In 2017 I set a goal to read 52 non-fiction books. I didn’t quite make it all the way (the final count was around 35), but I did read some absolute gems along the way. Below are my top six recommendations for athletes, and those who support them – coaches, parents and teachers. Improving your game isn’t just about physical training, it’s as much about developing your mindset, knowledge and understanding. Some of these books are written for those involved in sport, some have a broader audience, but all of them will help you become significantly better at what you do.
Here we go (in no particular order)…
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
Who should read it: Anyone looking to become truly elite, the absolute best in the world at what they do.
Summary: This book goes deep and if you haven’t read many books in the mindset or personal development space probably don’t start with this one. Each chapter takes a while to sink it but when it does it takes your thinking to a whole new level. Josh was a world champion in chess, and then became the world champion in Push Hands (the martial version of Tai Chi) so he knows what he is talking about. He gives the most compelling descriptions I’ve ever come across of what it takes to reach the zone, how to master skill at an unconscious level and how to chunk skills to form the basis of strategy.
Quote: ‘The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest. It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.’
Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron
Who should read it: Athletes and coaches
Summary: Ben is the coach of both the men’s and women’s CrossFit Games champions. His book is relatively short and easy to read, but still packed with insight. I’ve had a few non-CrossFit athletes read it to ensure that despite lacking knowledge of the sport the messages still come across. Ben uses stories of his athletes from the 2016 CrossFit Games to illustrate the characteristics of what makes a mentally tough athlete, and then goes into his coaching philosophy of how he develops those characteristics in his athletes.
Quote: ‘Most people think mental toughness is something we are born with – like blue eyes or freckles. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can condition our resolve for excellence or weakness, for resiliency or rigidity.’
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Who should read it: Everyone, whether you are in sport or not. This is one of my favourite books of all time.
Summary: This book focuses on the science of talent – why is it that some people are better than others at things, and why particular parts of the world produce a disproportionate number of talented individuals. There is plenty of science in the book around what happens in your brain as you learn new skills, but it’s written in a friendly and comprehensible way, illustrated with examples of ‘talent hotbeds’ around the world. The book is divided into 3 sections: Skill and how it is developed, motivation – how it is sparked and how it is maintained, and how to be a master coach of talent.
Quote: ‘Character is more like a skill, than an innate personality trait. Character can be ignited by certain signals, and honed with deep practice.’
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Who should read it: Human beings
Summary: Habits are our brain’s shortcuts. We learn what to do when a certain stimulus occurs, and the resulting action becomes so ingrained that after a while we no longer have to think about it. Habits are of course essential for survival, but it would also be beneficial to have a little more control over how our habits are formed and how to change redundant ones – this book does that. The author covers the science of habits and how to change them, and then goes into how habits manifest in organisations and society. The first section of the book is most relevant for athletes, the later sections more relevant for coaches who can substitute ‘team’ for ‘organisation’.
Quote: ‘Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.’ ~ Tom Dungy, American football coach
Relentless – From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover
Who should read it: Those absolutely committed to reaching the top
Summary: Tim Grover coached Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and a host of other athletic superstars. In direct contrast to the masses of books and people telling you to ‘find your passion’ and ‘if you love your sport that’s enough to become great’, Grover is very upfront about the work required to be the best. He doesn’t talk about fun, he goes through 13 principles of what it takes to become a ‘cooler’ – someone who controls the game from before the first whistle, and does whatever it takes to secure victory. It’s not only incredibly motivating, but paints a clear picture of what stepping up to the next level entails. Not a long read, but it’s intense.
Quote: ‘You don’t have to love the work, but you are addicted to the results.’
Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Who should read it: Coaches and athletes who want to be leaders
Summary: This book has more of a business than a sporting slant, but it’s particularly relevant for coaches and athletes because our whole relationship is based on constant feedback. The authors cover the three types of feedback – appreciation, coaching and evaluation (and why you shouldn’t mix them). They also talk at length about how to become better at seeking out and receiving feedback, how to become an expert at giving it, and how to build relationships using feedback conversations. Extremely practical with literally word-for-word scripts and questions that you can use.
Quote: ‘Feedback is not just what gets ranked; it’s what gets thanked, commented on, invited back or dropped. It can be formal or informal, direct or implicit; it can be blunt or baroque, totally obvious or so subtle you’re not sure what it is.’