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The Mundanity of Excellence

The Mundanity of Excellence



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Published by donttaseme
The Mundanity of Excellence
An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers
Daniel F. Chambliss
The Mundanity of Excellence
An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers
Daniel F. Chambliss

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Published by: donttaseme on May 10, 2008
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Olympic sports and competitive swimming inparticular provide an unusually clear opportu-nity for studying the nature ofexcellence.Inother fields,it may be less clear who are theoutstanding performers:the best painter orpianist,the best businessperson,the finestwaitress or the best father.But in sport (andthis is one ofits attractions) success is definedmore exactly,by success in competition.Thereare medals and ribbons and plaques for firstplace,second,and third;competitions arearranged for the head-to-head meeting ofthebest competitors in the world;in swimmingand track,times are electronically recorded tothe hundredth ofa second;there are statisticspublished and rankings announced,every month or every week.By the end oftheOlympic Games every four years,it is com-pletely clear who won and who lost,who madethe finals,who participated in the Games,andwho never participated in the sport at all.Within competitive swimming in particu-lar,clear stratification exists not only betweenindividuals but also between defined levels of the sport as well.At the lowest level,we see thecountry club teams,operating in the summer-time as a loosely run,mildly competitiveleague,with volunteer,part-time coaches.Above that there are teams that represententire cities and compete with other teamsfrom other cities around the state or region;then a “Junior Nationals”level ofcompetition,featuring the best younger (under 18 years old)athletes;then the Senior Nationals level (any age,the best in the nation);and finally,we couldspeak ofworld- or Olympic-class competitors.At each such level,we find,predictably,certainpeople competing:one athlete swims in asummer league,never seeing swimmers fromanother town;one swimmer may consistently qualify for the Junior Nationals,but not forSeniors;a third may swim at the Olympics andnever return to Junior Nationals.The levels of the sport are remarkably distinct from oneanother....Because success in swimming is sodefinable,...we can clearly see,by comparinglevels and studying individuals as they movebetween and within levels,what exactly pro-duces excellence.In addition,careers in swim-ming are relatively short;one can achievetremendous success in a briefperiod oftime.Rowdy Gaines,beginning in the sport when17 years old,jumped from a country clubleague to a world record in the 100 meterfreestyle event in only three years.This allowsthe researcher to conduct true longitudinalresearch in a few short years.......This report draws on extended experi-ence with swimmers at every level ofability,over some halfa dozen years.Observation hascovered the span ofcareers,and I have had thechance to compare not just athletes within acertain level (the view that most coaches have),but between the most discrepant levels as well.Thus these findings avoid the usual...prob-lem ofan observer’s being familiar mainly withathletes at one level....
The Nature of Excellence
By “excellenceI mean “consistent superiority ofperformance.The excellent athlete regu-larly,even routinely,performs better than his
The Mundanity of Excellence
An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers
Daniel F.Chambliss
or her competitors.Consistency ofsuperiorperformances tells us that one athlete is indeedbetter than another,and that the differencebetween them is not merely the product of chance.This definition can apply at any levelofthe sport,differentiating athletes.The supe-riority discussed here may be that ofoneswimmer over another,or ofall athletes at onelevel (say,the Olympic class) over another.By this definition,we need not judge performanceagainst an absolute criterion,but only againstother performances.There are acknowledgedleaders on every team,as well as teams widely recognized as dominant.To introduce what are sources ofexcel-lence for Olympic athletes,I should first sug-gest saving the demonstration for later—what
does not 
produce excellence.(1)Excellence is not,I find,the product of socially deviant personalities.These swimmersdon’t appear to be “oddballs,nor are they loners (“kids who have given up the normalteenage life”).Iftheir achievements result froma personality characteristic,that characteristicis not obvious.Perhaps it is true,as themythology ofsports has it,that the best ath-letes are more self-confident (although that isdebatable);but such confidence could be aneffect ofachievement,not the cause ofit.(2)Excellence does
result from quan-titative changes in behavior.Increased trainingtime,
 per se,
does not make one swim fast;nordoes increased “psyching up,nor does movingthe arms faster.Simply doing more ofthe samewill not lead to moving up a level in the sport.(3)Excellence does
result from somespecial inner quality ofthe athlete.“Talentisone common name for this quality;sometimeswe talk ofa “gift,or of“natural ability.Theseterms are generally used to mystify the essen-tially mundane processes ofachievement insports,keeping us away from a realistic analy-sis ofthe actual factors creating superlativeperformances,and protecting us from a senseofresponsibility for our own outcomes.So where does excellence—consistentsuperiority ofperformance—come from?
I.Excellence RequiresQualitative Differentiation
