may be and then we do a capacity analysis. We test athletes in different ways. Physical tests to see where are they relative to the demands and then that’s creates the conditions for developing training programs and we do what we often would call a gap analysis. Where is this athlete when it comes to their coordination? Where are they in terms of their technical awareness? Where are they in terms of their endurance and so forth and so some of those gaps may be bigger than others, that will influence how we prioritize different parts of the training process comparing current situation with goal and then we’ll think about dose response. How much training to achieve what change and so all of that will add up to the development of a training plan that’s based on scientific evidence based on practical experience and so forth and that plan is going to have to be adjusted as we go. So, training then is a continuous planned activity, but it also has to be a flexible process. You can’t just write a plan, push a button and expect everything to happen. 

Development of a Holistic Training Plan

Dr. Stephen Seiler 26:49 

So, we develop a holistic plan, through goal setting, through that demands and capacity analysis and gap analysis. We have long-term and short-term plans, meaning we might have an annual plan and then we break up the year into different phases based on the competitive schedule and so forth.  

Execution of Training, Competitions & Recovery

Dr. Stephen Seiler 27:09 

We then monitor, we execute the training. We execute the competitions in recovery, we pay attention to individual differences. That’s tough in a team setting, but athletes respond differently. You can have two athletes that are both fantastic, but one athlete needs a little bit less training or they get tired easier. So we take those things into account.  

Documentation and Evaluation 

Dr. Stephen Seiler 27:35  

Then we document and we evaluate how did the training go? What were the changes? Did we achieve the goals and then that documentation creates the feedback information. So it’s a continuous feedback process and that’s we see this in many endeavors in business and so forth, in research. So this is a continuous improvement process and critical to that process is coach-athlete-communication. Obviously, in the traditional sports environment coaches are very common. Most athletes have coaches if they’re at a high level of performance and that communication process is super important. They have to trust each other to be able to be honest about what is happening and what are the perceptions.  


Dr. Stephen Seiler 28:24 

Our athletes set goals at different stages of their development and those goals; we often use this smart paradigm. The training goals need to be specific; they need to be measurable, they need to be achievable, ambitious, but realistic. They need to be relevant to the sport and they need to have a time stamp. We put a deadline on them, not just make them diffuse in terms of when we’re going to achieve them and so the opposite of these would be to say for example, ‘I’m going to try to get my legs stronger’. Well, that’s not specific enough. ‘I want it to feel easier’, that’s not a measurable thing. ‘Well, I want to be able to lift one kilogram more in the squat in 12 weeks’. Well, that’s just really ridiculous, that’s not ambitious enough. It’s achievable, but it’ll be achieved in the first two days of training. So that’s not a good goal for a 12-week program. It’s not relevant to learn to juggle tennis balls if you’re a soccer player and although it could be fun and if you say well, I’m going to get better sometime this year, ‘I’m going to get two percent better by sometime this year’. Well, that’s not an appropriate time deadline.  

Dr. Stephen Seiler 29:43 

So, this is from Olympiatoppen, where I have worked as a consultant and I have some knowledge of their thinking and their goals and how they think as an organization and their main goal, their vision or return that they want to give to athletes is they want to help them to be best at the daily process of training. This is not anything very sexy, but it’s what wins, is if you train well each day and the quality of the training is good, that adds up to success and then they want to also work on really optimizing the relationships in the performance team around the athlete or around the sports team that’s involved and then finally they want to be among the best in the world at competition execution. Getting on the starting line with everything in order and performing on race day and so it’s kind of the three-pronged model. So, if this is not happening then it really doesn’t matter how good your competition execution is going to be because you won’t have the capacity, the potential to be a medal winner. So, it is a hierarchy of demands and hierarchies are a useful way of thinking. So I have developed this hierarchy for endurance training in my own teaching and research and it comes down to doing the basics right, you need to train a lot, you need to have a pretty high volume of training and you need to have some high intensity training and then if these things are going well, then we can think about the details on top and that’s a reasonable way of thinking about training is first things first, what are the most important things to achieve in the performance environment? What’s next and then take it step by step. 


Dr. Stephen Seiler 31:40 

The real foundation for success at all those training hierarchy aspects is health and so one of the things we have to think about is that you’re not going to have a good career in different aspects of esports unless you keep yourself healthy, both mentally and physically and this is true. This is like the foundation of a house if it cracks then that crack is going to work its way up and it’s going to affect everything else. 

The Training Environment You Create

Dr. Stephen Seiler 32:12 

So when we as coaches and athletes when we work the way we train, the way we prescribe training can either tend to be good for our health, it can support it and be recognize the issues the risks and so forth or it can tend to tear us up tear us down do damage and we have to also remember that when athletes come to training they bring with them lots of other stuff, lots of other baggage. Their school demands, their work demands. They may have be sick some days, they have social stress, they have relationship issues, they may be not sleeping enough because they’re training too much and not relaxing, they may not be eating right, they may have some injuries and injuries don’t seem like something you would think about in esports, but definitely it happens. They have overuse injuries and so forth back, wrist, neck and so forth and then there’s issues of stress either because you are a parent or because your parents are stressing you out and of course for young athletes puberty may play in and create its own source of lots of stress. So athletes don’t just have to deal with training, they have to bring all these other things in and they’re all different sources of stress and stress all adds up and gets thrown into kind of one bucket by the brain and the body. 

Dose Response Relationship 

Dr. Stephen Seiler 33:40 

So when we think about training you can kind of think about it in the same way you think about taking medicine. If you’re going to take medicine for a cold or for a fever or you have a headache, you will take the amount of medicine that’s prescribed on the box or on the label and it will be based on research that has looked at what’s called the dose response relationship for that medicine and usually we will try to take a dose that’s in that range that gives a lot of positive effects, but has very low side effects. Very low risk of side effects and this is kind of the way training works as well in the sports arena. Most people train somewhere here where they can get a lot of benefit with very low side effects, very low risk of damage. Going out jogging four days a week, riding. I train on a bicycle maybe eight to ten hours a week, but it’s still a very low risk for me to get injured over training and so forth, but for elite performers, for high performance athletes that are training much more and competing much more, they are at the very edge of what they can handle in terms of training to try to maximize the positive effects, but at that level the risk of side effects are much higher and when I use the term side effects now I’m talking various things. Everything from acute injuries to psychological burnout and so forth and this is what I see when I read about Esport and it’s very similar. The words are a bit different, not all of them, some of them are the same, but it’s very similar to what we see with high performance athletes. That when they’re at that upper end of what’s tolerable, then we see things like overuse injuries. We see things like over training syndrome, burnout and we see phrases like waking up and grinding I get that Esport athlete gets up they’re living in a gaming house. They go straight to they get their cup of coffee. They go straight to the gaming room and in front of the screen and they grind, meaning they spend hours of training, hours of performing the game and many of them are burned out at a young age. 


Dr. Stephen Seiler 36:16 

So that’s what I wanted to talk to you about is this issue of what are the parallels? Sports and esports have many parallels, they are part of the same continuum, and the traditional sports arena has grown and we’ve learned. I’ll let you see my face again here. 

We’ve learned a lot about sports, we’ve learned a lot about the training process and I think the it is early days for esports, it’s a young discipline and what I see as a high performance physiology type as I see some of the same problems, the same mistakes, the same room for improvement that we saw in regular sports training, traditional sports training 20, 30, 40 years ago. So, things are happening fast and it’s going to get, we’re going to get better at understanding it. Thank you for listening.