Making Excellence a Habit

Dr. GJohn Mullen Allan Phillips, Competition, Dryland, Latest&Greatest, Psychology, Training 1 Comment

  1. Elite performers sleep more, engage in more frequent practice
  2. Excellence is “mundane" to those at the top through daily habits
  3. An attitude in which excellence becomes mundane may translate into lower performance anxiety and thus more reliable race execution

As championship season continues, it’s not long before full attention goes toward summer preparation.  In times like these, it’s a good opportunity for reflection to assess what we did well this winter and what can be improved. 

On this site, we often seek the cutting edge on swimming and athletic performance research.  But sometimes it is valuable to review landmark literature form previous decades.  In recent years, much has been written on practice habits and psychological qualities of elite performers.  This line of research has spawned a debate often distilled into the “10000 hour rule” versus “genetics.”

Unfortunately thanks to liberties taken by pop culture, what began as a very detailed and thoughtful paper has been transformed into a misunderstood catch phrase (the “10000 hour rule”).  If you actually read Erickson’s seminal work, some valuable insights emerge into the nature of skilled performance.  Though I would encourage anyone to read the full work (approximately 40 pages) here are three key points… 

  1. Quantity of practice sessions…length of practice sessions was similar across all three groups studied (elite violinists, good violinists, and music education students also studying violin), the elite violinists engaged in significantly more frequent practice. (See Duration and Frequency of Swimming Practice)
  2. Sleep has been discussed endlessly on this site, but sleep does remain a constant among elite performers in many fields…Among the violinists, the best two groups had the most sleep, exceeding that of music teachers (not certain if there is causal relation as it could be the teachers simply had more responsibilities of both playing and teaching, thus living busier lives, though authors noted the class schedules of the three groups were relatively similar.) (See Does Extra Sleep Enhance Swimming Performance)
  3. What matter is not the quantity of the hours spent, but quality spent in deliberate practice, or focused efforts: ““The goal of deliberate practice is not “doing more of the same.”  Rather, it involves full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.” (Erickson 1993)

What does this mean for swimming?

Preceding Erickson’s research, but in the same vein, Chambliss (1989) conducted a qualitative yet detailed assessment of elite swimmers in the 1980s, with a focus on the Mission Viejo Nadadores.  (I likewise encourage a full reading of this work as well).  Chambliss offers many sublime observations on the qualitative angle on what drives the best in the world….

“At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features which the "C" level swimmer finds unpleasant, the top level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring, they find peaceful, meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic....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." (Chambliss 1989)

Further, the manner in which elites are shown to approach practice reveals nothing particularly noteworthy, other than the same painstaking attention to detail shown by the elite violinists studied by Erickson…

“Superlative 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 then are fitted together into a synthesized whole.  There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in those actions, only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.” (Chambliss 1989)


The ultimate implication of this literature is how it affects our mindset into championship meets.  When good habits become ingrained as nothing more than routine, the swimmer no longer needs to feel as though he or she must summon superhuman powers to succeed on race day.  Maybe we sabotage ourselves with the mythical qualities ascribed to the taper, but herein lies the intersection of the physical and mental.  When excellence becomes mundane in practice, achievement becomes inevitable in competition. 


  1. Erickson K, Krampe R, Tesch-Romer, C.  The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.  Psychological Review, Vol 100, No 3, 363-406, 1993.
  2. Chambliss, D.  The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers, Sociological Theory, Vol 7, No 1, (Spring 1989), 70-86.

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Originally Posted Janurary of 2014

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