Great athletes are fascinating. And though your natural abilities (or lack thereof) may prevent you from becoming as good as the champs, you can improve yourself by emulating their behavior.
And yet there’s an overlooked group that is worth your attention, too, if for a very different reason: the almost greats, those who were once good enough to play with the best of the best, but ended up in second-rate leagues.
The difference between the greats and the almost-greats (which, by the way, applies well beyond sports) also appears to be at least partially driven by one specific thing — how each group responds to adversity. The greats rise to the challenge and put in persistent effort; the almost-greats lose steam and regress.
For a study from 'Frontiers in Psychology' , talent development researchers studied two groups :
Super champions were characterized by an "almost fanatical reaction to challenge.” They viewed challenges in a positive light — as opportunities to grow — and overcame them with a “never satisfied” attitude
This runs in contrast to almost champions, who blamed setbacks on external causes, became negative, and lost motivation.
These responses, of course, are the product of personal histories, histories that turned out to be similar amongst athletes in the same group but patently different between groups. The point is to inculcate a “never satisfied attitude” that gains strength from failure.
Super champions showed great interest in their sport, liked practicing, training and competing. They did not specialize in a single sport during their early childhood.
Almost champions also loved the thrill of competition, but they remembered having an aversion toward practice and at times felt forced to pursue their respective sport. As one almost champion put it: “I loved fighting, but the training was just a chore. I would miss it if I could, and always avoided the bits I was shit at.”
Super champions were driven from within. Their primary concern was self-improvement. They held themselves to high standards, but judged themselves against prior versions of themselves, not against others.
Almost champions, however, were focused on external benchmarks, like national rankings or how they compared to rivals, a mind-set the researchers speculate explains why almost champions got discouraged during rough patches.
It’s true that not everyone can be a world-class performer. Our inherited traits still matter, and even our willingness to exert persistent effort may be at least partially genetic. Some of us are born with lower sensitivity to the feel-good neurochemical dopamine, which is widely known to underpin desire.
Dopamine isn’t released when we achieve a goal, but rather, when we are pursuing one. It follows that the more dopamine we need to feel satiated, the more likely we are to remain eternally hungry.
Talent times effort equals skill, she says, and skill times effort equals achievement.
With enough persistent effort, most people can get pretty good at anything.
If these criteria are in place, experiencing failure doesn’t weaken motivation — it bolsters it.
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