BECOMING AN OLYMPIAN

Recenlty I was pointed to a landmark study by Daniel Chambliss titled “The Mundanity of Excellence”, a long-term study of US Olympic swimmers in an effort to determine how some reached elite success while others fell short.

The study was done over a long period of time and observed athletes from age 7 all the way to those at the top of the sport.

In almost all cases the author did not know who was going to develop into future Olympians. All he had to go by was his observations of those who got better over time versus those who do not.

If you are at all interested in developing elite athletes, either your own kids, your team, or in any other way, the following insights are incredibly powerful.

‘They All Have Come To Mecca To See What We Do.

They Think We Have Some Big Secret’

The US Olympic Swimming program has been wildly successful for decades. Most of their training is done at the Mission Viejo training pool in Southern California.

Because of that, they get coaches who visit from all around the world excited to find out how this one location produces so many champions.

But those coaches almost always grow bored watching the Americans, and leave disappointed.

They come looking for some big breakthrough, a new and revolutionary training tactic that is giving American swimmers a unique edge. But what they see is what Chambliss refers to as ‘the mundanity of excellence’.

He states, “There are no big secrets. There are only the little things, done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.”

Their approach is working better for their swimmers than any other coaching program on Earth. And not suprisingly, there are locations for almost every sport in other parts of the world that are giving their players the same advantage.

But the mundanity of excellence is as disappointingly boring as it is powerfully motivating for young athletes.

Why?

‘The Concept Of Talent Hinders A Clear Understanding Of Excellence’ After years of studying the rise and fall of countless elite swimmers, Chambliss concluded that ‘talent’ is a terrible predictor of future athletic success.

He did not observe any ‘natural ability’ in those who rose up to the top over time.

So why do we all hold so firm to the belief that some athletes are talented, that they are born to do what they do, while most of us could never reach that level?

Think of how we view these athletes, Chambliss states. We see them perform at an event like the Olmypics, or at a pro sporting event, and we see the end product of all the work they’ve put in for a lifetime. We watch their amazing feats and in comparing it to our own skill often decide that they can only do that because they were born with a special gift that we personally do not posess.

We only see a snapshot of the end product, but we don’t see the long and boring path to get there.

Talent is also a poor predictor of success simply because there are so many other factors that more accurately predict it. Location and family affluence, just to name two, are far better at determining who will reach the top of the swimming world.

Coincidence?

Not really, they are the ones with access to the best coaching, can make time to dedicate themselves to training over the long-term, and train at a facility where a culture of success is deeply ingrained, one that isn’t exciting but does focus on all the right things.

Talent doesn’t explain the career of Dustin Pedroia, a pint-sized baseball player who has risen to the top of his field.

Talent doesn’t explain Wilma Rudolph, who had polio as a child and was devasted by this muscle weakening disease but won the 100 Meter Dash in the 1960 Olympic Games.

Chambliss blasts a powerful argument into those who believe talent in necessary for excellence:

“If talent does play a role, then the ‘amount’ of it needed to succeed is suprisingly low. Varying conceptions of natural ability tend to mystify excellence, treating it as the inherent possession of a few; they mask the concrete actions that actually create outstanding performance.“

“People don’t realize how ordinary success is.”

Acutal elite performance is more attainable to each of us than we think.

It can be accomplished by focusing on a handful of mundane but critical features:

SUCCESS LESSON #1: Focus On Qualitative Growth Over Quantitative

Elite performers in this study did not train more than those who did not reach the top.

Let me repeat that – elite performers did not train more than those who did not reach the top.

In fact, most Olympians suprisingly don’t practice more than the typical youth performer (maybe less the way youth sports are these days).

What do they do differently?

They focus on quality more than everyone else. And they do it in three categories:

Technical – They improve a technique taught to them by coaches, or they discover on their own (usually the first thing). And they do this over and over throughout their career, each time making big jumps forward in their performance.

Discipline – They improve a habit that totally transforms their results.

