A few years ago, I wrote this in a tweet:
Good athletes are obsessed with training. Great athletes are obsessed with excellence.
My own obsession with excellence began over 35 years ago.
Before I was an endurance athlete, I was a pianist. While some started swimming at age 5, I started playing the piano. Practicing daily, playing in recitals, performing in competitions. Years later, I would go on to college as a music major. I vividly recall my audition piece. A piece that was my peak race, a particularly intricate and rhythmic song – Malaguena. Preparing to perform this piece took countless hours of focused, patient practice – every single day for over a year.
Like an athlete in training, my practice had structure and purpose. After a warm up, I would slow down the tempo and practice to a metronome, repeating difficult passages until ingrained in my fingers. Steadily, I would up the tempo until able to play it at what could be called race pace. I did this once every few practice sessions. At times, I would hit race pace with perfection – an effortless feeling of fingers dancing over the keys almost as if on autopilot, moving faster than my mind could keep up with so I wouldn’t even think at all. But many times more, I would stay behind at a slower tempo, practicing small sections of the piece over and over again. It was tedious work that only paid off every once in a great while where it all came together in what would feel like a flawless outpouring of emotional and musical perfection. Essentially, race day.
I’ll never forget one day, practicing, when my stepdad approached the piano.
There he stood to my right, first saying nothing at all. Just watching. He was never a musician. Instead, he was a great athlete. A football player who then moved on to professional skeet shooting. To this day we have cabinets full of his shooting medals and awards. He watched me playing, as if to take it all in, as if to understand the language of deliberate practice where you pour your heart into something for a brief, even fleeting outcome that promises a small chance of perfection. Where it all comes together. Where you hit the mark.
He watched for a few minutes and naturally I came to a pause in the music.
Elizabeth, he said. I remember just listening. Our eyes did not connect. It was not necessary. He spoke to me as to impart to me the wisdom that made himself a great athlete, a precise marksman and an even better salesman.
Elizabeth, always be excellent.
Since that day, I have always strived for excellence. In everything I do. At times it has been my downfall – when I’ve gotten it confused with perfection. At other times, it has kept me focused on what matters to be consistently successful. When I find myself feeling the strain of sacrifice or the burden of setting big goals – a burden that takes hard work, early mornings and suffering – I remind myself to always be excellent.
Excellence is a commitment that where you want to go is worth it and what it takes to get there is something different, extra or special. Excellence is not found in ordinary effort. By definition, to be excellent means to be outstanding or exceptionally good – requiring a special effort.
Not surprisingly, the extra effort and path to excellence is not always easy. Which is why few stay the path. Excellence is about doing your best day after day. Despite obstacles, setbacks or distractions. Whether it’s fun or boring – you do the work if you’re going to be excellent. The reward of what is far off keeps you focused on today.
Excellence isn’t a single act but the sum of a series of small acts with the intent of being better today than you were yesterday or pursuing your big picture goal. Excellent athletes are masters of the small acts – of recovery, of the details, of the process. The path of mastery means every little thing matters. Everything ties into their big picture. Their choices support their goals. When the rest of campus is at the bars on a Friday night, they’re in the basement of the music hall replaying the same notes over and over again. It’s not sexy, it’s not exciting. It’s mostly tedium – and most will give up before they reach their next big breakthrough. That’s why so few are truly excellent.
These days, I am no longer an excellent musician. Occasionally I sit down at the piano and go through the motions. I miss notes, I am rusty. My ability to process the visual language of notes into music through my fingers has slowed down significantly. I assume this is what it feels like when professional runners retire – what used to be 6 minutes at an easy pace has now becomes 10 minute miles. It’s running but not quite the same….
At times, I long for the feeling of musical excellence. But I remember sitting at a piano for hours every day, playing scales, reading music, the monotonous tick tock of the metronome. For as rewarding as it felt to glide across the keys, the daily effort to get there a complete commitment. I know that unless I have the time, passion and focus to commit to that process, there will be no musical excellence. But I know what I gained for walking that path to excellence is more than I learned in any book or class. It was immensely valuable. Real life, character building experience – of success and failure, awards and criticism, setbacks and accomplishments. An experience that eventually spilled over into making me understand what it takes to be a successful student, coach, athlete.
Though most of us will never be expert musicians of professional athletes, each one of us can strive for excellence in our journey. Perhaps it means giving attention to the details of our recovery, executing our training with precision, committing to ourselves with self-confidence. Only you know what stands in your way of going from good to great, from ordinary to excellent. It won’t be easy but it will be worth it. You have to commit, and then you have to do it day after day. You have to stay the path.
This year, get obsessed with your journey to excellence – not just ticking off boxes with your training but committing to excellence. For you, excellence might be finishing an Ironman, placing in the top 30 percent of your age group or winning a national championship title. Whatever it is, commit to it – daily – with extraordinary effort. And at the end of the year or season, no matter the outcome, know that pursuing excellence meant that you gave it an outstanding effort – one that built your heart, character and confidence.