Excellence in competitive swimming is achievedthrough qualitative differentiation from otherswimmers,not through quantitative increasesin activity.......I should clarify what is meant here by “quantitativeand “qualitative.By quantity,we mean the number or amount ofsomething.Quantitative improvement entails an increasein the number ofsome one thing one does.An athlete who practices 2 hours a day andincreases that activity to 4 hours a day hasmade a quantitative change in behavior.Or,one who swims 5 miles and changes to 7 mileshas made a quantitative change.She does moreofthe same thing;there is an increase in quan-tity.Or again,a freestyle swimmer who,whilemaintaining the same stroke technique,moveshis arms at an increased number ofstrokesper minute has made a quantitative change inbehavior.Quantitative improvements,then,involve doing
more ofthesame thing.
By quality,though,we mean the characteror nature ofthe thing itself.A qualitativechange involves modifying what is actually being done,not simply doing more ofit.For aswimmer doing the breaststroke,a qualitativechange might be a change from pullingstraight back with the arms to sculling themoutwards,to the sides;or from lifting oneself up out ofthe water at the turn to staying lownear the water.Other qualitative changesmight include competing in a regional meetinstead oflocal meets;eating vegetables andcomplex carbohydrates rather than fats andsugars;entering one’s weaker events instead of only one’s stronger events;learning to do a flipturn with freestyle,instead ofmerely turningaround and pushing off;or training at near-competition levels ofintensity,rather thancasually.Each ofthese involves doing thingsdifferently than before,not necessarily doing
Chapter 1
Taking a New Look at a Familiar World 
more.Qualitative improvements involve doing
differentkinds ofthings.
Now we can consider how qualitativedifferentiation is manifested:
Different levels ofthe sport are qualitatively distinct.
Olympic champions don’t just domuch more ofthe same things that summer-league country clubswimmers do.They don’t just swim more hours,or move their armsfaster,or attend more workouts.What makesthem faster cannot be quantitativelycomparedwith lower-level swimmers,because whilethere may be quantitative differences
andcertainly there are,for instance in thenumberofhours spent in workouts—these arenot,I think,the decisive factors at all.Instead,they do things differently.Theirstrokes are different,their attitudes are differ-ent,their groups offriends are different,theirparents treat the sport differently,the swim-mers prepare differently for their races,andthey enter different kinds ofmeets and events.There are numerous discontinuities ofthis sortbetween,say,the swimmer who competes in alocal City League meet and one who enters theOlympic Trials.Consider three dimensions of difference:(1)Technique:The styles ofstrokes,divesand turns are dramatically different at differ-ent levels.A “C”(the lowest rank in UnitedStates Swimming’s ranking system) breast-stroke swimmer tends to pull her arms far backbeneath her,kick the legs out very wide with-out bringing them together at the finish,liftherselfhigh out ofthe water on the turn,fail totake a long pull underwater after the turn,andtouch at the finish with one hand,on her side.By comparison,an “AAAA(the highest rank)swimmer,sculls the arms out to the side andsweeps back in (never actually pulling back-wards),kicks narrowly with the feet finishingtogether,stays low on the turns,takes a longunderwater pull after the turn,and touches atthe finish with both hands.Not only are thestrokes different,they are so different that the“C”swimmer may be amazed to see howthe “AAAAswimmer looks when swimming.The appearance alone is dramatically different,as is the speed with which they swim....(2) Discipline:The best swimmers aremore likely to be strict with their training,coming to workouts on time,carefully doingthe competitive strokes legally (i.e.,withoutviolating the technical rules ofthe sport),watch what they eat,sleep regular hours,doproper warmups before a meet,and the like.Their energy is carefully channeled.Diver GregLouganis,who won two Olympic gold medalsin 1984,practices only three hours each day—not a long time—divided into two or three ses-sions.But during each session,he tries to doevery dive perfectly.Louganis is never sloppy in practice,and so is never sloppy in meets.(3) Attitude:At the higher levels ofcom-petitive swimming,something like an inversionofattitude takes place.The very features ofthesport that the “C”swimmer finds unpleasant,the toplevel swimmer enjoys.What others seeas boring—swimming back and forth over ablack line for two hours,say—they find peace-ful,even meditative,often challenging,ortherapeutic.They enjoy hard practices,lookforward to difficult competitions,try to set dif-ficult goals.Coming into the 5:30
.practicesat Mission Viejo,many ofthe swimmers werelively,laughing,talking,enjoying themselves,perhaps appreciating the fact that most peoplewould positively hate doing it.It is incorrect tobelieve that top athletes suffer great sacrifices toachieve their goals.Often,they don’t see whatthey do as sacrificial at all.They like it.These qualitative differences are whatdistinguish levels ofthe sport.They are very noticeable,while the quantitative differencesbetween levels,both in training and in competi-tion,may be surprisingly small indeed....Yetvery small quantitative differences in perfor-mance may be coupled with huge qualitativedifferences:In the finals ofthe men’s 100-meterfreestyle swimming event at the 1984 Olympics,Rowdy Gaines,the gold medalist,finishedahead ofsecond-place Mark Stockwell by .44

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