the unsuccessful search for a complicated and secret formula. They arise from boredom and impatience over longstanding training routines and “I’ll make my own way, thank you” egotism that tempts you to search for shortcuts to success. Get rich quick, lose fifty pounds in seven days – c’mon, we’ve all felt just a bit titillated by those when the going has seemed long and tough.
The fundamentals of how you go about achieving outstanding performance don’t change all that much – you just get distracted and forget that it’s simple. It might be hard, but it's simple. Dan Gable, wrestling and coaching legend, said, “The best become the best because they are always striving for perfection.” You might have your own list of the qualities and/or habits that create excellence, but here are some of mine:
- Commitment that comes from a sense of purpose - the “why” behind your plans, thoughts and actions. This might be interpreted by other people as stubbornness, and maybe it is. It might be tested when its demand for resources bumps into other priorities and possibilities. But commitment enables you to continue to choose the path that might not be easiest in order to accomplish your desired level of proficiency.
- Comprehensive and continuously expanding knowledge of your area of expertise so that you can build your own style on a solid foundation. As you learn more and more about your craft you discover that there are entire realms of information that you do not yet know. You might need to check your ego if you think you already know it all.
- Role models upon whom to benchmark and, even better, mentors who can provide educated feedback along your path. The seeds for many peak performances, many innovations, have been planted before you by someone else. Learn from their learning, and keep an open mind to their feedback. They can provide an objective, outside-of-your-own-head view, invaluable when you are working to improve.
- Frequent, even daily, practicing of your technique and attention to refining your methods. You can read every piano book on the planet, but you won't learn to play until you actually sit down at the keyboard and put your fingers on the keys. At first your eyes and brain know what you need to do but your fingers can't execute it. Then after practice and more practice your muscle memory lets you know where the right notes are without looking. With enough repetition you might even learn to play the piece without referring to the music. Same goes for a golf swing, and for other acquired skills.
- Willingness to endure discomfort (or delay gratification) today for an outstanding outcome tomorrow. It's tough for the ego to withstand a feeling of incompetence. It's not comfortable to have sore muscles. If you are willing to look at them as "growth pains" and not as end results in themselves you are more likely to persist. Your willingness to endure now for the sake of later results is linked to your commitment. The stronger your commitment is, the more obstacles you'll be willing to struggle through in order to achieve your result. This is why it's important to define your purpose, your desired result in very specific terms, and to know why you're doing it.
- Openness to test new ideas and methods that have the potential to create improvement. The best performers are never satisfied - they are constantly stretching for the next increment of improvement. Professional athletes use coaches to help them refine their swings. Actors try new methods to uncover and then communicate the nuances of the characters they play.
- Specific ways to measure your progress. If you assume the perspective that there is always improvement to be made, the journey to be the best has no end zone, no finish line. Competitive swimming is such an incredible sport, and part of its appeal is its measurability. No matter who wins this race, the swimmer can look at his or her time and see how they are doing. There will always be somebody slower and somebody else faster, and while that can be important, more important is whether the swimmer is shaving tenths or even hundredths as the athlete tweaks the training regime, nutrition, equipment and rest.