The Champion Mindset: Research Reveals Key Attitudes
One of my favorite movies growing up was Rocky IV. Rocky Balboa is pitted against the huge Russian powerhouse, Ivan Drago.
Balboa is outmatched in both size and strength, and has little social support because the match is in the Soviet Union. Despite these disadvantages – and taking an immense beating in the beginning rounds – Balboa lasts round after round.
Eventually, his resilience gains him the respect of the Soviet crowd and he ends up knocking out Drago in the final rounds. I love the film because it’s not only a great underdog story, but because it highlights a truth that winning isn’t just about strength, skill, and talent.
It’s about motivation, drive, and iron will. It’s about having a champion mindset.
What Makes a Champion?
The mindset of a champion isn’t just some empty motivational concept. Athletes, coaches, and competitors know that a person’s mentality can separate elite performers from good ones.
Can you even define those mental aspects which separate the greats from their lesser competitors? Or is it something you just have or don’t?
A team of researchers – whose work was published in Frontiers in Psychology – explored what attitudes are held by elite performers and how they overcome the obstacles they face in the path to greatness.
The lead author – Dave Collins – said this about their research:
“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.”
Whether you face competition on the field, in business, or your personal life, Dave and his team give us a glimpse of what it takes to get to the next level.
The Keys to Greatness
To try and find the keys to greatness, the researchers looked at the most abundant source of competition. Sports.
They interviewed athletes in rowing, skiing, combat sports, and and soccer to tease out any differences in mentality among different levels of competition.
This included gathering information about their career trajectory, setbacks such as injuries, perceived obstacles and and the reactions to those obstacles. They also took a look at the athletes’ commitment to their sport, as well as how they interacted with coaches and family.
What did their research reveal?
The first interesting trend they noticed dealt with the challenges that athletes faced. Surprisingly, most athletes faced the same number and types of challenges as others. The top athletes faced the same levels of adversity and setbacks as others. The road to the top was never easy, and not without adversity and obstacles.
So while challenge is a necessary component of reaching a high level of ability, it’s not the challenges themselves that determine who becomes great and who doesn’t.
Instead, the scientists found there were some basic attitudes that made a champion.
1.High Intrinsic Drive
You won’t be surprised to hear that top performers had an unwavering commitment to their sport. This is something we all suspect to be true, but how does that translate into a person’s behavior?
Top athletes were driven by an intrinsic need to perform. They weren’t motivated by extrinsic motivators such as fame, awards, or glory.
It didn’t matter whether they are already winning trophies or scoring the most points in their league. There was always room for improvement and tougher goals to be set. All for the sake of improving their performance.
No matter how many points they put up, how fast or far they ran, or how well they played, the elite were never satisfied. They could always make themselves stronger, run a few milliseconds faster, or perform a bit better.
They also used self-reflection to identify ways to improve and learn from their mistakes made in training or on the field.
In short, the best athletes would continue to push themselves, while lesser athletes might avoid more challenging exercises or regimes.
3.Reaction to Obstacles
The final attitude held by top performers was how they viewed and dealt with setbacks and obstacles. For those at the top of their game, they approached such adversity with enthusiasm and determination to overcome the obstacle.
It was things like injury or poor performance that would surprise and discourage poorer performers. High achievers were determined to come back from the injury stronger than before.
How Do You Approach Challenge?
When seeking to become proficient in anything, whether it be learning a language, an expert in your professional field, or a world class athlete, you can expect challenges.
How you approach and reaction to challenges in your pursuit of excellence will largely determine if you make it to the top. The researchers write:
“Super champions were characterized by an almost fanatical reaction to challenge, both proactively and in reaction to mishaps (i.e., trauma) which typically occurred due to injury or sport related setbacks such as non-selection/being dropped.”
This is what creates the separation between different levels of success. The researchers hint that while the elite performers all face challenges on the path to greatness, challenge alone isn’t enough. It’s how they view those challenges.
Coaching a Champion
Coaches want to know how they can get the most out of their athletes. And many mentors want to see their proteges grow into skillful business people and adults.
What is the best way to show them the way to greatness?
It seems the best way would be able to give them room and autonomy to figure out how to deal with obstacles themselves.
Much like helicopter parenting, the researchers found coaches who constantly issue instructions and micromanage, hurt athletes intrinsic drive later down the road.
Blossoming competitors learn the skills and resilience that facing adversity will inevitably teach them. Trying to hold their hand every step of the way or stroking their ego too much could rob them of the grittiness they need to reach the top.
We’ve seen footage of coaches motivating players, commercials portraying dedicated athletes training for months, and movies that show us the strength of the human spirit. We don’t just compete on the field, we do it in many areas in our life.
While talent and ability play a role, it will only get you so far. Don’t let that be an excuse, though. People often underestimate their own potential as well as that of other people.
It’s much easier to underestimate mental abilities and skills than physical ones. Skills like creativity, work ethic, leadership, negotiation, and problem solving abilities are extremely important in our professional lives, but much harder to measure.
We may not all be athletes, but the champion mindset can teach us all how to reach for a higher level of achievement. It’s not the challenges you face, but the attitude you bring to the challege.
The researchers leave us with this last thought:
“In summary, we feel that the differences between different levels of adult achievement relate more to what performers bring to the challenges than what they experience.”