The Mundanity of Excellence - great paper on elite-level performance in athletics and beyond


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.

Is There An Optimum Number Of Practice Hours A Day?

Another nail in the coffin for the “I’m just not talented enough, bro!” camp.


I’m a big fan of this type of research, and I recently finished a lecture series from The Great Courses on the Psychology of Performance. It delves deep into methodology and techniques.

I can’t recommend this enough.

  • If the cost of entry is a bit steep, they have a subscription service and a free trial. The service has an app that you stream through, it’s like having a University at your fingertips. Education On Demand. It’s pretty awesome stuff.


I have a question about that, which you may have an explanation for. Suppose the person who wrote that is correct and that innate features ie. genetic gifts aren’t something that have any great affect on whether or not one attains greatness in athletics. Then my question is: Why are steroids so prevalent in pro sports? After all, what anabolic steroids do is similar to simply increasing the level of male hormone (testosterone) an athlete already has. Actually instead of steroids, some athletes just inject testosterone. It greatly enhances a variety of factors which are critical to success in at least some sports, particularly ones where great strength is an assett.

Well, as most people know, men vary from one to the next as to the level of testosterone in their body. There is that which is considered the “normal” range, but the level of testosterone within that normal range varies tremendously. Athletes on the higher end of that range have an advantage over those who are not. To add to that advantage, some men inject testosterone weekly to improve their performance. What they’re doing is essence is increasing something which is an innate feature (genetic). In the case of high testosterone athletes, they’re essentially taking that innate feature and then amplifying it by adding exogenous testosterone (from outside the body) to their endogenous supply to increase their ability to get stronger, faster, recuperate faster, etc.

Is anyone claiming this isn’t true and that using steroids or injecting testosterone doesn’t boost athletic performance? It does improve performance and does it so well, that in most if not all, pro sports, injecting testosterone or anabolic steroids is illegal! Well, all they’re doing is adding to something that’s a innate feature. Yet doing so has meant the difference between being a star and not being one or being a gold medalist instead of a bronze medalist or not even making the Olympic team!

If innate features aren’t critical to excellence, do you think so many athletes would be risking being banned from their sport or punished in some other way for using something that only adds to something they already innately possess?


It seems to me that if someone doesn’t think he’s talented enough there are ways around that such as choosing a relatively simple style of music… I like Motley Crue as much as the next guy but if Motley Crue were auditioning guitarists to replace Mick Mars and Dream Theater was holding auditions to replace Petrucci, where would the “not so talented guitarist” have a better chance of success? Crue made a lot more money than DT ever did, so it’s win/win for the “not talented bro” - it doesn’t have to be such a grim situation it necessitates “another ail in the coffin” :wink: Hell, you might even end up married to a Playboy model!


Yes, that seems to be what happens very often. The point of the article is that that belief is probably not true, and it’s not necessary to limit your abilities by buying into it.


It worked out well for Nikki Sixx. he wanted to be in a band so he brought an empty case into a music store and walked out with a guitar. Problem is, he knew so little that he was supposed to get a bass but didn’t know the difference. 10 years later he had more money than he knew what to do with. Turned out he was the best songwriter in the band.


Are we talking about financial planning or playing an instrument?

Everybody has the potential to be excellent. Just because some players don’t become virtuosos doesn’t mean they couldn’t have done so with a different approach, if they wanted to.

I think that if a player wants to be awesome but feels like they just don’t have the potential, then telling them they are right and that they should forget their goals and try something else, is not only cruel and insulting, but almost certainly factually incorrect. Unless your livelihood depends on shredding, the pressure to succeed quickly is imaginary at best. Anyone who is willing and able to put in the time has the potential.

Finding a talent for songwriting doesn’t imply you can’t become an awesome player as well, unless you make the choice not to pursue it. Advocating for that choice seems like an odd thing to do on this forum. If your goal is to be an awesome player, accidentally becoming a tattooed millionaire seems like a pretty crappy plan B.

Edit: To be clear, I was one of those players who believed I just didn’t have the potential. I worked my ass off at it, and got better and more knowledgeable, but not faster. I did exactly what you suggested and played simpler music, not because I wanted to, but because it seemed like my only option, and I was lucky enough to have a short professional career playing guitar.

Along comes CTC. Suddenly it’s obvious why I wasn’t getting faster, and it wasn’t lack of potential. Until CTC electric guitar technique has been largely a matter of making it up as you go. That’s what all my heroes did, and that’s what I did, but it didn’t work so well for me. That’s why they’re geniuses. Not because they can play that way, but because they figured out how to do it by themselves.

But now the code has been cracked, and it’s no longer necessary for everyone to figure it out for themselves. Nor is it reasonable to say that some people just can’t do it. None of the individual motions required are especially difficult, or even strenuous (unless you’re an elbow guy, maybe). It is entirely a question of finding the motions that work and then practicing them until they’re coordinated. If I can do it, anybody can.


By the way, generally, testosterone replacement therapy, is not considered an anabolic steroid. People who are using actual steroids are not just taking testosterone. There are many, many men who are on TRT in the same way that women get on hormone replacement when they go through menopause.

