The Psychology of Excellence

How do people become excellent in what they do? Why do most elite junior sportspeople, musicians or performing artists never become elite adult performers? More generally, how does potential become achievement?

These questions are pertinent to anyone interested in developing talent, from parents and educators to corporate HR professionals, the military and international sports bodies. Indeed, huge resources are allocated in many diverse fields to talent development programmes.

Most Talent Identification and Development (TID) models focus on current performance to assess talent. Not only is this a poor method for predicting future achievement, but it also ignores the psychological factors that are the mechanisms for achieving success. Many people view talent as ‘all or nothing’ – you either have it or you don’t. Rather, it is dynamic and emerges over time with multiple factors influencing its development.

The road to excellence is often not smooth. Successfully making the journey, regardless of your field of endeavor, appears to require the cultivation of certain psychological characteristics.

Psychological characteristics of developing excellence

There is significant consistency across academic studies in performance psychology as to which psychological factors support the development of excellence. The most common are now discussed:


Commitment is more than simply motivation. It refers to a commitment to excelling: persevering during challenging times, a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone, a dedication to put in hard work and take responsibility for one’s own development.

Central to commitment is the notion of high personal standards. This is not perfectionism, but entails establishing a set of required behaviours and actions that support achieving one’s potential, and then sticking to them.


The ability to cope with set backs in life is critically important. We all know this. Yet some of us respond to difficult times or failures by losing motivation, blaming others and avoiding the next challenge.

The hard work required to excel at anything involves pushing yourself to your limits. By definition this involves failure. Failure is desirable because it allows us to understand how we can learn more effectively. Success feels good but does not expand our boundaries. Failure allows us to grow, but feels horrid.

A disproportionately high incidence of early trauma has been found in the life of elite performers. This appears to have played a role in subsequent development by providing skills that facilitate overcoming life’s challenges.

Resilience is about how we cope and flourish under stress and challenge. It is vitally important in supporting motivation.


The concept of excellence is often framed within a dichotomous ‘practice or genetics’ debate. These discussions miss a key point – you will find very few ‘elite’ performers in any field who have not practiced for many years. Tiger Woods may have inherited certain motor-skills, but he was not ‘born’ a champion. He developed his potential through hours and years of tedious, boring, relentless practice.

Practice must be of high quality, pushing yourself to the limits of your ability. Practicing in such a way often results in failure, which can be de-motivating. The importance of resilience and motivation in supporting perseverance through years of high quality practice are self-evident.

Practice also applies in the corporate world. If your role entails any element of skill, you must practice to improve. Do not make the mistake that you become ‘excellent’ through experience. Experience is a very ineffective method of developing excellence.

The histories of ‘geniuses’ from Mozart to John Stewart Mill show the enormous amount of practice they carried out in their early years. Great comedians and public speakers practice relentlessly – Amanda Palmer went to extreme lengths to practice her 2013 TED talk, The art of asking.

Goal setting

Everyone knows about goal setting, and most people I know set goals for themselves. They also almost universally fail to achieve them, largely because their goals read something akin to; run 10km in under 40 minutes or lose 5kg in weight.

This is not a primer on goal setting, but here is a tip – focus less on what you wish to achieve and more on how you will get there. What, precisely, do you need to do to get to where you wish to go? How will you measure progress and how often? How will you overcome the obstacles along the way? Keep asking yourself these questions.

Goal setting supports both motivation and self-belief, and provides learners with a sense of control over their development.

Realistic evaluation of performance

A critical factor in learning any skill is the ability to accurately reflect on your performance. This can be a painful experience as it often involves criticism, which none of us tend to enjoy. Those that prefer not to listen will feel good in the moment but fail to progress. In contrast, people who listen, reflect, and respond appropriately will be those who continue to develop. The unwillingness to accept feedback is a key factor why elite junior performers fail to progress.

Evaluating one’s performance is much easier in skill-based activities such as sport or music where a coach or teacher can provide us with feedback. In business, this is more problematic, as there is often not one ‘expert’ who can provide feedback. Annual reviews lack timeliness and are often laced with personal agendas. In this context, awareness of how colleagues experience you is even more important. Drawing upon respected colleagues opinions as to how you can perform better, in addition to regular self-reflection, is good practice.


This refers to our perceived competence, rather than global confidence. Self-belief can be fragile. The world’s best performers, having achieved the pinnacle of success in their careers can suddenly, for no apparent reason, lose self-belief.

Nothing fuels self-belief more than achievements. This raises the chicken and egg question, because we are more likely to achieve when we believe we can do so. The answer is that high quality practice and preparation, focusing on the process of achieving goals, married to a resilient , optimistic mindset support self-belief.


There are several elements to being focused. There is the aspect of retaining a focus on achieving your aspirations. This is related to planning and goal-setting.  Most high performers are highly driven and focused in their approach.

Focus also refers to concentration. Whether your field is academic learning, flying a military fast-jet, serving to win Wimbledon or investing in financial markets, your ability to execute the task at hand will influence your success.

Focus is not easy to achieve – we all consider it a requirement for sportspeople yet we tend not to appreciate its application in our own lives. It is not about constantly being ‘in the zone’ at work, walking around psyched-up. Rather, it is the ability to direct our actions and thoughts such that they enable us to achieve our goals. It is also the ability to re-direct our attention accordingly when distractions arise.


I suspect you are now sitting thinking ‘is that it?’ Maybe you were expecting a revelation of the ‘secrets of excellence.’ We all love to find secrets that simply explain away complex phenomena.

Unfortunately excelling in anything is, in large part, about developing a specific set of skills. It is common sense, yet very uncommonly applied. For many reasons, most of us do not develop these abilities.

Of course, motivation, perseverance, practice and self-belief will not guarantee riches, a place at Oxbridge or an Olympic gold medal. Other factors are at play, and the role of luck is often overlooked (not least in our genetic growth profile). Regardless, cultivating specific psychological characteristics is essential if you wish to succeed in your search for excellence.