Anyone that’s serious about becoming an elite athlete has no doubt pondered at some point: “how??”
The finished product is obvious enough. Look no further than your role models demonstrating their combination of physical traits (e.g. height, speed, strength) and ability (execution of technique).
While perhaps not immediately obvious, performance is essentially the product of your mindset and preparation. Executing the necessary skills and making the correct decisions becomes much easier when you have done the work and developed the necessary habits and characteristics.
Importantly, these core physiological and psychological elements are largely within the control of the athlete. Just as athleticism, skills and decision-making can be improved, so too can your understanding of, and general approach to, your development and success.
What many emerging athletes in particular fail to appreciate – adding a source of frustration – is that the process of self-improvement and success is not linear. The journey includes highs and lows; breakthroughs and stagnations. Similarly, while anyone is capable of establishing elite-level habits and characteristics, not everyone does.
When considering the mentality of people that want to make meaningful changes to their life, I break it down into six discernable stages:
6. Lifelong pursuit
As routine, circumstances and performance changes over time, athletes will vary in their approach to training and experience a shifting mindset. However, people will generally default to a cluster of stages, which is a reflection of their broader attitude and perspective i.e. how their chosen sport plays a role in their life, and what they’re willing to sacrifice in order to improve.
Considering how you can relate to these stages can assist in identifying what you can address with regards to your mentality in order to improve and perform to your potential.
If you’re reading this, then you’re almost certainly in a position to positively influence your own development. Part of adopting a growth mindset is demonstrating an obsession for identifying your shortcomings, having the humility to accept them, and the drive to eliminate them.
There do exist athletes that achieve accolades and high levels of performers who lack cuiosity, conscientiousness, and are instead complacent over their ability. However, they’re undoubtedlty falling short of their potential, and unlikely to be truly elite.
It’s easy to come up with reasons to not put in the work. This is understandable: just as someone looking to lose weight may stray from their diet when temptations arise, athletes are not strictly always intrinsically motivated (i.e. driven by internal rewards). However, while understandable, this nonetheless presents a barrier to ultimate success.
Progressing from the ‘growth’ stage: there is a realisation, and the decision has been made to address areas for improvement. You can expect to feel:
Have clear goals in mind
Form at least a rough idea of how to achieve these goals
This is where many struggle to consistently progress. Momentum is needed to translate intent into action. Particularly if there is a significant delay between the intent and actioning on it, there are likely to be:
Varied motivation levels
Excuses that start to creep in
Inconsistent work ethic
Increased denial and complacency over previously identified weaknesses
Why is it we all experience variations in motivation, and therefore the willingness to act? One reason is that many athletes will rely heavily on external sources for motivation – known as ‘extrinsic motivation’. However, there won’t always be people to push and praise you, or tangibles like trophies and money to fuel your willingness to put in the work required. This stage is about:
Building good habits
Reinforcing and validating the work put in
Aligning actions with core values
Recognising these are controlable decisions
Accepting the opportunity-cost of these decisions
Success or improvement is not garunteed, but each athlete has an incredible level of control over their own journey. The emphasis is on the genuine commitment and focus on the process that will bring about sustained success, rather than immediate results or rewards.
I’ve heard some coaches refer to this as “winning the workout” i.e. competing with yourself to break through self-perceived limitations, and doing so every workout. Characteristics include:
Highly disciplined, despite a variance in motivation
Intense, sustained work ethic
Highly conscious of core values
Deliberate and purposeful; planning to maximise time and energy; in-line with core values
Setting and adhering to self-imposed standards
An internal locus of control
6. Lifelong pursuit
Being successful at elite levels is reserved for the few that put in the immense amount of work and make the necessary sacrifices. You might have noticed a trend throughout the previous stages an increasing nesseccity for self-discipline to combat adversity and varying levels of extrinsic motivation. Holding yourself to account for the decisions you make is important.
For this reason, it’s much easier to reconcile the decisions you make with yourself if they fundamentally align with what you value in life and your sport.
Life is made up of a near-infinite number of decisions, and personal circumstances are always changing – for better or for worse. Consequently, what you value in life is a fluid process too. Evaluating what matters to you, how hard you’re willing to work, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice is therefore a lifelong pursuit.