Home Books The Best: by Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore

The Best: by Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore

During a Way of Champions podcast last fall, author A. Mark Williams and host John O’Sullivan enjoyed the fact that, even as an expert, Williams willingly answers questions with the idea that “it depends.” Williams, a sports scientist, doesn’t equivocate. He understands that research, no matter how much we want to boil it down to definitive answers, often includes complexity and nuance. In writing The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made, Williams and co-author Tim Wigmore don’t map out a simple plan for how to develop great athletes, because no one plan works. Instead, they examine some of the physical and mental qualities connected to top performance before suggesting a few key ideas to keep in mind. The book’s willingness to go deep without being prescriptive makes it a rare read and a valuable resource.

Given that depth, the book necessarily contains dense bundles of information. The author partnership makes sense. Williams’ background as an academic and Wigmore’s experience as a journalist enables them to turn heady research into a consistently enjoyable read. With a mix of data and storytelling, the two writers put the research into the real world. Numbers on reaction time and visual acuity can get you so far, but understanding how related characteristics work in an actual tennis match, for example, makes the arguments much more compelling.

The storytelling does pose a challenge to some readers. The non-US focus of the book means that sports like cricket (Wigmore’s specialty) and rugby get unfamiliar levels of attention (at least for readers in this country). The authors write clearly enough that their main points will come through, even if some of the details might be unclear to non-fans. Likewise, some of the writing on baseball could use some cleaning (particularly as it pertains to batting average), but these are more demonstrations of a cultural difference rather than a shortcoming of the book.

Over the first two sections of the book, the authors look at what goes into the making of an elite athlete. Much of that mixture involves chance: timing of birth, genetic advantages, size of hometown and more all factor in. Here we start to see the authors desire to pursue nuance. Debates continue over issues related to early specialization, diversification and early engagement. Williams and Wigmore would say, “It depends,” though they do highlight the advantages of early engagement. In a conversation full of anecdotal evidence (“Tiger Woods started in utero!” “Roger Federer didn’t specialize until after he’d won three Grand Slam events!”), the authors serve us by working through the topic logically, blending research with lived-out implications.

The second section, “Inside the minds of champions,” traces mostly mental peculiarities. Some of these curiosities come from or can be developed in training, while others are more psychological. Getting inside the thoughts of athletes like quarterback Kurt Warner or pitcher Trevor Bauer makes for quality reading in itself, but as the authors couple their points with physiological or statistical evidence, the chapters become particularly compelling. Soccer fans will enjoy looking at England’s drive to overcome its bad history with penalty shootouts; tennis fans will be entertained and informed by a discussion on grunting.

The final section of the book gets the crux of what coaches and players might need, ideas for better training. These chapters explore how and athlete can overcome plateaus and “progress from good to great.” Much of it involves the particularities of training and using concepts like deliberate practice to make workouts effective. Coaches have their own role to play, of course, and the chapter on the topic presented here serves as a guide to key ideas worth pursuing in further reading. The authors then look at the future of this work, from changing analytics to new technology.

The Best doesn’t chart a path toward you or one of your players becoming an elite athlete, and it doesn’t intend to. It does set up some loose guides for the process, and offers a fully loaded platter of food for thought. The book also does something maybe equally important, and certainly more relevant to most people. It provides new ideas to consider for fans who merely watch their favorite sports, with the hope that greater knowledge can lead to at least greater enjoyment. If not an extra great athlete or two.

The book's willingness to go deep without being prescriptive makes it a rare read and a valuable resource.
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