Defining 'Elite' in Sport

The term elite appears incessantly in the sporting domain. But what do we mean when we say elite? What does 'elite' mean to you? For many when the term 'elite' is used what this calls to mind is more akin to 'elitist'. The interpretation of 'elite' is often synonymous with 'exclusive', and a domain reserved for the chosen few. In this post we will dig a little deeper into these misconceptions and explore what differentiates elite from elitist. By the end of this discussion we hope to provide an outline of the hallmarks that constitute truly elite practice in sport.

The harsh (and often surprising) reality is that the individuals and the level of practice that occur in sport at elite level are not 'elite' by default. As noted in a previous post, @@simply using labels such as 'high performance' (or 'elite') does not make it so @@. The term elite must be earned. Even at the top tier of competition in professional and Olympic sport there are critical elements that differentiate the truly elite.

What distinguishes elite practice at these lofty heights may appear subtle; however in the rare cases where a truly elite culture and environment is encountered, the difference in behaviours (and outcomes) is in fact remarkable.


Firstly, and most importantly we must differentiate 'elite' from 'elitist'. Being elite does not equal being elitist. This is the single most common misconception with regards to elite practice. By extension, many of the issues with organisations and systems in sport arguably arise from confusing elite with elitist.

For instance, 'elite' does not automatically imply exclude. Elite behaviours and standards can be applied regardless of the level or group you're working with.



Elitist organisations favour the uppermost few; the 'best and brightest', as judged in accordance with the conventions of the institution. In reality most often what such systems reward are the best and most enthusiastic conformists, and marginalises and dispirits the rest.

When viewed in this way, it is easy to see how an elitist environment is contrary to promoting and developing the qualities that are required of a good coach and practitioner.

@@Compromise and conformity have no place in elite sport@@. @@Truly elite behaviours are underpinned by critical thinking and readiness to challenge@@.

In contrast to an elitist organisation, an elite team or leadership structure invites and gives credence to all voices regardless of rank. We will return to the topic of organisational structures and elite practice later in the post...


The trick is that there is no trick...
— Brendan Venter MD

Elite behaviours are not complicated. There is no trick. However, @@being elite does not afford the luxury of being comfortable@@.

The reality is that the day-to-day practice of being elite is hard and exacting work. Being elite involves constant challenge, unending questioning and unflinching evaluation. Elite practice also demands the highest standards; and holding oneself and others accountable to those standards.

Those who wish to be elite therefore must be ready to be uncomfortable. Practicing elite behaviours and upholding these standards on a daily basis may also not make you popular with colleagues and leaders (more on this later).


Whilst there is nothing complicated about elite practice, it is hard graft and very little about it can be described as 'comfortable'. It is therefore easy to see why so few people stick to this path.

On the whole, it is far easier to conform. It is much less hassle to follow along without question, and in many instances this may improve your career progression. Even with the best intentions, it is also tempting and beguilingly easy to compromise standards; the immediate consequences of doing so are often minimal, and rarely will anybody call you on it (too much hassle). Anything for an easy life.

The extra mile is never crowded
— Anon

Adopting a different strategy and following an alternative path of hard work and discomfort requires a rare and special kind of person. As we see in the next section, in some instances this may be somebody who simply recognises that they do not possess the advantages necessary for the conventional route and so must seek alternatives.


Just as necessity is the mother of invention it is also the catalyst for challenging convention in sport and exploring a different path. The absence of a viable alternative often provides the background for the convention-defying great leaps forward that periodically occur in sport.

As Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his recent book David and Goliath in many instances the individuals and teams who take these great leaps come from a position of disadvantage.

As Gladwell describes, agents of change are often underdogs who simply recognise the reality of they are faced with: their lack of advantages mean that following the conventional path will likely lead to defeat. In essence their situation is sufficiently desperate that they are prepared to entertain and pursue less comfortable alternatives.

The 'underdog as agent for change' scenario exemplifies that paradigm-shifting and groundbreaking practice in elite sport is far from the product of an elitist environment.


Returning once more to Malcolm Gladwell's writing, in the book David and Golliath Gladwell identifies that the hallmark of the entrepreneur and innovator is that they do not score high on 'agreeableness'.

An agreeable person generally seeks the approval of the group. Those who are agreeable are not inclined to offend people's sensibilities. As such, agreeable people do not often upset the apple cart, even if they do see things differently. After all doing so might risk an unfavourable reaction from peers and being ostracised from the group.

Groundbreaking practice therefore requires an individual who is not unduly troubled by such concerns. Those searching for elite levels of practice should therefore look to the maverick few who do not seek the approval of the group and are content to defy convention, even at the risk of being an outcast.


Conventional organisations favour agreeable people. Managers likewise naturally warm to unquestioning and compliant employees; after all they are so agreeable. Everybody loves a 'team player'.

There is clearly a tension here between conventions in organisations and management versus what is required to be elite. Groundbreaking and cutting edge practice demands rogue thinkers who do not score high on the agreeable scale. Conventional organisational structures, management practices and recruitment policies by their nature do not favour the very types of individual that are required for elite practice.


@@Organisations need to abandon elitism and the normal conventions of leadership and management if they are to be elite@@. Discard compromise, conformity, and take a dim view on agreeableness. Rather the culture should be built upon readiness to challenge and be challenged, willingness to resist convention and the ability to see things through a different lens.

Leaders need to recognise that challenge and even conflict are necessary precursors for elite practice. Rather than rewarding and recruiting those who parrot the right answers (elitist), @@the objective should be to seek those who ask the best questions (elite)@@.

Understanding that any team or organisation will inevitably revert to a natural state of mediocrity it will also be necessary to adopt and enforce appropriate countermeasures to prevent lapses. The pervasive forces of 'group think' and convention need to be recognised and actively challenged at every turn.

Enjoyed the read? To read more on the topic of preparing athletes for elite performance visit the Books section of the website.

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