What makes the Best the Best, and the Rest the Rest!

- November 18, 2011 6 MIN READ

Over the weekend amongst searching for wind somewhere, anywhere across the bay of Melbourne I found myself enjoying a beautiful sunset over St Kilda beach, spending time with friends at a good old fashioned impromptu Aussie barbecue. While taking in the amazing scenery and no longer wondering why they call it ‘the lucky country’ I also enjoyed a great conversation with a friend of mine about what separates those who survive and thrive in their environment versus those who wilt and eventually wither.

My friend is a talented and high performing professional within the corporate environment, and like myself, very interested in how to get the most out of herself as well as others around her. As we spoke the parallels between those who succeed in the corporate environment and athletes who get the absolute maximum from themselves and leave a legacy were profound and abundant. In fact this conversation actually vindicated the main reason I decided to write this Blog.

While discussing what makes the best the best I outlined an observation I have noticed when implementing a training technique I regularly use when dealing with athletes. Underwater walking has been used primarily by surfers looking to develop lung capacity and the ability to hold their breath following a wipeout. However I have noticed something interesting when using this method with small groups of players who are rehabilitating from injury. Those who I would consider to be ‘higher performers’ (meaning those who have the ability to push themselves and drive their own success) seem adapt best to this form of training. However the interesting thing here is that i do not believe these better results to be linked with physical abilities. I believe these performance improvements are nearly 100% due to the psychology of these ‘high performers’.

It has been said that as humans we grow and develop most at the border of support and challenge. In my experience high performers do not shy away from challenge but accept and even embrace it because they seem to inherently know this to be true. As a form of training, underwater walking is one of the more stressful situations someone working with me is likely to be subjected to, and there are many factors influencing your comfort level which are directly related to your performance in this task. The lack of oxygen, the feeling of being weighed down whilst underwater and a physically demanding task all compound to create a highly stressful environment.

All of the athletes whom I use this training technique with experience the same stressors, however the interesting thing is how the response to these stressors differs between high performers and the rest. Initially everyone experiences the same emotions such as panic and fear, however high performers will eventually improve their performance due to the ability to accept the challenge and develop unique strategies to deal with and eventually overcome it. Usually these strategies will be something simple like counting their steps, counting in their head or using landmarks in the pool to get an objective measure of performance. Once they have come up with these strategies they then turn the exercise into a game or competition with themselves which usually involves beating their previous mark.

On the flip-side of this, other athletes seem to be unable to focus their attention on anything other than how distressing and potentially unpleasant this situation is. As you can probably guess, these guys are the strugglers and never seem to improve as much as those who take ownership of the challenge and reframe their perceptions of it by turning it into a game or competition. These athletes usually come to actually enjoy this type of training since they have managed to shift this stressful experience back into their comfort zone somewhat and feel they have mastered yet another challenge. These ‘little victories’ which are won day in day eventually serve to create champions.

The principle is simple. Experience challenge, accept the challenge and all that comes with whilst looking to develop strategies to deal with and eventually conquer this challenge. It almost seems silly writing it here, but I truly believe many people miss this point when it comes to improving performance anywhere in life. Accepting challenge (and not avoiding it) in the knowledge that it can eventually lead to personal growth seems to be lost on many people. Even if the challenge is not sought out, the ability to see past the negatives associated with it is really the difference between those who sink, and those who swim in my opinion.

Those who accept and even seek challenge are those who grow and develop faster than the rest, these people are also more likely to be happier in life than others. Mihaly Csikzentmihayli described an experience he termed ‘flow’ in response being in a position where the level of challenge is sufficient to stretch the participants resources and force them to develop, but not too great that success is impossible. ‘Flow’ is an experience in which people are completely focused on the task at hand since success demands most of that persons mental resources. As a result of this intense focus and attention, people find that their everyday worries and negative thought patterns are temporarily switched off as the mind uses all of its resources on the task at hand.

Think of any skill you have learned and you will notice that the times you enjoyed yourself most were the times you were learning new skills and developing new and more complex skills. Take learning guitar for example, I actually started learning (or teaching myself) guitar a couple of years ago and over this time my motivation has come and gone, however I am most motivated and engaged when i constantly expose myself to new songs which i am eventually able to master since they are appropriate appropriate for my skill level. However if I tried to learn a song which was too difficult I found my motivation decreasing and as a result my progress would stagnate.

Each time we accept a challenge, apply ourselves to it and master it we directly improve our self concept.  Now I am in no way claiming to be the next Jimmy Hendrix but imagine how my confidence improves as I master a new song and develop a totally new skill which previously was quite alien to me. The skill lies in selecting challenges matched to a persons abilities and again this is important for coaches and managers. We should always seek to match the challenge with the skill level of the person we are issuing it to. Issuing unmatched and impossible challenges only serves to sap those working with us of confidence and motivation, these two variables are very important when issuing people with challenges they may not initially be inspired to accept.

Ensuring the challenge is matched with your ability is crucial in the beginning when looking to build self concept. In my opinion the best method is to break down a gross skill or activity you wish to master. For example. If you want to learn how to dance hip hop, identify three beginner moves you find coolest and one at a time master each one. Once you have done so you might integrate all three moves into one short routine. You might bust this microroutine out on the dance floor on your way to the toilet to the astonishment of your friends who have never even seen you dance. Classic! haha but seriously the confidence you get from chunking the larger task (learning hip hop) into a smaller and more manageable one serves to bolster your belief that actually it is really only a matter of time before you master a whole routine and even get to the point where you can improvise.

Unfortunately the value of amateurism has gone out of our society due to the absurd amount of information we are exposed to. No one wants to be seen as a ‘learner’ or ‘battler’ when we are constantly exposed the most talented doing the most amazing things. Everyone wants to just be pro now! The danger of the information age is that our society is slowly morphing from a population of ‘doers’ to a population of ‘watchers’ since excellence is really now just a click away. I believe this trend is costing many people unforeseen amounts of happiness as a result of improved self concept and confidence,

So  as is becoming custom with my posts I want to challenge those of you who have read this post and feel like this information has struck a chord with you to learn a new skill. Take a language class, learn a musical instrument, attend a sketching class it doesn’t matter really. Whatever tickles your fancy. Just make sure you are interested in it enough that you would be stoked to brag to your mates about it. Remember though, chunk it down first and then focus on completely devouring these chunks. Soon enough you will have learnt a cool new skill and if you take the time to notice your mindset will inevitably be much more positive as well.


Terry Condon is an Entrepreneur plus Fitness and Physical Therapy trainer for high performance athletes and teams. His blog www.terrycondon.com always has great inspiring content that is useful for both entrepreneurs and athletes alike. Terry is pictured above kitesurfing, one of many active hobbies.