Recently came across this very interesting paper examining “excellence” in elite swimming, and it has some great insights on performance and talent development that seem relevant more generally as well:
(Side note: this site hosts lots of interesting papers for discussion — very cool format with built-in annotations that clarify / summarize key points of the text!)
The thrust of the paper is redefining how we think about elite-level performance. The author argues pretty strongly that the idea of innate “talent” is not really a useful way to think about what differentiates elite performers. Rather, it’s more useful to look at specific factors — like the details of technique, a high level of discipline, and positive attitude / enjoyment of the sorts of practice and competition demanded.
Important point from one of the annotations:
The author does not argue that there is no such thing as “natural ability”. Chambliss states the minimum required for excellence appears to be lower than most people believe. Something that seems to be more important is the willingness to overcome “natural or unnatural disabilities”.
Rather than defaulting to the use of the term talent one should consider the group of actions that are done by an athlete that end up producing an outstanding performance. Discipline, Technique and Attitude seem to be predominant differentiating factors in this case.
Or for a quick summary:
Excellence = Technique + Discipline + Attitude
In describing excellence as “mundane” he basically means the following:
- It is a sum of little ordinary actions repeated time and time again in order to perfect them overtime until they become habits.
- Motivation is mundane too. High performers will find motivations in little things such as perfecting their times in training or winning at local events.
- Maintaining mundanity is an important aspect in the pursuit of excellence. “Big events” are natural to high performers. They become accustomed to all the important details by adding the necessary elements to their practice.
Some of the main conclusions:
In order to achieve Excellence the following seem to be true:
- Quality > Quantity. Doing more of the same does not lead to excellence. Changing and perfecting what is being done is more important.
- Talent is a useless concept. Excellence does not seem to be the by-product of an innate feature of individuals.
- Excellence is a compound effect. The repetition and perfection of ordinary and simple actions will compound over time and lead to extraordinary performance.
Interesting to keep in mind when it comes to all sorts of learning and skill development; I think relevant to a lot of the discussions we have on the forum here about how best to learn and practice.
This study, focusing on swimming, may be particularly applicable to things with an athletic / motor skill component…but I don’t think exclusively. In fact in the paper the author (albeit vaguely) motions at this theory of excellence being applicable to things like management / leadership. Anyway, seems like a useful lens for thinking about how to get really good at something, what the tradeoffs may be, and what factors may be most important for getting to the next level.