Great athletes inspire. Kids make them their idols and dream of one day emulating them while adults thrill at the sight of watching the very best. Lesser athletes, through lack of ability may never become as good as the champions, but they strive to improve themselves copying their behaviours or what they know of them.

There is a group often overlooked however. Only a certain volume can make it to the elite, but there is a wide layer hovering below the line that are almost as talented (sometimes even more so) that we never hear of. These, we know generally as the “nearly men” – The ones equally talented growing up but fail to reach their potential and end up in the lower leagues.

So what is it about those that make it as opposed to those that don’t just quite get there?

The difference between the greats and the nearly men appears to be how each group responds to adversity. The greats rise to the challenge with a “never give up” attitude while the “nearly men” lose motivation and go backwards.

A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology examined the differences between athletes who overcame adversity and went on to become world-class (what they call “super champions”) and those “nearly men” who struggled in the face of adversity (named “almost champions”).  Whereas super champions were playing in the top leagues and/or competing on national teams, “almost champions” had achieved well at the youth level but were playing in lower leagues as adults.

The researchers (Collins, McNamara & McCarthy) found that “super champions” were characterized by an almost fanatical reaction to challenge”. Super champions viewed adversity and challenges in a positive light and thrived on it. They saw them as opportunities to grow — and overcame them thanks to a “never satisfied” attitude. This is in stark contrast to “almost champions”, who looked to find blame for their misfortune while mostly becoming negative and de-motivated. Interestingly, while athletes in each group faced comparable challenges, the researchers suggest their responses — “what the athletes brought to the challenges” — were quite different.

Such responses are likely to be the product of personal histories, histories that turned out to be similar amongst athletes in the same group but patently different between groups. By examining these differences, we can learn how to cultivate unwavering effort — a “never satisfied attitude” that gains strength from failure — in ourselves and in others.

Follow your interests. Super champions showed great interest in their respective sports from a young age. They reported to not just enjoy competition, but also practice and training. Interestingly, super champions were late to specialise in their chosen sport and sampled multiple sports at a young age. Incidently, a paper published in the journal Pediatrics recently supports this notion, suggesting that later specialization is best for health and development while other studies show early specialization doesn’t work in athlete development as it may restrict development of movement vocabulary.

Almost champions also loved the thrill of competition, but reported to having an aversion toward training and often felt forced to pursue their respective sport. One “almost champion” put it: “I loved fighting, but the training was just a chore. I would miss it if I could, and always avoided the bits I was shit at.”

The best goal is simple: Get better. Super champions were driven intrinsically. Their main concern was self-improvement and held themselves to high standards. Many reported to judge themselves against previous versions of themselves and not against others. In other words they had a better chance of “controlling the controllables”.

Almost champions were different. Many were focused on external reward; benchmarks like rankings or how they compared to rivals. They were influenced by parameters they could not control, a mind-set the researchers speculate explains why almost champions got discouraged during times of adversity.

What type of parent are you?

“My parents were not really pushy,” explained one super champion, whose response was representative of her peers. “It was a kind of gentle encouragement …they didn’t get [overly] involved. They’d just come and watch me, support me. But they never wanted to know what I was doing training wise and never got involved in that way, and that helped.”

The parents of almost champions, however, were an ever-present factor, hovering over their every move. “My parents, my dad especially, was always there, shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home,” remembers an almost champion. “Really, I just wanted to be out there with my mates. I felt like sport stole my childhood.”

This correlates closely with Self Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan) who suggest that the more one is pushed in a certain direction, the greater the resistance. Just be a parent and let them play. Do not try to relive your sporting life through your child.

Empower your athlete. Researchers reported that coaches of super champions empowered their athletes and “mostly seemed to take a longer-term perspective”.  This differs greatly from the experience of almost champions, whose coaches were more focused on immediate results and success or lack thereof was determined by the result and not the development of the athlete. As a result, almost champions remembered changing coaches frequently whereas super champions maintained longer-term relationships.

An esteemed martial artist I know often uses the phrase to his students  “attitude x aptitude = altitude.” It’s true that not everyone can be a world-class performer but effort DOES count. In fact the psychologist Angela Duckworth, who rose to fame for her pioneering research on “grit,” argues that effort actually counts twice: Talent times effort equals skill, she says, and skill times effort equals achievement.

However, our inherited human characteristics still matter; and in a paradoxical twist, our willingness to exert persistent effort may be at least partially genetic. Some are born with lower sensitivity to the feel-good neuro-chemical dopamine, widely known to be connected with desire. Dopamine isn’t released when we achieve a goal, but rather, when we are pursuing one. It follows that the more dopamine we need to feel satiated, the more likely we are to remain eternally hungry.

Dopamine may be a factor, but it’s one of many and only useful if harnessed and pointed in the right direction, as super champions are able to do.

World-class performers, then, don’t rely on either nature or nurture, but on a combination of the two — and they are really good at nurturing their nature. All of which suggests the recipe that gives rise to super champions is worth emulating: Individuals who demonstrate persistent effort, follow their interests, practice foremost to get better, not to outdo others; derive satisfaction from within; and feel constantly supported, but not pressured, in their journey toward achievement. If these criteria are in place, experiencing failure doesn’t weaken motivation — it bolsters it. In the words of Dr. Michael Joyner, an expert on human performance at the Mayo Clinic, “With enough persistent effort, most people can get pretty good at anything.”

Adapted from Brad Stulberg article


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Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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