EDITOR: | January 11th, 2017 | 1 Comment

In Search of Excellence – A Sporting Comparison

| January 11, 2017 | 1 Comment

In looking for examples of excellence, either striving for it; or achieving it, I have read a number of interesting examples of the process of striving for excellence. The following is an excerpt from a piece written by Matthew Syed of “The Times” that was quoted in the “The Australian” newspaper 4th January 2017. It deals with “Excellence in Soccer” but is equally as relevant if you consider “Excellence in Business”. I will explain that at the end.

I noticed a group of youngsters comparing watches. They were lovely timepieces, oozing craftsmanship. “This was 5k”, one said with a wink. “Big deal,” replied his friend. “I got this one for 15k.”

The exchange took place among the academy players of a top English Premier League club and it struck me as symptomatic of a growing problem in the game. Youngsters are being paid serious sums not on achievement, but according to potential.

This leads to what the economist Thorstein Veblen termed “conspicuous consumption”. Prestige watches. Fast cars. Expensive champagne in exclusive nightclubs. As one young player put it: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

But isn’t this the point? These players haven’t got it. Not yet, anyway. They may be earning good money, but they are not yet good players. As Gareth Southgate, the England manager, put it on BBC Radio 5 live on Sunday: “The concern is for any young player who hasn’t quite made it in the first team but thinks they have because you get big money for having achieved nothing.”

This represents an urgent challenge for soccer. According to a recent Global Sports Salaries survey, the average wage for a Premier League player is £2.4 million ($4 million) a year, double that in Spain and more than double that in Italy and Germany. We have a generation of young players with tremendous potential, but whose ambition is being systematically blunted by having too much, too soon.

Is there a solution? The danger for any club who decide to reduce the amount that they pay for young players is that a rival club will snap up the talent. The question for the director of a modern football academy, then, is not “how do we get away with paying young players less?”, but rather “how do we ensure that the money we do pay doesn’t destroy their drive and ambition?”

And it is here that we can learn something by turning away from football for a moment and towards a seminal experiment performed by Professor Carol Dweck, of Stanford University. She took 400 youngsters and gave them a test. At the end, she praised half for their talent (”wow, you are really smart”) and half for effort (”wow, you are really hard working”).

She then gave the students a choice of taking a hard or an easy test. More than two thirds of those praised for talent chose the easy test. Those who had been praised for effort, on the other hand, chose the harder test. In the final stage of the experiment, she gave the children a test of identical difficulty to the opening test. Those praised for talent deteriorated by 20 per cent. Those praised for effort, however, boosted their score by 30 per cent.

This is now considered to be one of the most important findings in modern psychology. These were children matched for ability, with the entire schism in performance opened up by those five or so words spoken after the first stage. As Dweck, who has replicated these results in multiple settings, put it: “These were some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen. Praising children’s talent harms their motivation, and it harms their performance.”

The reason is simple. If children think that success is largely about talent, they are far more likely to react to success with smugness. They will assume that they are innately brilliant, and that future excellence is inevitable. They are therefore more likely to coast, assuming that talent alone will get them through. This is why their scores plummeted by 20 per cent. After all, aren’t geniuses supposed to breeze through such challenges?

Those praised for effort on the other hand are being encouraged to think that success is about hard work as much as innate brilliance. They therefore prefer difficult challenges, to grow faster. They tackle problems with gusto. In other words, they are not interested in merely looking talented; they are interested in how to develop their talents.

And this hints at precisely what is going wrong in soccer academies. A player who makes it into, say, Arsenal or Chelsea is instantly surrounded by agents flattering their ego. They are told that they are mega-talented. Even the coaches talk up their brilliance. Is it any wonder that — like the kids praised for being smart — they draw the conclusion that they are God’s gift? Is it any wonder that they assume that their pathway to the first team is assured and that they start to coast?

The problem is not that they are insufficiently hungry. All these youngsters are keen to make it to the top. The problem is subtly different: they think that their elevation is inevitable. They assume that the honey-tongued agents are telling them the truth, that their sudden wealth reflects their brilliance, and that they therefore deserve all those glittering watches and fast cars.

The deepest problem, however, is that if success is assured, why bother to work hard? If you are so talented, why put in the hard graft on the training pitch?

You see precisely the same effect with children labelled gifted and talented at school or young executives identified as future leaders. Instead of stepping up, they become more arrogant, less capable of admitting to mistakes, and more likely to start coasting.

And this reveals how to alter the psychological environment. The key is not to praise talent, but — on the contrary — to insist that talent is not enough. That getting to an academy is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. That being able to breeze through a challenge isn’t an indication of smartness, but how much time you’ve wasted by not confronting a challenge that stretched you.

There are now dozens of experiments that reveal this truth, but let us look at some players who embody it. David Beckham earned millions, but in his final season at Paris Saint-Germain he was still arriving at training an hour early and leaving two hours after the session ended, as he had done throughout his career. Beckham was not the most talented, but he never stopped striving.

“For me, it has always been about doing everything I can to maximise my potential”, he said.

Cristiano Ronaldo learnt his most seminal lesson at Manchester United when he realised he was heading for the periphery unless he matched his astonishing talent with an equally astonishing workrate.

“There were guys who always arrived for training one hour early. (Paul) Scholes and Gary Neville were incredible examples … I would go to training early too. I would do exercise, strength, abdominals, core: many things.”

He developed his trademark free kick via countless hours of practice. “Everything was a lesson for me at that age … To eat properly, sleep good, recovery sessions, everything. You have to dedicate yourself 100 per cent.”

The same is true of Lionel Messi, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rory McIlroy, Michael Jordan and countless other sportsmen who have excelled. All were showered with big money as youngsters, but they nevertheless understood that potential means nothing without sacrifice.

That is why they didn’t regard getting into an academy (or its equivalent) as a meal ticket, but as a stepping stone. The key question was: “Can we take the next step, and the next … ”

This is what psychologists call “growth mindset”. We need coaches who can inculcate this attitude, which is predictive of both resilience and adaptability.

Big money is nothing like as damaging when youngsters are doing everything in their power to justify the confidence shown in them. As Alex Ferguson put it: “When you see success as a journey, you are far less likely to think you have arrived.”

Do you see the comparison with “Excellence in Business?” Is there a lesson to be learned?

See excellence as a continuous process, not a destination. Do not simply seek to achieve lowest costs or some other hard goal. Of particular import, is to reward the process. The hard work. Don’t focus so much on the results. Look to involving everyone in doing better. And keep doing it! It takes practice and focus.

Steve Mackowski


Mr Mackowski is a qualified engineer in mineral processing with over 30 years technical and operational experience in rare earths, uranium, industrial minerals, nickel, kaolin ... <Read more about Steve Mackowski>

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