What Makes a Champion: The Psychology of Greatness

What Makes a Champion: The Psychology of Greatness

by Mark Williams, Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Recreation, The University of Utah

Monday 18th of March 4-5PM, Hillbrow G41

Many factors contribute to the development of expertise. The contribution of hereditary characteristics and the importance of practice, instruction, and the mentorship of significant others such as parents and coaches are often debated. A common or lay opinion is that elite performers are born rather than made, creating the perception that less ‘gifted’ individuals may continually strive to reach excellence without making the necessary gains needed to become experts in the domain. However, recent research in the sport and cognitive sciences has indicated that individuals achieve excellence through many hours of deliberate, purposeful practice with the specific intention of improving performance. Typically, for example, elite athletes have to devote in excess of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve excellence, regardless of sport. This commitment and continual engagement in practice is the most important determining factor on the path to excellence. Hereditary factors may also be important in helping individuals develop the necessary ‘rage to master’ (i.e., the commitment and motivation to persist in practice over many years). The proposal is that expertise develops as a result of adaptations to the unique environmental constraints imposed during practice and performance. In this presentation, an attempt is made to highlight the practice history profiles of elite performers, with a particular focus, and to illustrate through reference to recent empirical research the type of psychological adaptations that arise as a result of extended involvement in practice. A particular focus will be on the development of perceptual-cognitive skills such as anticipation and decision making in team games and racket sports. Practical implications for talent selection and development are highlighted, with attempts to illustrate the nature and type of practice activities most likely to help nurture future generations of experts.


Mark Williams is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Recreation and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Utah. His research and teaching interests focus on the psychology of expertise and the development of skill. He has published over 200 articles in peer-reviewed outlets in numerous fields including exercise and sports science, experimental psychology, neuroscience and medicine. He has written 16 books, 80 book chapters, 60 professional articles, almost 100 journal abstracts, and he has delivered almost 200 keynote and invited lectures in over 30 countries.


He is a Fellow of several prestigious societies including the British Psychological Society (BPS), the National Academy of Kinesiology, the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES), and the European College of Sports Sciences. He is a Chartered Psychologist with the BPS and is accredited by BASES to work as a skill acquisition specialist in high-performance sport.


Professor Williams has worked extensively in in high-performance sport as an applied sports scientist and as a coach educator. He has delivered courses for numerous Football Associations across the globe, including the Swedish, Irish, English, US and Welsh associations, and he has worked for several  Olympic and professional sports in the UK and the US, including UEFA, FIFA, several English Premiers League clubs as well as clubs in the NBA, NFL, and MLB.