The science behind improving the performance of elite athletes has always evolved over time, but we have not seen the significant advances that the last decade has brought us. It is now safe to say that there is much more to winning a major competition than “natural ability” or “luck”. While these factors will continue to influence final results, the combination of physical preparation, enhancing the body’s biological performance, and mental development are the essential keys to success. This complexity, in turn, has created new areas within sports, and today a sports leader needs more complex knowledge to succeed. In addition, the business world is now demanding the scientific background of competitive sport, as the focus on the physical performance of businesspeople has increased with the competitive marketplace. We talked to Tamás Mocsai — CEO of NEKA (the Hungarian National Handball Academy) and an elite sports strategist — about the transformation of the scientific background of sport and the future of performance improvement.
I believe that you understand and know exactly what the development of a scientific background in sport means, having experienced its effects as a professional athlete and as a club GM. Am I right?
I have been a professional athlete since I was a little boy, and sport has been a fundamental part of my life. I have experienced a lot of things in my career as an athlete, because in team sports, especially when you have won championships, you see the potential for performance improvement up close.
Many people continue their elite careers as coaches or in positions close to the athletes. Why didn’t you choose this path?
I have always felt – and more importantly, people who matter to me have confirmed this – that I have good leadership qualities. I think that if you ever get to the right level in sport, you want to do what’s best for the sport after your playing career. What that means for each individual varies. I wanted to make the most of the opportunities, and I saw exactly how that could work best in a decision-making position, so I started training as a manager. However, I clearly see that no one can be a good manager without a perfect knowledge of their profession, so for me, training is not limited to developing a managerial role, but is combined with a strategic knowledge of the professional field.
I am currently the head of the National Handball Academy. Why did you choose youth sports as a career path?
As a professional athlete, you can see exactly what mistakes you made yourself or were made by the professionals who worked with you as a child. To understand performance in adulthood, we need to be fully aware of the factors that develop and can be influenced in childhood. One could say that childhood development is the alpha and omega of everything. This is true for physical, biological, and mental development, and the management of all three. In adulthood, there is much less scope for intervention. So, although the work in youth is not as spectacular and does not get the same stage, it is absolutely a top priority in terms of its usefulness and importance when we talk about effectiveness.
How can knowledge gained in the field of youth development be transferred to adult development? Is there a specific methodology for this?
There is no international code of practice, if that’s what you mean. It is one of the tasks of academies to develop methodologies, technologies, and know-how that goes beyond the field of youth sport. We also have a priority role in this at NEKA, because one of our important goals is to give the adult professional sport more and more high-performing young people. In other words, we are constantly translating the academic experience gained in physical fitness, nutrition, and even mental development into adult performance. We have the right professionals to do this, who have successfully prepared elite adult athletes, world-leading athletes, and Olympians. So, together, they see the different challenges of different age groups, and the different developmental pathways.
NEKA’s scientific background is now used in other sports; what is the reason for this?
Not only in other sports, but we are now moving towards the business world with a new concept to meet market needs. Health preservation, injury prevention, and achieving maximum physical and mental performance based on genetic gifts go beyond particular sports, beyond the world of sport, because it is important for everyone who competes.
So, this background will also be available for people who do not play sports professionally?
This is a new strategic direction, unique at the international level, and we are working with an international strategic consultancy to develop it. Without being exhaustive, I can tell you that it is an increasing challenge for managers in a highly competitive and performance-driven environment to maintain and enhance their physical performance. This requires special fitness assessments and development programmes, which may be surprising, but in their methodology, they are not very different from the scientific methods used to prepare elite athletes for competition. We have been working hard on this concept and will start communicating it to the market in about a month. We are blazing a brand-new trail in this field.
Innovation is important to you, then. Is that what your title implies, “Elite Sports Strategist”?
It’s important to learn – and I think this is a big challenge for Hungarian businesspeople and sportspeople, because we’re not socialised in this – to be able to “define ourselves”. I still have a lot to improve in this area. It is fundamental for me that I am strategically involved in the development of elite sports. And for me, “elite” in this case means that a person, a group, or a team is striving for the maximum and can achieve it, bringing outstanding results to the table. My task is to provide them with the complex background necessary to achieve this, by bringing together and managing the necessary professional staff, scientific background, and tools. And this cannot work without continuous innovation.
Success is important to you. What do you see as your greatest success in 2021?
We have had a successful year in many areas, but as a former top athlete, I would obviously prioritise the results. For me, the fact that our boys’ team – sorry gentlemen, but we are talking about a team with an average age of 20 years – finished the autumn season in 6th place, beating adult teams from traditional big clubs with national team players. This was in their debut season in the NB1, Hungary’s top handball division. The result itself, even if I think that our basic objective has not changed and we want to finish in a stable position of at least 12th, clearly securing our place in the first division. However, this team is a group of youngsters trained with the NEKA methodology, reaching their maximum performance with the academy background here, who have been formed into a team with a unique and international mental programme, achieving their successes, defying the physical differences of their age. All this is, for me, exact feedback about the expertise of NEKA and our professionals, and it also provides tremendous self-confidence when offering this knowledge to businesspeople and adult athletes in other sports.
Thank you for the conversation, and I wish you all the best for 2022!