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Unexpected Lessons on Greatness From Super-Champion Athletes

Super-champion athletes share the commonality of a "rocky road" to greatness.

Source: Esther Lim/Wikimedia Commons

There's an ongoing debate among coaches about how best to nurture young athletic talent... Is it better to coddle and smooth the road for potential superstar athletes by pampering them like thoroughbreds; or to take a more hands-off approach that fosters self-reliance by allowing the young athlete to learn through trial and error as he or she navigates potential obstacles on the “rocky road” to becoming a champion?

A new study reports that learning how-to navigate the “rocky road”—which is often riddled with small doses of “trauma” both on and off the court—was a key part of shaping the attitude, mindset, and gestalt of athletic superstars. In fact, the researchers found that the number one commonality among athletes who achieve greatness was that they had a rocky road on their ascent to the top.

The April 2016 study, “Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road,” was published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

For this study, Dave Collins and his colleagues in the UK set out to distinguish various characteristics that separated the best of the best (super champions), the good (champions), and those who didn't quite make the cut (almosts). The researchers are interested in pinpointing the skills required to successfully navigate the often “challenge-filled” pathway to optimizing someone's human potential. 

Learning to handle adversity and setbacks gave the superstar athletes the skill set to cope with obstacles and disappointments without unraveling. The later group of "almost champions” might be heard uttering the famous Marlon Brando line, “I coulda been a contender...” So, what can we do to help young people avoid this pitfall? It turns out that when it comes to grooming a champion, less is more—taking a hands off approach appears to be infinitely better than micromanaging or helicoptering a young athlete.

In fact, coping with adversity with a level of autonomy ultimately made young athletes more self-reliant and resilient. Across the board, ‘super champs’ learned to view setbacks as opportunities for growth, and not as roadblocks. Super champions in this study were also characterized by an almost fanatical reaction to challenge. They tended to be both proactive and looked for positive meaning in response to "bumps" in the road with a "bring it on!" mentality.

The attitudes and explanatory style used to cope with adversity by athletes of all ages holds insights for achieving greatness in both sport and life. As a parent, coach, and retired world-class athlete, the latest research is music to my ears on a variety of levels. First and foremost, it seems the current zeitgeist is for teachers, parents, and coaches to try and make every kid feel like a ‘winner’ and to issue ‘trigger warnings’ to shelter young people from anything gritty. Like many other experts in the field, I believe that we are undermining our children’s resilience and adaptability to adversity by coddling them.

Developing a skill set to handle unexpected obstacles and setbacks with grace, self-reflection, and unwavering determination takes practice and real-world life experience. Along these lines, the latest research shows that traveling a rocky road is actually an essential part of developing the skills required to become a super champion. 

The UK researchers conducted extensive interviews with athletes from a wide range of disciplines including: soccer, rowing, skiing, and combat sports. For each participant, the researchers collected information about career trajectory, perceived challenges, and how each participant reacted to setbacks and obstacles. The interviewing process also explored study participants' level of commitment to his or her sport as well as interpersonal dynamics with coaches, peers, rivals, and families.

"Helicopter" Parenting and Coaching Can Backfire

In their ascent to greatness, the path of super champions was often filled with more adversity and setbacks than their less-successful peers encountered. On the flip side, the young athletes who didn’t achieve greatness tended to have an ‘easy ride’ in terms of having a parent or coach holding his or her hand throughout the entire process ... making the journey more like a chaperoned field trip than a potentially heroic adventure.

In fact, for the 'almost champion' category, parents and coaches often played a big (sometimes perceived as overbearing) role in young athlete's pursuits. Unfortunately, having an adult figure constantly “driving the bus” resulted in floundering when the athletes had to eventually fly solo. Most of the coddled athletes didn’t have the skills to be self-reliant by the time they reached college. For example, two almost achievers in the study described this conundrum by saying,

“My parents, Dad especially was always there… shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home. Really, I just wanted to be out with my mates, even though we would still be kicking a ball around. I felt like [sport] stole my childhood.”

Another almost achiever in the study said, “It was a real feeling of release to get away from [Coach/Father] and go to University. But once there, I seemed to lose my way. No-one telling me what to do… I just lost interest.”

Over a decade ago, Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today editor at large, wrote a prophetic article, “A Nation of Wimps: Parental Hyperconcern May Be Why Kids Can’t Cope,” which forecast many of the findings of the study released this week on the value of the rocky road while growing up. One of the key findings in the latest study is that overbearing “helicopter” parents and coaches inadvertently sabotage the chances of a young athlete becoming a super champion.

