When you think of the best of the best athletes in the world across different sports, it’s easy to imagine them having very different recipes of success. After all, modern day sports legends like Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps and Tom Brady, excel in completely different sporting disciplines. However, new sports science research reveals that there are some surprisingly consistent similarities between athletic super achievers, showing that it’s a lot more than about just sheer talent. Here we’ll reveal 7 of the top traits that help phenomenal sports stars thrive.
Truly great athletes have an almost innate ability to get into the zone when they need to. Switching on a mental state of total focus allows them to channel all their ability into competition when it matters most.
This brings superior situational awareness, and perhaps most importantly, it helps them to overcome the odds when on the brink of losing. Supreme concentration is a key factor for getting an edge over rivals. As sports psychologist Dr. Daniel Brown explained, lack of mental focus can be extremely costly.
“People get distracted very easily by things and fail to be in the moment. Life slips through their fingers because they’re too busy on games consoles or social media. To concentrate on being a champion, your mind has to be developed to such an extent that you can really stay very tuned in to what you’re doing.”
Being a perfectionist is often seen to be a flaw, but for elite athletes, an obsession to do whatever it takes to be the best is key ingredient to success. The kind of athletes that achieve sporting success beyond anything that has been achieved before, make it happen through a relentless and lifelong dedication to perfecting their training.
Manchester United’s Mick Clegg coached soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo for 5 years, overseeing his rise from an inexperienced rookie, to FIFA player of the year. In his view, it was Ronaldo’s commitment to excellence which led to his amazing success on the field.
“After every training session out on the pitch, Ronaldo did his own skill development. Running with the ball, running with the ball crossing, running with the ball shooting, and running with the ball passing. The great thing that Ronaldo realized is that to really train successfully, there must be a good percentage of your skill and speed training done with no pressure. He made sure that he first rehearsed each and every new skill on his own.”
For those who have reached the top of their game, it was often a long hard road that started out with an enduring passion to make it happen. Somehow, regardless of ups and downs, the lifelong desire never wanes and the motivation to excel becomes almost genetically ingrained.
As NFL football player and coach Vince Lombardi put it, “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.”
Super-elite athletes always have attainment goals beyond what they can currently achieve. Without a tangible vision of what success means, it’s much more difficult to know what needs to be done to get there.
Champions set the bar high and never stop aiming for it. As the infamous Michael Jordan said, “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.”
High-achieving athletes are identified as being optimistic about their own personal growth and untapped potential. This comes with an awareness of areas in which they most need to improve. Sports stars feel an inherent need to work on their deficiencies, but crucially, rather than seeing these as weakness, they are taken as golden opportunities for self-betterment.
Alongside this comes the vision to imagine success against the odds, fueled by a positive instinct of achievability and reward. Soccer god Pelé summed it up eloquently, “The more difficult the victory, the greater the happiness in winning.”
Some professionals in athletics refer to it as ‘grit’, but what it comes down to is a steely inner strength and an unshakeable faith in numero uno. A surprising bonus on the flipside, is that the greater an athlete’s confidence, the more willing they are to keep trying even when failing.
Michael Jordan was known to be an icon for his belief in learning from failure, because without failure there’s little room for evolving new abilities. According to NFL star Ronnie Lott, “If you can believe it, the mind can achieve it.”
Last but not least, the often-overlooked dimension of sporting excellence is the people behind the scenes. Sports stars build strong relationships with those around them who have their back. This can be the emotional support from friends and family, or the deep comradery from training partners or teammates. As Los Angeles Lakers veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explained, “One man can be a crucial ingredient on a team, but one man cannot make a team.”
The other more obvious relationship that stands out is a great coach. Eddie Robinson, who was an NFL coach for 56 years, knew just how important great mentorship is, “Leadership, like coaching, is fighting for the hearts and souls of men and getting them to believe in you.”
So there we have it, 7 traits that separate the best from the rest, according to the latest sports science research published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. In terms of the most influential of these traits, many experts believe that focus and concentration is the most important characteristic of super-elite athletes. As one of the researchers commented, it’s about “the quality and depth of your concentration”.
If you’d like to learn more about the mental dimension of athletics, then also check out our Expert’s Corner blog by renown sports scientist Dr. Leonard Zaichkowsky.
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