What separates athletes on the professional or Olympic level from the ones who fall short boils down to more than just genetics and hard work. Historically, overcoming challenges, trials, and tribulations was thought to craft champions. But according to research published in Frontiers in Psychology, attitude could be even more important.
To test what researchers call the “talent needs trauma” perspective, 54 athletes across different sports like soccer, rowing, skiing, and combat arts were interviewed to see if life and sport challenges determine whether you'll become a high, medium, or low achiever in sport (what they call "super-champions," "champions," or "almosts.")
In order to reveal the distinguishing characteristics among the best of the best and the rest, researchers garnered information in three phases. In the first, a timeline of each athlete's career was created. In the second, researchers explored specific issues and challenges athletes have faced over the years, chronologically. In the third, researchers collected athletes' reactions to these “traumatic” motivators (i.e. a coach/significant other/family input, psychological challenges experienced, skills employed, and perceived commitment to their sport).
"We've found that there are universal psychological characteristics amongst those who are aspiring to get to the top," lead author of the study Dave Collins said in a press release. "We have a good idea of what makes people excellent and how we can help them reach peak performance."
"Super-champions" showed a natural inclination, commitment, and internal drive to do their sports that "almost" athletes lacked. According to the researchers, the elites looked at training with a "never satisfied" attitude, whereas "almosts" had a greater tendency to avoid challenging training sessions. After an injury or a botched performance, high-performers were determined to get back to their sports, better and stronger than ever, whereas low achievers expressed surprise at their failures, losing enthusiasm as a result.
Despite the variation in attitude, there was surprisingly little difference in the nature or number of athletic and personal challenges themselves. The researchers say all the athletes had roughly comparable "traumatic" incidents during their careers; the defining differences came down to how the athletes reacted to them.
"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," says Collins. "Furthermore, these characteristics hold true for other fields as well, from sports to music to any environment."
Bottom line: Hurdles and hiccups are essential and inevitable on the path to success. But challenges alone don't create a champion. Positive learn-from-it attitudes do. So, if you want your glory days to expand beyond the peak of college, or you're a coach or parent with a superstar hopeful, know that dropping the 'tude and staying motivated to do better and be better are what distinguishes champions from the rest.