To your question, steroids are prevalent in sports because the stronger man always wins. Also, if you are a competitor, you accept a level of risk; to injury, your legal status, and your livelihood.

There’s an old adage in strength and conditioning, “there are no technique steroids.”

An athlete takes steroids because they work, period. They improve recovery so that you can train more so you can get stronger.

Being strong makes up for a whole lot of things.

Power, or the ability to produce strength quickly, is force times distance divided by time. In sports performance, the ability to accelerate, to be explosive, is a function of the ability to recruit more motor units at the same time. This is why the standing vertical jump is used in the NFL Combine and by scouts; it is a non-trainable method for judging explosiveness and thus athletic potential.

So, if you’re not as explosive as the next guy, what recourse do you have? Well, increase the amount of force you can bring to bear on the situation to increase power output. How do you do that? You get strong. How can you get that edge in getting stronger? Steroids. It’s not hard math.

Elite athletes are born. They have a genetic propensity for explosiveness, visual learning, and improved recovery. They are naturally good at solving movement problems themselves. They have high standing vertical jumps. They have a higher capacity for increased strength development at the outset of progressive training. If you think that you can technique and “good intentions” yourself into a starting position in the NFL, you’re mistaken. Go ahead an try.

I think it is folly to blindly emulate what elite anyone does, because by their very nature, elite athletes, musicians, artists, mathematicians, etc., can get superior results regardless of what they do and how they do it. Moreover, just because an elite level person does something one way, does not mean that everyone should do it that way. Phenomenology is a hard concept for a lot of people, particularly academicians.


Nice Post!

Incidentally, The UFC banned TRT a few years ago because they believe even that gave fighters too much of an advantage. I don’t know if any other big sports promotions have done so. I think that was just stupid. It’s a chemical world. Modern medicine is going to continue to come up with things that will give us better quality of life. It’s the nature of progress.


NFL is sort of a false analogy though

NFL is a competitive physical sport…music is less physical, less competitive and way more about personal expression


Have you ever seen the movie “Limitless”? It’s great and I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it yet. It stars Bradley Cooper and the premise is that someone invented something similar to a steroid for the brain. It drastically increased intellectual capacity. The guys learns foreign languages in days, became a great piano player, and all sorts of things in just days. The more intelligent the person is before taking it, the further it will take him.

I wonder if such a thing will ever be invented. I don’t think it’s inconceivable.


hmm, short of MK Ultra type brainwashing lol. dunno

there r beta blockers etc


OK, there are plenty of people who play flag football on weekends, too. We’re not talking about sitting around the campfire and playing folk tunes. We’re also not talking about people who are wood shedding in their bedrooms or home offices. We’re talking about high level performance, right?

My wife trained as an opera singer; she has two degrees in music. She has sung in Europe several times.
She gave it up because the audition game was killing her enjoyment. Music is as competitive if not more so than professional sports. Personal expression is a small component of your ability. The people who have contracts at the Met are not hustling in rehearsal rooms and open cattle calls. They can sing “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte when they are 16. Singing an opera, between learning the score AND the libretto, and performing the music, and acting is on par with any other high-level physical performance. They’re not trying to kill each other, but the analogy is still valid.

Same as any rock concert. Look at what John Petrucci has said about playing Dream Theater’s music. The pre-tour prep is similar to training for an athletic event.

I have a fair amount of experience in strength training plus I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years. The overlap between athletics and music performance, particularly in terms of natural ability is far greater than I really ever thought.


gee i thought we were on a rock site talking about rock musicians lol. That has what exactly to do with the Met??

I dont get all the energy spent fighting so hard proving what we CANT do. Thats beyond me.

Yngwie, Eddie, Petrucci, MAB…so they are the elites we cant even approach?? I totally disagree. Yeah, maybe we didnt do it as teens but cest la vie

Im gonna step out of this conversation now

Peace, JJ


You bet! Any business, whether the music business, pro sports, or anything else that offers the types of rewards those fields do to the people who reach the top will have insane competition and why wouldn’t they? The rewards are so great that it’s one hell of an incentive.

It’s still music, so what exactly is the problem? The OP here is about an article about swimmers! But discussing classical musicians is off limits?

That’s your interpretation. Why take it in such a pessimistic way? He didn’t say you can’t do it. I doubt he even knows you and I don’t know him either.


My point was that the argument that “talent” is of far less importance to elite performance is not borne out by practice.

My other point is that emulating elite performers might not be the most fruitful for the large amount of people at the middle of the normal distribution. Elites can do things and do them inefficiently just by the nature of their natural abilities. This does not mean that we all should do what they do simply because they do it that way. Eric Johnson’s string hopping comes to mind!

I’ve said before, CTC has dug out a lot of the component parts which was sorely lacking in non-classical guitar instruction. The work now is to integrate it into a system that can be taught to many people of varying abilities and anthropometries to produce similar results. Theyr’e getting there for sure.


Excellent point. That some people with tremendous natural ability succeeded by doing things their way doesn’t prove their way is best. They may very well have gone further or gotten there quicker having used a more rational method.