The Best | A. Mark Williams

Summary of: The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made
By: A. Mark Williams


In the masterfully written book ‘The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made’, author A. Mark Williams sheds light on the factors contributing to the making of exceptional athletes. Williams examines topics such as the influence of birth order, geographical upbringing, and early specialization versus diversification, while also exploring the impact of culture and tradition on a country’s sports scene. This fascinating summary will present key insights into what goes into developing an athlete’s potential and achieving the title of ‘elite’. Prepare to delve into the world of sports, where passion, motivation, and relentless drive are crucial ingredients for success.

The Advantage of Being a Younger Sibling in Sports

Younger siblings have a natural edge in sports due to their older siblings’ influence and parental leniency. Richard Williams predicted that Serena Williams would become a more accomplished tennis professional than Venus. The 2019 US women’s soccer champions and England’s 2017 Women’s World Cup cricket squad had older siblings who played sports. Older siblings aid in socialization and teach rules and skills. Younger siblings are often allowed to engage in higher-risk activities at a younger age, creating opportunities for early skill development. Pro tennis players Andy and Jamie Murray’s competitive relationship encouraged Andy’s toughness as a tennis professional. Ada Hegerberg, the 2018 Ballon d’Or Féminin winner, attributes her success to her older brother’s and sister’s influence. The advantage of being a younger sibling in sports is the indirect benefits they receive from their older siblings and parents, which help them excel in athletics.

The Impact of Environment on Athletes

The Millfield School in Somerset, England, has produced a Summer Olympics athlete and offers 27 sports, flexible training, and coach consultations for personalized goals. Living in smaller towns with more access to facilities and coaching increases the chance of becoming a professional athlete. The culture and tradition of a country also impacts the level of engagement in sports, as seen in Norway’s skiing success due to their outdoor lifestyle.

The environment plays a significant role in an athlete’s success, and the Millfield School proves to be a prime example of this. Established in 1956, at least one athlete from the Millfield School in Somerset, England, has competed in every Summer Olympics since then, including eight former students in the 2016 games. The school offers 27 sports, exceptional facilities, and 44 full-time coaches. Most students live on-campus, enabling flexible training schedules from 7 am to 9 pm.

A unique approach to personalizing a student’s sports journey is the school’s consultation service with the athletic director. Students can discuss personalized, strategic, and achievable goals to help them reach their desired level of success. Millfield School emphasizes the importance of taking personal ownership of one’s sport, especially in situations where students must balance academics with sporting activities. Moreover, the school manages every student’s schedules to ensure a rest day every week.

Location and upbringing also play a significant role in an athlete’s success. Smaller, rural environments provide more access to sports facilities, coaching, and competition, which results in greater opportunities for children to develop their talents. For instance, a boy’s chances of becoming a professional athlete increase by approximately 15 times if he comes from a town with a population of 50,000 to 99,000. In contrast, only one percent of Americans reside in such small towns. Smaller towns also promote a culture of informal play, providing the best balance of facilities, coaching, and competition to nurture an athlete’s skills.

Youth athletes residing in larger cities face several discouraging challenges, including difficulty in finding coaches and teams to start their careers, especially if they weren’t childhood standouts. Playing time becomes an issue, leading to a lack of attention and discouragement for later developers. Comparatively, children in smaller towns continue to receive the attention they need, supporting those who develop later. For instance, youth hockey players from Canadian cities with populations over half a million leave the sport at nearly three times the rate of players from smaller locales. Similarly, Canadian swimmers from larger cities are five times more likely to quit within two years than those from smaller cities.

Culture and tradition impact how a country’s citizens engage in sports. Norwegians have a rich skiing heritage, with roughly 1,100 ski clubs staying open due to the country’s cold climate and abundant snow. Norway has won several Winter Olympics medals, surpassing countries with larger populations. Norwegians love outdoor sports and engage in sports like skiing from an early age. Ragnhild Haga, a Norwegian Olympic gold medalist, started skiing on children’s skis as a 13-month-old and recalls skiing around the woods with her family on Sundays. Living on a farm with limited entertainment options, Haga and her siblings often played outdoors, sometimes skiing to school in the winters.

In conclusion, the environment plays a significant role in an athlete’s success from facilities, coaching, competition, culture, tradition, location, and upbringing. The Millfield School offers exceptional facilities, coaching, and training, while smaller towns provide greater access to facilities and coaching, leading to a higher chance of becoming a professional athlete. The culture and tradition of a country also determine its citizen’s involvement in sports activities, as seen in Norway’s skiing success.

The Debate over Early Sports Specialization

This book summary highlights the debate on whether early specialization in sports is essential for athletic success or not. It presents various athletes’ experiences and explores the benefits and drawbacks of specialization. The author acknowledges that early specialization may not be necessary for everyone and that playing multiple sports can have advantages. With examples of tennis star Pete Sampras and rugby star Mark Cueto, this book summary encourages its readers to understand that the right time to specialize in sports varies from person to person.

Talent Identification in Athletics

Talent identification is a challenging and uncertain process, and success in sport depends on a combination of factors beyond innate ability.

Talent identification is a complex process that has been the subject of extensive analysis. The case of Freddy Adu, a teenage soccer player who was touted as the next Pele but ultimately failed to meet expectations, highlights the inherent uncertainties involved. Counterintuitive as it may seem, factors such as grit, mental toughness, and motivation are often just as crucial to success as raw ability. In fact, even successful professional athletes often had unpromising beginnings. Tom Brady, for example, was selected only in the 199th spot in the NFL draft. Ultimately, predicting greatness is a hazardous enterprise.

The lesson for athletes and coaches alike is clear: talent alone is not enough. Success on the field depends on an array of factors, including psychological, physical, technical, and tactical attributes. While identifying talent remains an important task, it cannot be the sole focus. Indeed, it is only by taking a more holistic approach to athletic development that individuals and teams can hope to achieve sustained success.

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