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The Mundanity of Excellence

date Nov 14, 2018
authors Daniel F. Chambliss
reading time 7 mins
category paper

How does studying competitive swimming give an insight into excellence?

Because success in swimming is so definable, we can clearly see, by comparing levels and studying individuals as they move between and within levels, what exactly produces excellence. In addition, careers in swimming are relatively short; one can achieve tremendous success in a brief period of time… This allows the researcher to conduct true longitudinal research in a few short years.

Nature of excellence

By “excellence” I mean “consistent superiority of performance.” The excellent athlete regularly, even routinely, performs better than his or her competitors. Consistency of superior performances tells us that one athlete is indeed better than another, and that the difference between them is not merely the product of chance.

What does not produce excellence?

  1. Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities
  2. Excellence does not result from quantitative changes in behavior
  3. Excellence does not result from some special inner quality of the athlete

Self-confidence is the result, not the cause

Perhaps it is true, as the mythology of sports has it, that the best athletes are more self-confident (although that is debatable); but such confidence could be an effect of achievement, not the cause of it.

Talent is mystic

“Talent” is one common name for this quality; sometimes we talk of a “gift,” or of “natural ability.” These terms are generally used to mystify the essentially mundane processes of achievement in sports, keeping us away from a realistic analysis of the actual factors creating superlative performances, and protecting us from a sense of responsibility for our own outcomes.

So where does excellence — consistent superiority of performance — come from?

  1. Excellence Requires Qualitative Differentiation
  2. Why “Talent” Does Not Lead to Excellence
  3. The Mundanity of Excellence

Quality, not quantity

Quantitative improvements, then, involve doing more of the same thing… A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it.

Example of quality

Instead, they do things differently. Their strokes are different, their attitudes are differ- ent, their groups of friends are different, their parents treat the sport differently, the swimmers prepare differently for their races, and they enter different kinds of meets and events.

3 kinds of difference quality

  1. Technique
  2. Discipline
  3. Attitude

What is discipline?

The best swimmers are more likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the competitive strokes legally (i.e., without violating the technical rules of the sport), watch what they eat, sleep regular hours, do proper warmups before a meet, and the like.

Inversion of attitude

At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes placeWhat others see as boring — swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals.

What others find boring

It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.

How they change levels?

.Athletes move up to the top ranks through qualitative jumps: noticeable changes in their techniques, discipline, and attitude, accomplished usually through a change in settings (e.g., joining a new team with a new coach, new friends, etc.) who work at a higher level.

Goals are different

But these words suggest that all swimmers are, so to speak, climbing a single ladder, aiming towards the same goals, sharing the same values, swimming the same strokes, all looking upwards towards an Olympic gold medal. But they aren’t. Some want gold medals, some want to make the team, some want to exercise, or have fun with friends, or be out in the sunshine and water. Some are trying to escape their parents.

Excellence is mundane

Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.

Little things count

The winning of a gold medal is nothing more than the synthesis of a countless number of such little things — even if some of them are done unwittingly or by others, and thus called “luck.” So the “little things” really do count. We have already seen how a very small (in quantitative terms) difference can produce a noticeable success.

Only the little things matter

Looking at such subtleties, we can say that not only are the little things important; in some ways, the little things are the only things.

Enthusiasm vs Commitment

Viewing “Rocky” or “Chariots of Fire” may inspire one for several days, but the excitement stirred by a film wears off rather quickly when confronted with the day-to-day reality of climbing out of bed to go and jump in cold water.

Looking at only the next step

I never looked beyond the next year, and I never looked beyond the next level. I never thought about the Olympics when I was ten; at that time I was thinking about the State Championships. When I made cuts for Regionals [the next higher level of competition], I started thinking about Regionals; when I made cuts for National Junior Olympics, I started thinking about National Junior Olympics…I can’t even think about the [1988] Olympics right now… Things can overwhelm you if you think too far ahead.

Working towards the goal step by step

This statement was echoed by many of the swimmers I interviewed. While many of them were working towards the Olympic Games, they divided the work along the way into achievable steps, no one of which was too big. They found their challenges in small things: working on a better start this week, polishing up their backstroke technique next week, focusing on better sleep habits, planning how to pace their swim.

Focussing on little Things

That was the immediate goal he faced at workouts; just try to win every swim, every lap, in every stroke, no matter what. Lundquist gained a reputation in swimming for being a ferocious workout swimmer, one who competed all the time, even in the warmup. He became so accustomed to winning that he entered meets knowing that he could beat these people — he had developed the habit, every day, of never losing.

Winners are merely recognized, not made when they win the medal

In the pursuit of excellence, maintaining mundanity is the key psychological challenge. In common parlance, winners don’t choke. Faced with what seems to be a tremendous challenge or a strikingly unusual event, such as the Olympic Games, the better athletes take it as a normal, manageable situation.

I belong here comfortably: training == reality

If each day of the season is approached with a seriousness of purpose, then the big meet will not come as a shock. The athlete will believe “I belong here, this is my world”—and not be paralyzed by fear or self-consciousness. The task then is to have training closely approximate competition conditions.

No secret

But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.