Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 9-12

5 min read

The Pursuit of Excellence

Mar 2, 2023 8:00 PM

Excellence is a hallmark of every successful individual, business, and team. Yet, the temptation is strong to settle for mediocrity or fall prey to perfectionism rather than pursue excellence. Pursuing excellence healthily is a challenge for many, and it becomes an even more complicated topic for parents raising teens. I am convinced that pursuing excellence is an essential life skill. It is not something that is necessarily innate or comes naturally to us; it is a skill that must be cultivated intentionally over time, no matter what the goal or endeavor for which we want to be excellent. 

I believe that if we have a firm grasp of the meaning, measure, and motivation of pursuing excellence, we can better protect ourselves and our children from the pitfalls of mediocrity and perfectionism. 

The Meaning of Excellence 

Though the dictionary defines excellence using words like superior, outstanding, and greatness, I believe these words offer little in the way of establishing a functional meaning of the word in everyday life. For my own life and the student-athletes with whom I work, I define excellence using the acronym A.C.E. This acronym stands for the following...


One's attitude is a core component of the pursuit of excellence. Attitude is ultimately a matter of the heart. If one's heart is not fully "in" whatever they are pursuing, I do not believe that is truly pursuing excellence.


Pursuing excellence requires concentration and focus. These elements are matters of the mind. A lack of concentration typically leads to distraction, often resulting in errors being made in one way or another (on the field, in a specific work role, etc.). 


A third key ingredient in defining the pursuit of excellence is effort. For athletes, this is most clearly seen in how they apply their bodies to a physical task. Any endeavor that lacks whole-hearted effort will likely also lack excellence.

The following scenarios are common examples of how this tri-layered definition of excellence plays out in real life...

  • A young person may be a very talented athlete with obviously "natural" ability. They put forth a great deal of concentration in practices and games, and they exert a great deal of effort physically. But this player's attitude does not match their concentration and effort. They are disrespectful to coaches, exhibit disregard for team play, have negative interactions with their teammates, and do not conduct themselves in a healthy manner with opposing teams and officials. They may lead their team to a winning season or even  tournament wins, yet their apparent lack of a healthy attitude cripples them from a true pursuit of excellence. 
  • Another young person may be a bright student, gifted in academics and possessing a natural ability to learn, retain information, and perform well in school. They are engaged in class time (concentration) and have positive rapport with teachers and peers (attitude), but they do little to no work outside of the classroom. They spend a minimal amount of time studying and completing assignments with as little effort as possible. Their natural ability may earn them As in most cases, but they are not necessarily pursuing excellence. 

These scenarios point us to considering what a true or accurate measure of excellence is. 

Upper School Girl

The Measure of Excellence 

There are many ways people measure excellence: a scoreboard, a test score, a job title, a salary, or recognition by others. These measures of excellence fall short in that performance is the key indicator of success. A team may dominate in a game, but that does not mean they prepared and played with excellence. A student may maintain a 4.0 GPA, but that does not necessarily mean that they demonstrate excellence in their study habits, willingness to challenge themselves, etc. 

Measuring the pursuit of excellence is a subjective endeavor, not an objective one. Neither a scoreboard nor a salary are measures of attitude, concentration, and effort. Ultimately, these three components of excellence are highly individual.

One of the most famous athletic coaches of all time, John Wooden, spent many years contemplating and studying success (which I believe is in many ways synonymous with excellence). He is credited with the words, "Success is peace of mind obtained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable." Rather than measuring excellence by performance or accomplishment, we can measure it according to the peace of mind we have knowing that we have put forth our best attitude, concentration, and effort. 

The Motivation for Excellence 

How we define and measure the pursuit of excellence is directly connected to our motivation. I have witnessed and experienced the motivation to please coaches, win championships, make money, or achieve celebrity status. For teens, some of the biggest motivators for many are pleasing parents, satisfying parents' expectations, or avoiding punishment from parents as a result of failure in some capacity. Because these are all extrinsic motivators, they will ultimately fail to be a powerful enough driving force. 

It is my conviction that the healthiest motivation stems from a desire to please God. The words of Colossians 3:17 come to mind as we consider a Christ-centered reason to pursue excellence, "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." 

Protecting Relationship

No conversation about how parents can healthily challenge their teens to pursue excellence would be complete without talking about the need for balance and encouragement. It is so easy to focus on our teens' shortcomings or air our frustrations with them. We may not even realize how deeply impactful our communications--verbal or non-verbal--are to them. Proactively seeking ways to build up our kids can have a profound effect on them. Encouragement is essential for protecting our relationships with our teens.

[Editor's Note: This blog post is adapted from a podcast episode with Coach Jeff Hartings on Navigating Your Child's Education, a podcast for parents. To hear more on that topic, check out the full episode.]

Jeff Hartings
Written by Jeff Hartings

Jeff was an All-American football player at Penn State. He was later a first-round draft pick for the National Football League's Detroit Lions in 1996. In his eleven-year NFL career, he also played for the Pittsburgh Steelers with whom he won a Super Bowl championship and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection. He currently serves as the head coach for Worthington Christian School's football team. He and his wife Rebecca have eight children.