Skip to content

The Mundanity of Excellence (3): technique, discipline, attitude

The Mundanity of Excellence is a 1989 paper by sociologist Daniel Chambliss. In it he draws on his ethnographic research among elite swimmers – and his wider experiences as a swimming coach – to explore the meaning and causes of excellence, and particularly to question the role (indeed, the existence) that talent plays in outstanding performance.

Excellence in competitive swimming is achieved through qualitative differentiation from other swimmers, not through quantitative increases in activity. This means, in brief, that levels of the sport are qualitatively distinct; that stratification is discrete, not continuous; and that because of these factors, the swimming world is best conceived of not as a single entity but as multiple worlds, each with its own patterns of conduct.

Quantitative improvement entails an increase in the number of some one thing one does. An athlete who practices 2 hours a day and increases activity to 4 hours a day has made a quantitative change in behaviour… Quantitative improvements, then, involve doing more of the same thing.

By quality, though, we mean the character or nature of the thing itself. A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it. For a swimmer doing breaststroke, a qualitative change might be a change from pulling straight back with the arms to sculling them outwards, to the side… Other qualitative changes might include competing in a regional meet instead of local meets; eating vegetables and complex carbohydrates rather than fats and sugars; entering one’s weaker events instead of only one’s stronger events; … or training at near-competition levels of intensity, rather than casually. Each of these involves doing things differently than before, not necessarily doing more.

Qualitative improvements involve doing different kinds of things.

Daniel F. Chambliss – The Mundanity of Excellence

Chambliss goes on to identify three key areas in which elite performers are qualitatively different than those at lower levels:

1. Technique – they’ve perfected hundreds of tiny details in how they swim, such that

… they are so different that the “C” swimmer may be amazed to see how the “AAAA” swimmer looks when swimming. The appearance alone is dramatically different, as is the speed with which they swim.

2. Discipline: they may or may not train for longer, but “their energy is carefully channeled.”

3. Attitude:

At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport which the “C” swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring – swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say – they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. … It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.

So what?

Use these three areas – technique, discipline and attitude – as lenses to examine your own work:

  • What are the “skill” components of your job?
  • Which parts of your job are the most important to your organisation?
  • How are you working to improve your technique in these areas?
  • Where do you most need to improve?
  • Who has good technique you could copy?
  • Who has the best view of your technique?
  • Who could coach you?
  • What could you do differently?
  • Would you benefit from increased discipline?
  • Are you committing enough time to training and doing the work?*
  • Are you successfully managing your own attention, staying focused on the things that matter?
  • Are you focusing your energy on those things, and at the right times?
  • How’s your attitude?
  • What’s your self talk like?
  • Would you want your attitude to rub off onto your team?
  • Which difficult things do you shy away from?
  • What “unpleasant” tasks could you learn to take pleasure in?

This focus on quality seems to contradict the “quality as a product of quantity;” the ten-thousand Hour rule; and the importance of being prolific, of scoring and missing.

I think there’s an extent to which quantity is a prerequisite for quality: volume as the raw material or medium in which changes of quality can occur. The point here is about the commitment to finding better ways to do things – to continued experimentation, improvement and enjoyment.

In the words of Terry Laughlin (appropriately enough the founder of Total Immersion swimming):

Most people swim, and their experience is one of “terminal mediocrity”: no matter how much or how long you swim it always is kind of the same. … Improving should be the norm. If you make improving at swimming your goal, you’re going to achieve all of the other things that you’re after. And my observations of people when they swim don’t lead me to believe that most people, when they go to the pool, that they’re there on that day to be a better swimmer at the end of the day than they were at the start. They’re there to get their heart-rate up, they’re there to get a certain number of yards in, they’re there to feel a burn… but a lot of the things that people think are the right things to do… are not really the things that lead you to improve in swimming.

Improvement should be the norm… [and] most of what will improve your swimming are things you’re probably not thinking of doing. Most of the things that are going to make the biggest difference and result in the greatest amount of improvement are counter-intuitive.

Terry Laughlin – Total Immersion Perpetual Motion Freestyle: Part 1 (YouTube)

*This isn’t necessarily a lot of time

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...