The Mundanity of Excellence

I recently read an article, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” by Daniel F. Chambliss, which was written over 20 years ago and was one of the first pieces in sport sociology ever written. As a swimmer myself, I found it very interesting and spot on at times.

In this article, Chambliss defines excellence as “consistent superiority of performance (11).” This definition may seem intimidating, however, Chambliss suggests excellence is overrated and not as impressive of an achievement as we think. He describes the ordinary nature of excellence in his article and refutes the idea that an athlete can have “natural talent.” He instead suggests that an athlete achieves excellence due to a variety of other factors that are often mistaken and mislabeled as “talent.”

Chambliss presents and analyzes quantitative and qualitative data derived from longitudinal (over the span of careers) and cross-sectional (looking at all levels of the sport) studies of swimmers. By “quantitative,” Chambliss means how many times a swimmer does something, or doing more of the same thing. By “qualitative,” he means the kinds of things the swimmers did, or doing different kinds of things (11, 12). Chambliss presents qualitative observations from each of the different “levels” of swimming to highlight the stratification of the sport. Stratification of swimming, according to Chambliss, means dividing the swimming world into levels, or groups, based on qualitative differences.

As a competitive swimmer of almost ten years, I have experienced many different atmospheres of swimming including summer league, high school swimming, club swimming, the junior national level and the collegiate level. I expected to know much more about swimmers than this Chambliss guy, and was prepared to read an article full of nonsense and “not quite”s, especially since it was written such a long time ago and swimming has certainly changed a lot since then. I was pleased to find truth in this article and was surprised at how closely I could connect and relate to it. Chambliss nailed most of the descriptions and explanations of the life of a swimmer. However, there was one main point I disagreed with Chambliss on: the existence of “talent.”

Before reading this article, I accepted the concept of talent as something some swimmers had and other didn’t, without much consideration. Chambliss has challenged me to think differently about this conception. Chambliss believes talent does not exist and is really just a lazy way of explaining athletic success; it actually “mystifies excellence, subsuming a complex set of discrete actions behind a single unidentifiable concept (17).” He argues this term undermines hard work and determination and hides true factors that create excellence, such as athleticism, resources, money, transportation, influence of others, availability of opportunities and the other social factors that contribute to participation in the sport. Those social factors indeed make up a big part of the path to an athlete’s success and are not always taken into consideration when we measure success. As for the “athleticism” factor, I believe, contrary to Chambliss, that this is a justifiable natural talent. The height, weight, muscle structure and proportions of an athlete are physically predestined and give some athletes an advantage over others. This is not to say that other factors can compensate for, or outweigh, these differences but, they’re there. Sure, natural talent does not directly lead to excellence, just as none of the factors alone do. However, a physical and biological athletic advantage – a “natural talent” for the sport – certainly helps, and to say that it simply “does not exist” is irrational.

Chambliss and I also have a different view of what exactly the word “talent” means. Dictionary definitions describe talent as something innate. I have come to think of it as something an athlete attains with success, a status an athlete earns with experience. When people say, “Liza, you are a talented swimmer,” I believe they are commending me on my current state of ability and the “talent” I have earned with hard work, not just my natural state of ability.

Besides his theory about talent, Chambliss makes two other key points in his article, which I agree with. One is “excellence is a qualitative phenomenon (26),” and the other is “excellence is mundane (27).” I agree that it is not the increased amount of swimming, or the quantitative differences, that separate beginners from Olympians, but the differences in technique, discipline and attitudes. I recently experienced this while working swim camps this summer. What sets my college teammates and I apart from 9-year-old summer leaguers is not the increased number of practices we attend, but the qualitative differences. We pay careful attention to practicing and perfecting our technique, while swim campers pay more attention to their friends and socializing. We get up at 5:30 each morning to train, while swim campers are rarely anywhere on time and eat ice cream for every meal at the dining hall. We enjoy the challenge, the competitors and the pain, while swim campers complain of cold water temperatures. We don’t just do more of the same things our campers are doing; we do things differently.

Along with this idea, Chambliss argues excellence is also mundane. An ordinary action, the choice to do a perfect turn in practice, is nothing astonishing, but making of habit of it will lead to excellent turns, all the time. Chambliss says, “the actions themselves are not special; the care and consistency with which it is made is (27).” It is the swimmer’s decision to choose to perform actions of excellence, consistently over time, until they become excellent swimmers.

Therefore, excellence is mundane, excellence is qualitative, and Olympic-caliber swimmers and summer league swimmers are really more alike than they are different.

excellence

“Time is so precious… And you need to ask yourself, ‘what are you going to do today?’ But more importantly, you need to ask yourself, ‘how are you going to do it?'”

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