Some incredible athletes are just born with unsurpassed talent. But many more have to will themselves to greatness. As a sports psychologist, I’ve observed, studied, critiqued and coached athletes my entire life. And while they almost always have a drive to succeed, the best of the best share the following three characteristics.
Everybody likes being “good” at something, but truly great athletes often have an unquenchable, almost maniacal, thirst to see just how good they can become.
This passion translates into a willingness and desire for hard work. For example, the best race car driver of all time, Dale Earnhardt, once crashed and could not finish his next race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Despite the risk to his life, race officials had to remove him from his car—and he was basically crying when they did. He later said, “Nobody loves anything more than me driving a race car.” After years of success, Earnhardt eventually died in another crash on the track. He was so passionate about his sport that he was willing to die for it. (Read about the passion that drives NBA star Josh Smith.)
While you and I might enjoy a friendly competition every now and again, top-caliber athletes seem to constantly seek situations where they can test their skills. Their competitiveness stems from more than just the desire to beat others; they get a rush from testing themselves under pressure.
I often witness athletes go all-out to win games far outside of their sport—checkers, darts, even a pogo-stick competition. This mentality can make winning seem less like a thrill and more like redemption. Both Jimmy Connors and Michael Phelps once said, “I hate to lose more than I love to win.” (Read “Training Lessons From Michael Phelps.”) Men and women like these fear losing, but do not succumb to that fear. Instead, they have an inner confidence and trust in their abilities so that they can continually compete.
Sports announcers often say that certain players can change speeds. For example, Emmitt Smith holds the NFL record for career rushing yards, although few would say he was the best ball carrier of all time. He certainly wasn’t the fastest. But what he had was the ability to hit the gap hard and, when the field opened up, to come alive as he turned it downfield. He had another gear.
When opportunity presented itself, Smith knew how to make the most of it. He and other top athletes seem to muster up performances beyond their on-paper abilities, allowing them to finish stronger than the rest.