What we can Learn from Olympic Swimmers

The words gamechanger and biohack have become today’s lexicon. Buzzwords that are mainstay in our vocabulary. We are still looking for quick ways to level up. We are still obsessed with finding the magic bullet and a fool-proof shortcut to success, health, and wealth. Advertisers would have us believe that there is a sexy sleek solution to all our problems. We know it’s not true and yet we look for it, fall for it, we wish it, and we pay big bucks for it. We live with this myth that success is predicated on luck and talent.  What if we demystified talent and learn something from the olympic swimmers? Let’s look at the “mundanity of excellence” researcher Dan Chambliss discovered.

Game changer

:: a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way

Ranked in the top 30% of words used1, the phrase “game changer” pulls up over 2.6 million results on Google. Chances are, you’ve heard it or read it at least once today. This phrase is becoming more and more ubiquitous, to the point that the magical sheen and its positive disruptive effects are wearing off.

The Dark Side of Game Changer Tactics and Shortcuts

What is it about “free and easy”, “quick and dirty”, or “get rich quick” and “lose weight fast” schemes that draws people in?  The term “spiritual bypass” demonstrates this avoidance of doing the real work that is required. We end up with temporary gains, and empty wins. Shortcuts often call for repeated new starts.

Developing game changing technology and process efficiency makes sense. The problem lies when it is tactics, not strategy. When it is haphazard and incoherent, chasing the next shiny ball mentality. Even a game changer idea requires work to implement and to sustain its effects.

Success does not come overnight.2 Chris Langan, described as “the smartest man in America” (and perhaps the world), religiously studied math for an hour, followed by French for an hour, then Russian, then philosophy. Every day. That’s how he spent his summers during high school.3 Talk about discipline!

For something as amazing as BioGeometry to work, practitioners still have to do the measurements. For a chiropractic adjustment to stick, patients still need to change habits. To enjoy the benefits of meditation, people still need to meditate. Even if you use visualization, you still need to visualize. There is no way around doing the actual work.4 There is beauty in the process, in discipline, and devotion.

We prefer our excellence fully formed. We prefer mystery to mundanity.

Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

What Can We Learn from Olympic Swimmers?

Research by Dan Chambliss and Angela Duckworth shows it is not any innate talent that wins the race. It comes down to qualitative differences, of doing small and micro movements perfectly and then doing it all over again. And again. It is not working harder per se. It is working smarter, and more diligently and with greater awareness of what is being done and how it all fits together. This is “deliberate practice” (psychologist Anders Ericsson) and what Dan Chambliss calls the “mundanity of excellence”.

In his cross-sectional and longitudinal study on swimmers, and specifically Olympic swimmers, Dan Chambliss finds that quantitative changes only bring success within levels of swimming (club, regionals, nationals, etc), and do not take swimmers to the next level. From regionals to nationals, for example. What it takes cannot be extrapolated. Its not more water time. Because it is not quantitative.

It’s not about talent. Its about discipline.

The crucial factor is not talent, as many of us would surmise (and others lament). Explaining the success of top tier performers as talent obscures the real conversation in favour of some mystical reason, an inner genius that dwells within a few chosen ones. At that level, everyone has natural talent which they have nursed through hard work, honed to an art.

Younger musicians, my contemporaries who have been called child prodigies, they feel slighted because it does undermine the work ethic, the thousands of hours you put in just to be able to produce a sound on your instrument.

Julian Lage5

It is the “willingness to overcome natural or unnatural disabilities of the sort that most of us face.”6 This is the willingness to get up before anyone else to practice, rain or shine, snow or sleet. This is the willingness to spend hours doing that one thing. This is the willingness to repeat every little thing until perfection, because sometimes “the little things are the only things.”6 This is the willingness to do what 95% of people are unwilling to do. This is the grit Angela Duckworth speaks about.

The motivation itself is also mundane, winning at practice, at the next meet, keeping within sight the next step, the next goal. Breaking it down into do-able achievements and small wins brings it to a human scale, and reduces the overwhelm. Maintaining the mundane, in the details, is essential, making every aspect of the experience a habit, second-nature, ingrained.

Even though Dan Chambliss’ study was centred on an elite level in an elite sport, he feels the findings are transferrable to other areas of endeavour. It is not about working harder. It is about sustaining the good habits.

