The Five Elements of Expertise

I have a strange habit.

I like to imagine what world-class athletes would be doing if they weren’t world-class athletes. Because the odds of them, of anyone really, becoming great at something has to be a combination of hard work, opportunity, dumb luck and perhaps some mystical, fate-driven push from the gods.

Roger Federer would have made a very good academic economist, if he’d just stayed in school.

Kobe Bryant could have been a successful, though relatively anonymous businessman, flying between his interests in Italy, the US and the fast-growing Asian markets.

OK, Shaun White would probably still be snowboarding. But that’s not my point.

These athletes have threaded the smallest of needles to get to where they are today. Now, I’m not going to paraphrase Malcolm’s Outliers or the original research that spawned that book. You know, the book where world-class performers were born in the right era at the right time of the year to dominate their slightly younger peers, spotted at the right time by the right coaches who paid more attention to them than the other kids. And so on and so forth in a upward spiral until they reached the world stage.

All right, so I summarized it. But again, this is not my point.

What fascinates me is the very beginning; before the coaches showed up, before the other parents started whispering “this kid is a natural” on the side line because by that stage, the ability was obvious.

When does greatness really start?

I know the arguments for the natural athlete and winning the genetic lottery. Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf’s kids have the greatest head start of any kid I can think of but I’ll bet they don’t win a Grand Slam tournament. One of them could, of course, but it seems really, really unlikely. Decent pros themselves, Phil and BettyAnn Dent’s son Taylor became a pretty good tennis player, but he’s not going into the Hall of Fame. Andy Mills and Chris Evert. Gaby Reese and Laird Hamilton. I refuse to go to the website for People Magazine to find more examples because I know myself – I’ll emerge from the internet next Thursday.

No, it’s something else. Genetics provide potential for success. They are not an assurance of it.

Every world-class performer, if you go back, deep into their past, reveal the same fundamental story: the same beginning and circumstances.

The  five elements to becoming a world-class performer:

1. There was a spark. That first moment when the essence of my sport showed up. It’s a feeling that leads to an emotion, it has to be. There’s nothing that starts with a rational, left-brain, pros and cons argument that is sustainable. For me, it was picking up a stick in the woods next to my grade school and idly whacking an acorn. It connected perfectly and that clean vibration resonated through my body and I’ve been trying for many, many years to get that feeling back. I don’t understand why this stood out above the million other things I did as a kid.

2. Love of the game. I’ve written before about my awe of anyone who commits 10,000 hours to master a skill. To achieve that, you need discipline, sacrifice, focus, to give up or never even try so many distractions that float in front of you or the math doesn’t work. It’s a kind of madness, really. It’s a deeply emotional, visceral attachment to the game that pushes the athlete to do this.

3. Feedback. No one, and I mean NO ONE comes out of the womb with the ability to curl a soccer ball around a wall of defenders. You start by kicking the ball and not falling on your butt; that takes a while. Then you try dribbling it, juggling, passing. Then maybe your sister, your dad or a soccer coach makes a suggestion and you try it. And it works. And by the time you play in your first pre-kindergarten soccer league where all the kids swarm around the ball, you already understand the game better than the rest of them. You get plucked to play with the bigger kids and you’re on your way. Except now you need…

4. Tolerance for failure. In their development, the greatest athletes have failed the most. It’s beyond just quantity because any one of us can go out and put in 10,000 hours making short putts. Brain plasticity research shows that maximum change occurs at the point of failure. The longer an athlete can play at the edge of their ability, the faster their skills will converge to a level of mastery. But failing really sucks, it’s uncomfortable and makes me feel bad. Can’t I just hit some crosscourt forehands at half-pace and call it practice? No. No you can’t.

5. Vision. The brain is designed to resolve gaps and differences. It creates an internal map of the real world that makes sense and it will work very, very hard to keep that map intact. If I create a crystal clear image in my mind of what skills I’m able to perform and I can’t do that in real life, my brain hates that. The map I’ve created doesn’t match reality and it goes to work to resolve the dissonance. This is why visualization can work, it forces a real change in the brain. But it’s hard work.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Debate me on this in the comments.

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2 comments On The Five Elements of Expertise

  • Hey Steve,

    Two comments:

    1) So true about the spark. While I am not a world class athlete, I can distinctly remember the flash of insight or awareness I felt the first time I experienced some of my favorite activities: signing a harmony, understanding someone’s balance in wrestling, cracking a customer profile in marketing… The motivation to return to that moment is almost irresistible.

    2) I think you could be more specific about the limits of visualization. There’s a lot of new age psychology fluff about imagining your desired life “and it will be”. The vision you describe is about a very concrete occurence and not some Utopian future. For example, if I visualize myself as the master of the universe for the rest of my life, it’s not gonna make it true. So part of effective visualization is having a really good understanding of the very concrete things you need to visualize. Coaches are a huge help here.

    Great article!


    • I get your point on visualization; yes, the focus on a shot or a specific performance was what I was suggesting. I’m fascinated by the neurobiology of visualization and how the plastic nature of the brain allows it to change with directed thought. The rather ambiguous “I want to be rich” or master-of-the-universe visualizations are more fantasy. Fun, but not really productive to creating performance change.

      Many sport psych experts use visualization in their suite of tactics. I’ll do more research and discuss it in a later post.


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