Maybe it is learning to show up to practice on time and to begin valuing every precious minute of practice. Maybe it is becoming more focused on details. Or they’ll learn to train at near competition intensity all the time, make a big change to improve their nutrition, or sleep habits. Making major habit changes can take your performance to a whole new level.

Motivation – Chambliss found that elite performers not only enjoyed what many would call the boring process of constant training, the elite ones actually thrived because of it. They enjoyed being with their teammates, learning new skills, improving their physiques, and beating personal bests on pretty much anything.

Another trait the best ones shared is that when they were challenged they actually raised their games instead of fearing failure. In short, the best ones were motivated to succeed and did not fear making mistakes.

SUCCESS LESSON #2: Find The Right Atmosphere

Some coaches, teams and even entire organizations preach the same approach that maximizes success just like the US Swimming program.

If you are lucky enough to come across one, do everything you can to be a part of it.

Future Olympic swimmers in this study were highly motivated by the little things on a daily basis, not unlike all the rest of us. Seeing physical improvements, being with friends, impressing your coach, and beating your personal best on something are all highly motivational to top performners.

Daily satisfactions fuel long-term motivation, but it is those in charge who create an atmosphere where these proven strategies are emphasized.

Find a program where you have coaches you want to impress, have people you want to see, and have an environment to work in that is focused on doing the little things right all the time.

There’s a reason why the boring Mission Viejo site is still home to so many champions – there is a focus on the right things and a competitive atmosphere that lifts everyone to greater levels of success.

SUCCESS LESSON #3 – Hang In Long Enough To Let Your Small Wins Add Up To Big Change

‘Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results.’

Motivation for the top performers rarely came from looking at the big picture (winning a gold medal), but rather in the little things like improving their starts, improving a nutrition habit, etc.

They ALWAYS had small wins to focus on that led one step farther down the path of excellence. Rarely if ever was ‘winning’ or ‘gold medal’ part of the daily conversation.

Focusing on the small steps and improving there is how elite performers achieve excellence. They just do it for a very long period of time, and accumulate and endless number of small wins.

For everyone involved in athletics – parents, coaches, and participants themselves – this study offers some fascinating conclusions:

1. There Is A Proven Formula For Success. This study strongly disputes the fact that talent is the #1 factor in reaching the top of your sport (or anything for that matter). The formula for success has a lot more to do with quality habit building.

2. More Is Not Always Better. This does not mean you can do the bare minimum to reach the top, clearly these swimmers were training for a few hours per day on most days.

But going beyond that was in no way more effective at improving over time than seeking out an area where you can make major improvements and transforming a habit for the better.

In a world where kids are practicing and competing 6 days per week for more than 2 hours per day, this might be the most important takeaway for well-meaning youth coaches who may not fully grasp the long-term consequences of their ‘win now’ approach. Especially when those kids are under 14 years old.

3. Focus On Small, Daily Wins. Eat 2 vegetable servings that day, get to practice or training on time, dial in your workouts to beat a personal best, these are just some ways you can focus on the day-to-day small wins and build the confidence that you can achieve what you set out to do. It builds not only tangible improvements in your game, but also the belief that you are a success already.

4. Find Coaches Who Can Improve Your Technique. You may need to travel a bit further, or pay a bit more, but if HOW you do something leads to faster results than HOW MUCH will, isn’t it worth the sacrifice to be with someone who can help you to transform your skills?

5. Never Lose The Fun Aspect. For both athletes and coaches, this is important to remember. Fun really involves just letting athletes hit milestones and work together in positive ways. You don’t have to throw a party for them, because those who are driven to succeed really need your technical advice and your encouragement more than anything else. Reaching the top is a very long process, and there must be some joy in the mundane process of getting there for kids to stick with it .

“Superior 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 fitted together into a synthesized whole.” REFERENCE: http://rittersp.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Chambliss-Mundanity-of-Excellence.pdf



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