The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made by A. Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore, 2020

The Gist

This is an excellent book for anyone working in, or with an interest in, elite sport.

It asks and answers the fundamental questions around elite performance. It’s in three well written sections. It links case studies with research evidence and does so brilliantly.

What’s Good

If you have an interest in any of these questions the book is for you –

Where do champions come from? What’s the role of chance? How big a part does family circumstance play? Is it better to have older or younger siblings? What about the environment? Is there an ideal town for an athlete to be born in? What is street spirit?

What goes through the head of an elite performer? Are they superintelligent? Do they see things differently?  Why should you always grunt when you hit a tennis serve? How is it possible they stay cool when their opponents crumble? How do you win a penalty shoot-out?

How do elite athletes prepare? Do they train harder or smarter or both? What is deliberate about deliberate practice? How impactful can coaching be? How do you define the optimal challenge point? What is discovery learning and why do they want to do away with coaches at Barcelona?


No one individualWhat sets athletes apart is not their eyes; it’s their minds. Great athletes seldom have better reaction times or vision than the rest of us – but they have better perceptual-cognitive skills. Their enhanced perceptual and cognitive skills enable them to pick up and process information in an instant and suss out what is the best course of action. A cricket ball comes at you so fast it can’t be tracked. Even the best batters need about 200 milliseconds to adjust their shots to the ball trajectory and commit to their shot 0.2 seconds before the ball reaches them. It’s all done on reading cues!

Something to Try

Slow down under pressure. Develop the quiet eye. ‘It seems that as expertise develops, a network of high efficiency and contextual processing develops in the brain.’ The quiet eye has been found in aiming tasks across a range of different sports and activities. Those who fixate their gaze on the target for longer before initiating an action tend to be more successful. More skilled surgeons employ longer quiet eye periods prior to dissections. When dissecting the laryngeal nerve, which is part of the voice box in the throat, leading surgeons had average quiet eye periods of 2.4 seconds compared with only 844 milliseconds for inexperienced surgeons.