What is excellence?

In this week’s blog we explore excellence, inspired by a post from lawyer and leadership manager Anthony Kearns, which he wrote after a conversation with Olympic Gold medal winning coach Paul Thompson (GB). The background may be based on elite rowers but with that said, the basic principles can be applied to any level of rowing, any sport and even into our daily lives. It is certainly food for thought for all of us and a nice insight into what makes the best….the best.

In our field we have the great pleasure of working with many of the World’s top athletes and coaches, including Paul, in institutes where excellence is a prerequisite to even getting in the door but we also see excellence displayed in the everyday clubs, colleges and schools we’re in, from a range of key players that make these places tick.

What makes someone truly elite and then allows them to stay at this level, out pacing even those who just make it, to become a true ‘great’? In Paul’s opinion there are some keystones that are fundamental to this kind of success, they are interlinked and can be broken down quite simply but an interesting observation is that they are there from the start. Before the greats are even just good, they are already displaying the traits of excellence. This is not a nature vs nurture piece but those who do achieve the very best may well have an innate instinct for how to do it – it may not even be a choice but a way of life, albeit one for which elements can be emulated and learned from.

The 3 keystones:

Practice deliberately
Those who stay ahead of the game seem to train differently to the others. It is not just their enthusiasm and effort but their attitude. They are relentless and rigorous and don’t like wasting time. They are constantly looking for their coaches to explain how the training is going to make them better. Of course there is a line where this can become too demanding and time-sucking but the best coaches are usually the best teachers and people managers and it seems that this can even bring out better coaching, demanding thinking and communication.

The post from Anthony details work by Professor K. Anders Ericsson, an excellence researcher; he says it is the quality not the quantity of the practice that is critical and while those who become sustainably excellent practice a lot, so do many people who become sustainably mediocre. The key insight from his research is that the practice must be sustained, repetitive and focused on developing key competencies. “In the words of Paul: the more gold medal strokes you do in training the more
you do in the race.” This is something we see as key in all elements of training – on water, off and even in the weights room – ask yourself: what is the purpose of the session, the end goal and how is this relevant to what I need to do in the race?

Learning orientation

The ones who stay ahead of the game are always trying to learn more about themselves and the game. They show up to every training session, every conversation, every presentation wanting to know how they can improve. They are subject matter experts in their strengths and weaknesses and use the former as a platform from which to improve the latter. In the article, Paul described the sustainably excellent as holding their whole model of performance quite lightly. They regularly sit with their assumptions and beliefs and assess whether they are serving them or are in the way.

We have seen this across legends in many sports – they are not scared to challenge themselves in a reflective manner, they posses a relentless drive yet with self-compassion. Failure is noted as a part of success and there is an importance to learning from this, rather than punishing oneself for failures or when beliefs are compromised.

Be Experimental

This is very much a derivative of and linked to the above 2 points. The sustainably excellent know that useful data will come from action and reflection. They understand intuitively the process of learning. They persist with changes long enough to get good quality data and pursue opportunities to actively reflect on the experience. They accept that the process of experimentation may come at the cost of their short-term performance and this is OK. Which is also a strong comment on confidence.

While of course most training is spent optimizing their model of performance, they go through phases of rigorous experimentation when their entire model is in play. This can be hard to work through and it may in fact not work but it must be appreciated that if you are not ready to try and fail repetitively you are unlikely to learn and continually improve.

What is the role of the coach of the sustainably excellent? The article states that early in his work with athletes, Paul is primarily watching with deep attention. Sure, he is pushing and challenging but he is not just looking for physical improvement. He is watching for the emergence of their character as an athlete. He knows that this will differentiate the sustainably excellent and will require a different type of rigor, care and attention on his part. These athletes can be demanding, and exhausting but also the most rewarding to work with. The key seems to be creating a safe and trusting space for the coach and athlete to explore improvement and growth together.Β  Effective communication is clearly nonnegotiable and effort from both sides is needed to make sure this works.

Not all of us will become Olympians, very few in fact, but not all of us want to either. Excellence can take on many forms and it’s whatever you want to be excellent at that you can use these keystones in – a sage message for coaches and athletes. The power within and your ability to learn and reflect is paramount.

Learn more, read more.




Thanks Anthony Kearns for the great article and for the ongoing work of Paul Thompson, an excellent coach.