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The Rocky Road to Greatness: “Super Champions” vs. “Almosts”

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Learning to navigate a “rocky road” – often riddled with setbacks both inside and outside the competitive arena – is the essential element in becoming among the best in the world.

A new study headed by researcher Dave Collins highlights key characteristics that separate the best of the best (“Super Champions”), the good (“Champions”), and those who didn’t quite make it (“Almosts”).

Super Champions have developed the skills to cope with obstacles and disappointments without unraveling. The researchers, from the U.K., carried out extensive interviews with athletes from a variety of sports, including soccer, skiing, rowing and combat disciplines.

Athletes who reach the very highest level are never satisfied with their performance; they are always looking for improvements and setting tougher goals. Super Champions also have total commitment and relentless internal drives that their less successful peers lack.

When faced with injuries or failures, the almost-great athletes often become despondent and lose enthusiasm. Super Champions, though, are determined to return stronger than ever.

According to the study: “Super Champions are characterized by an almost fanatical reaction to challenge, both proactively and in reaction to mishaps which typically occurr due to injury or sport related setbacks such as non-selection/being dropped.”

The most surprising finding was that the almost-great athletes suffered no more setbacks, on average, than the Super Champions or Champions. In other words: the difference wasn’t down to bad luck, but uattitude. “It is more what performers bring to the challenges than what they experienced,” the researchers wrote.

Super Champions:
– Are proactive in rising to face setbacks such as injury and non-selection
– Have received from coaches positive facilitation and gentle encouragement
– Often have siblings who play a significant role in supporting and challenging
– Have meticulous, persistent attention to detail

The big lesson for coaches who want to groom a Super Champion? Often less is more. Taking a hands-off approach appears to be considerably more effective than micromanaging or “helicoptering” a young athlete. Coping with adversity on their own ultimately makes young athletes more self-reliant and resilient.

Super Champions learn to view setbacks as opportunities for growth, and not as roadblocks. They tend to be both proactive and looked for positive meaning in response to “bumps” in the road with a “bring it on!” mentality.

Developing skills to handle unexpected obstacles and setbacks with grace, self-reflection, and unwavering determination takes practice and real-world life experience.

In their ascent to greatness, the paths of Super Champions are often filled with more adversity and setbacks than their less-successful peers encounter. Young athletes who don’t achieve greatness tend to experience an “easy ride”; having a parent or coach constantly holding their hand throughout the process, making the journey more like a chaperoned field trip than a heroic adventure.

For the “Almost” 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” often results in floundering when the athletes has to eventually compete and survive on their own.

Most of the coddled athletes didn’t have the skills to be self-reliant by the time they reached university. 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” said, “It was a real feeling of release to get away from my 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.”

The researchers also identified clear differences in how Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts think about their sport, as well as how they perceive progress and give themselves praise. For example, the Super Champions are intrinsically driven. Self-reflection and imagination are key parts of identifying ways to learn and improve from mistakes or setbacks. This quotation typifies their approach:

“I was a thinker… I was good at analyzing myself. Both when I won and when I lost… 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 – everything – 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 off at myself all day.”

Super Champions approach training with a “never satisfied” attitude, whereas “Almosts” often avoid challenging training exercises. Following an injury or a failure to perform, Super Champions are determined to come back stronger than ever. Lower achievers, on the other hand, often express dismay they have failed, or take on a victim mindset. The “Almosts” often describe how such setbacks took the wind out of their sails.

Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road, Dave Collins, Áine MacNamara and Neil McCarthy http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02009/full

Source attributions: Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today

The rocky road to greatness: “Super Champions” vs. “Almosts”; talent identification, mental toughness, ultra-elite coaching, mental fitness