Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Excellence is not for everyone. It’s far too difficult for the great majority of those who participate in sport. In fact, those who seek excellence are often ridiculed because they are different from their peers. And so it isn’t easy to seek excellence either. Humans are social animals; we don’t like being outcasts. It’s much easier to go along with the crowd than to stand out in a crowd. But there are athletes who pull it off, and with great aplomb. Have you ever noticed how young, pro athletes often try to give the impression that nothing about their training or dedication to the sport is unusual? They’ve learned to give the appearance of being “just like everyone else,” even though their performance in competition tells us otherwise. Going out of their way to be laid-back is how they cope with the dilemma and help prevent others from branding them as strange. And that’s a good strategy which I would recommend to anyone who truly seeks excellence: Try not to give the air of someone who is seeking excellence. Appear ordinary in every way you can.

What brought all of this up was a question someone asked me over dinner tonight. We were at a surprise party for an athlete I coach who had just won his age category at his state’s time trial championship. It was clear to my dinner-table neighbor that this state champ had altered his course in the past year and was becoming excellent at cycling. So my new friend wanted to know what I looked for in a person who wanted to hire me as a coach. How would I know if a person could be successful? I started to tell him all of what follows but we were interrupted by party goings-on. Here’s the long list of what I think are the best predictors of excellence in sport, in their order of importance, in case he gets a chance to read this post.

Motivation. This one is more important than all of the others combined. If the athlete isn’t motivated excellence is highly unlikely. In fact, the other predictors won’t even exist without motivation. This goes well beyond giving lip service to goals. The truly motivated athlete is on a mission and has a hard time keeping himself or herself in check. This person really needs a coach to pull on the reins to prevent overtraining, injury, illness and burnout. If the coach has to use a whip then it’s a losing cause no matter how talented the athlete is. The coach will never give the athlete motivation. It must come from within. When I’m interviewing athletes I ask lots of questions to find out how truly motivated they are. For example, I ask how often they train with other athletes versus alone. The low-motivation athlete will need companionship frequently. If you are motivated then all of the following predictors of excellence will fall into place eventually.

Discipline. This is very simple. The disciplined athlete will make daily sacrifices and make due with hardships in order to excel. This person doesn’t miss workouts short of a disaster. Weather is an insignificant factor. The disciplined athlete knows that the small stuff is important. He or she doesn’t get sloppy with diet, recovery, equipment or anything else that has to do with goals. Discipline is not easy. Others can accept motivation, but they have a hard time dealing with people who are disciplined. You’ve got to make light of or even hide your discipline is you want to be accepted by your peers. Good luck here.

Confidence. Some people seem to live life completely with an unwavering belief in themselves and their actions. These folks are indeed rare. I’ve met very few athletes who didn’t have some concerns about how well suited they were for whatever the task at hand may be. There’s a sliding scale of confidence. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. To move closer to the high-confidence end all we typically need is some success. Success breeds confidence. While it’s hard to come by you can create your own. For the athletes I’ve coached whose confidence was decidedly on the low end I’ve suggested a daily confidence-booster. When they go to bed and after the lights are out, I tell them to go back in their memories and find anything in their day’s workout or related activities that was successful at any level. This could be a very small success such as feeling strong going up a certain hill during the workout today, or eating fruit instead of a cookie for a snack. I tell them to then relive that small success over and over until they fall asleep. Occasionally there are big successes. These become “anchors” which they relive often and store away in a vault to be pulled out whenever they feel low confidence coming on, like at the starting line of a race. Thinking of one’s successes breeds success. Success breeds confidence.

Focus. This could also be called purpose; the athlete knows where he or she wants to go in the sport. Daily training is a purposeful activity that will lead to excellence. Each workout (and accompanying recovery) is a small building block that eventually results in excellence. But you have to take it one step at a time, which brings us to the last predictor, patience.

Patience. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers it takes about 10,000 hours for a person to become a master of anything. I had never tried to quantify it in terms of hours, but experience told me that performing at the highest level in sport takes something on the order of 10 years of serious training regardless of when you started in life. So I think Gladwell is probably right. There are certainly exceptions, or at least it appears that way on the surface. But when an athlete comes along who seems to go to the top right away we often find on closer examination that he or she had been developing outside of the recognized success pathways. Patience also has another level that goes beyond this long-term approach to success. This is a more immediate, daily component associated with the ability to pace appropriately early in workouts and races. Athletes who seem unable to learn this skill are less likely to be successful than those who master it.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about innate talent, physiology, skills, or even experience in the sport. All of these things can be developed and learned if the other predictors are there. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have the capacity to develop each of these mental abilities. As mentioned earlier, the challenge for most of us in seeking excellence is learning how to do it without appearing to be doing so. Watch how most of the pros do it and try to emulate their apparently laissez-faire attitude. Good examples are Chrissie Wellington in triathlon and David Zabriskie in road cycling. In their own unique ways they give the impression of being unconcerned about excellence. But no one achieves their levels of accomplishment without being highly motivated, disciplined, focused and patient.

Labels: ,