Trials and Tribulation

Written by Paul Cale

Paul Cale tells us why the modified Special Forces selection methods applied to Aussie judoka and other AIS athletes have sparked huge interest from elite sports bodies around the world. 


Why? Because they work. That’s the short answer, of course — but the short answer belies the years of work behind the scenes by a wide range of experts from multiple fields who have applied the rigour of scientific method to form concepts into facts.

It was an honour to find myself travelling with the AIS Combat Centre team to the United States recently to talk about these very concepts with the world’s sporting, military and scientific elite. After presenting at the Redbull North American HQ in Santa Monica to a diverse but expert bunch ranging from Navy SEAL commanders to NBA team managers, we then hit San Diego to present these concepts at the largest sports science conference in the world at the American College of Sports Medicine.

Previously, our AIS Combat Centre team has had the world travel to us, with the number one judo nation in the world, Japan, sending their team to Australia just to take part in this program earlier in the year — the only time the Japanese team has come to Australia other than to compete in the Olympic Games. We are now seeing sports as varied as basketball, cycling and swimming getting involved, too. The elite of woman’s cycling have been taking this selection methodology to the next level, making it almost a right of passage for competing with professional teams in Europe. 

To understand what all the fuss is about, let’s take it back to the reasons why the AIS is focusing on the Olympic combat sports.

When we look at the Olympic medal count, Australia is the only country that finishes consistently in the top 10 nations but does not consistently win medals in the combat sports (judo, taekwondo, boxing and wrestling). At the 2012 London Olympics, Australia finished 10th in the medal count yet won no combat sports events. Just one gold medal in any of the four combat sports across just one of the many weight categories would have seen Australia finish two places up at eighth spot. The fact is there are more gold medals on offer in the Olympic combat sports than the entire Australian medal tally for every Olympics we have ever competed in, bar two. So it makes sense for the AIS to have a combat centre and to apply new, innovative measures to help the national Olympic effort. This support will not only be great for the Olympic disciplines but for all combat sports, as the science is passed through to the martial arts community.  

An Australian perspective on talent identification, we as a sporting nation are good at it and we have had great success from many of our athletes that have gone through the process. The combat sports, however, as most readers would know, have an element to them that is very hard to develop quickly, the ‘art’ of the sport. The very skills of the combat sport can be more like fast-tracking someone through an art class rather than sport skill acquisition. There is an answer to the problem and the AIS went looking for it at the Special Forces Training Centre (SFTC), which is where I came into the picture. The talent identification needed to be more than ‘how high can you jump?’, or how fast can you run?’; it needed the X factor that SF from around the world have been seeking and developing for decades. 

After watching the SF selection process, AIS senior scientists posed two research questions. The first, using SF selection methodology, is it physical or psychological traits that discriminate between selected and non-selected combat sports athletes? Secondly, can SF selection methodology be adapted for use in combat sport? Australian SF use physical hardship as a way of identifying desirable psychological traits. Any physical test will see the mind give up before the body truly has given out. Test after test has shown that the body is capable of much more than what the mind is willing to do. Try holding two litres of milk in each of your arms out to the side of your body in a horizontal position for as long as you can. If we were then to test your muscle power, you would find that you only used maybe 60 per cent of your capacity, and it was your mind that decided the muscle was unable to hold up any longer. But knowing that you used so much less than your capacity that you could really achieve, on the second attempt you’ll easily beat your time from your first attempt.

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