The Seemingly Unimportant Stuff

One proponent of mundanity is Robin Sharma who feels that “repetition is the foundation of mastery” and small micro wins done via practice everyday lead to “gorgeous sustainable magnificent results.”7 A regular practice Robin Sharma himself has kept for over 20 years is having a 90-minute massage twice a week. (Get it scheduled, get it done)

A massage is one of those “seemingly unimportant” habits that optimize productivity. Massage, for Robin Sharma, has “fireproofed his inner psychology, physiology, mentality, and humanity.”7 He feels more peaceful and creative, less reactive, and it protects his game. This is his “2X Massage Protocol”.

Mundanity for health, self-discipline, and happiness

Instead of chasing what Robin Sharma calls the “heroic revolutionary act that will change the game” own your day. Own. Your. Day. Our life boils down to the hours and the minutes, and what we do in these minutes and hours matters. This does not mean regimentation and rigidity. Because “seemingly unimportant habits” such as Robin Sharma’s 2X Massage Protocol are part of our personal mastery. It does also mean not being distracted by “game changer” gadgets, business strategy, insider secret, or any such one-size-fits-all sell.

Because our choices add up and even change the trajectory, we have to decide what our goals are and take actions that move us closer to the goalposts. Being clear about what we want makes it easier for us to stay on track. Start with the Why. Thanks Simon Sinek.

Here is something from Dr Amen that may help us keep on track – the “One Page Miracle”. From his book Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, Dr Amen suggests writing down the goals you have for each area of your life – health, relationships, work, spirituality, and money. The “One Page Miracle” is just for yourself – take your time and be honest.

After completing this important exercise (suitable for people of all ages), keep it somewhere accessible, and take a look everyday. Maybe take a snapshot and make it your phone wallpaper. Ask if your choices and your behaviour are aligned with your goals. Are your actions helping you get to your goals? Is this decision taking you closer or further? Do you have the discipline to stick with it?

discipline and the beauty of mundanity


Technique, Discipline + Attitude

Dan Chambliss sees three areas for qualitative jumps – technique, discipline, and attitude. Each level of swimming is more akin to a different world, each with its own rules, power balance, environment, demands, and rewards. Access changes – different levels of coaches, financial support, equipment, and prestige.


The best six doctors anywhere and no one can deny it,
are sunshine, water, rest, and air, exercise and diet.
These six will gladly you attend,
if only you are willing,
your mind they’ll ease,
your will they’ll mend,
and charge you not a shilling.

Wayne Fields

To achieve greater health and well-being, we too can change our worlds. By expanding our consciousness, transforming our attitude, and exploring new approaches, we can access better information, meet different practitioners and modalities, and benefit from less-known wisdoms. We can access this great wealth of information and great minds via books, webinars, workshops, and retreats.

Once we find a technique, modality, school of thought we resonate with we can explore, observe, and refine. This is where discipline comes in, not only in achieving consistency in executing these habits and practices; we must also be tenacious in self-observation, of both the inner and the outer worlds. This process may easily take some people into isolation, frustration, or excess.

Cultivate an attitude of flexibility, curiosity, and even detachment. It takes grit and discipline to stick it out and wisdom to know when something is not working. But not give up and chase the shiny ball again. Let’s also remember that the best six doctors anywhere are not a miracle, though they are no less miraculous – sunshine, water, rest, air, exercise, and diet. These basic building blocks, though they may appear mundane, can bring on magic in your life. So what of the mundane can you bring into your life? How can we build a practice with grit and discipline?

1 Ranked by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary
2 Success comes not only from putting in the hours to hone your craft, business models, setting up the process and team, etc; it also comes from inner work from facing your fears, healing the traumas, forgiving others, loving and accepting yourself.
3 Chris Langan is said to have an IQ north of 190. Off the charts is how he has been described. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. p71
4 They say the only way is through it. As long as we live within a dualistic paradigm, we have certain beliefs. It is said that a self-actualized being is beyond space and time, beyond all dualities, and certainly judgment. Then, the rules change.
5 Extraordinary Desire: How Child Prodigies are Made by Blake Madden on Trust Me I’m a Scientist 6 The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers by Dan Chambliss. Sociological Theory Vol 7 No 1 (Spring 1989). https://rittersp.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Chambliss-Mundanity-of-Excellence.pdf
7 The 2X Massage Protocol with Robin Sharma

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