Intrinsic Rewards, Introspection, and Imagination

The researchers also identified clear differences in how super champions, champions, and almosts thought about their sport—as well as how they perceived progress and administered self-reward. For example, the super champs seemed intrinsically driven. Self-reflection and imagination were a key part of identifying ways to learn and improve from mistakes or setbacks. The following quotations from the study typify how they mastered this skill set:

"I was a thinker after a game, or a competition. So I could analyze, I was good at analyzing myself. Both when I won and when I lost, I would think ... I  have had an inside commentator all my life. I could see myself doing things before I went to sleep… I would see myself scoring a goal. I daydreamed a lot, but always in situations where I succeeded. I lifted a lot of World Cup trophies in my imagination! 

After every event and training session, every [participant’s emphasis], I would complete my diary, highlighting areas for development and setting goals. Man was I anal! But I had to do it or I was pissed with myself all day."

I know from my own life experience as a Guinness World Record holder that the real-world journey of every young athlete follows a nonlinear, uniquely personal, and dynamic trajectory. That said, the empirical findings from this study corroborate much of what I've learned about becoming a super champion over the years. As I've written about extensively in the past, my own childhood was a very rocky road . . . and my parents took a very hands-off approach. Although it was difficult at the time, ultimately, I'm extremely grateful for the adversity, bullying, and periods of feeling like an outcast that I lived through during my adolescence

Lastly, the results of the latest study show that elite performers have an intrinsic and internal drive and commitment to their sports that their "almost" great colleagues were lacking. In a statement, Professor Dave Collins, lead author of the study, as well as Chair and Director of the Institute of Coaching and Performance at the University of Central Lancashire, said,

“From our research, we're assembling a set of rules to guide what a coach should be doing and what skills an athlete should end up with. Furthermore, these characteristics hold true for other fields as well, from sports to music to any environment. We've found that there are universal psychological characteristics amongst those who are aspiring to get to the top. We have a good idea of what makes people excellent and how we can help them reach peak performance."

Super champions approached training with a "never satisfied" attitude, whereas "almosts" might avoid challenging training exercises. Following an injury or a failure to perform, the super champions were determined to get back to their sports, and to come back stronger than ever. Low achievers, on the other hand, often expressed dismay that they had failed, or would take on a victim mindset. The almosts often described how they lost enthusiasm after such incidents and that setbacks took the wind out of their sails.

More than the challenges themselves, the differences came down to how the athletes reacted to these obstacles and the champions' positive, "learn from it" attitudes.The latest research on achieving greatness in sports offers many clues for achieving greatness in many aspects of life. 

Conclusion: "Greatness" Is All About Pouring Your Heart Into Something You Love

Athletics is one of the few frontiers where it seems possible to teach children and young adults how to cope with the rocky road and hard knocks of life in a relatively controlled environment. I strongly believe that the lessons and skills you learn through the daily athletic process become an integral part of evolving into a resourceful and resilient human being with the ability to maximize your potential and to succeed in a dog-eat-dog world.

For the record, I consider "greatness" to be the intrinsic measurements of optimizing your full potential while doing something that you love to do. You don't need to be standing on top of Mt. Everest, breaking world records, or playing in the Super Bowl to qualify as being "great." In my opinion, greatness is all relative. Along those lines, the timeless wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt from over a century ago about passion and courage holds true today. In his speech, "The Duties of a Great Nation," Roosevelt said,

“Greatness means strife for nation and man alike. A soft, easy life is not worth living, if it impairs the fibre of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage... We are face to face with our destiny and we must meet it with a high and resolute courage. For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”

One reason I’m so vehement about aerobic exercise and sports—especially in a sanitized digital age with an epidemic of sedentarism—is that breaking a sweat and training for athletic competitions will always be a way to fortify grit and resilience. Through sports you learn how to achieve goals ... to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back in the saddle time and time again, even after never-ending setbacks. 

Of course, it’s always going to be a thin line between sabotaging a child’s odds of success by creating unnecessary adversity on one extreme; or pampering him or her to the point of making them spineless, neurotic, wimps without the chutzpah to take the bull by the horns and seize the day, on the other end of the spectrum. 

Hopefully, this type of research will help parents and coaches better identify how to fine-tune a personalized sweet spot between neglecting or overprotecting each individual child. Athletics will always be a wonderful arena to teach young people the skill set needed to navigate and cope with all the bumps along the rocky road to fulfilling your dreams in ways that come in handy throughout your lifespan. 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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