Developing the elite athlete: It’s all about attitude.

Whether an athlete is born or made, there is one aspect that will always outweigh any natural ability; their work ethic. How they approach their own development through training will help them remove weaknesses and maximise their strengths. Whilst working with any promising young athlete, what often stands out is their approach to training and competition.

In the documentary Muse, the late Kobe Bryant talks about using the first few minutes of a competitive game to feel out his body, working out what exactly is working well, and what isn’t. Can he move a full pace, is a sore ankle limiting movement in a certain direction? Based on his early analysis, he would then develop his strategy for the game ahead whilst playing. Taking the time to find any competitive edge-and then exploiting that edge for all they can; be it size, speed, endurance or skill.

There can often be an atmosphere of enjoyment in training, they enjoy being there-and want to be there. The flipside of this is that they therefore don’t miss training, as this is their priority. However, when things get more serious, the competitive nature moves up a gear and a take-no-prisoners approach will often appear. To me, this just shows that they take the whole process seriously, much like any other profession. This usually manifests in multiple layers of psychological intensity, which is dialled up as much as required. Ideally, they will learn to control this level of arousal so that it doesn’t spill over into confrontation in contact situations, or a lack of competitive spirit in lesser practise sessions or against opponents viewed as weaker in competitions. This competitive spirit helps prepare them for another aspect of training, in that it can be highly repetitive in nature. The development of an elite athlete requires thousands of hours of skill practise, which when looked at in isolation can become tedious. With the right attitude however, the athlete will focus on improvement and competition, setting targets and accomplishing them. Then setting a new target.

No athlete will succeed at each level without tasting defeat at some point, and how they respond to the lows will have a great impact over the course of a career. It has been said that true champions are not defeated by a loss, but rather they are inspired by it. It gives them a purpose in their practise, something that they cannot wait to avenge. Looking at this aspect from a growth versus fixed mind-set, the most successful athletes that I have worked with are always in the growth mind-set group. Whatever happens, they believe that they can overcome that problem, and are not discouraged by it in the long-term. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t left crushed in the short term if they lose an important competition or under-perform in some aspect. They must learn to bounce back and reframe the situation as an opportunity to improve.

The best young athletes I’ve worked with welcome critical feedback over praise. They obsess over what they need to work on to improve. A need for constant progression essentially requires targets to aim for, and critical feedback is simply structured advice on what to work on next. A growth mind-set is essential for this process, as the athlete must believe that they can reach the next goal.

They also love competition, not just from a sporting perspective but usually in any environment. They want to know who ran the fastest sprint, the highest jump, the most number of repetitions completed on certain exercises. It is a mind-set of constant and never-ending improvement.

Due to the lengthy learning process, the athlete needs to trust their coach. They are looking to them for guidance and mentorship, and ideally this must be somewhat unfiltered. The more barriers they place between their own beliefs and that of their coach, then the more resistance they will have to any input. When trust is high, then these barriers are not as strong, and information is taken in more freely. They accept that the coach has their best interests at heart, and that their goals are aligned. This element is key to the relationship working, as it is a process achieved over time and with a great deal of information passed between the two. When any trust issues arise that cannot be worked through, then it is likely time for a new coach.  

Younger athletes that excel will usually carry themselves well, and have a maturity beyond their years. They are highly independent; asking the right questions, retaining the relevant information regarding training times/locations and competition dates. Essentially, they demonstrate that they are the driving force and not their parents/coach/teachers, and that it is up to others to help place them in the correct environment to facilitate the right progression at any given time.

Often the younger athletes have a level of self-awareness beyond their years, and demonstrate humility around their peers. They are predominantly focussed on what they are doing, not what others are. They become immersed in the task at hand with a concentration that does not allow any time to focus on what others are doing, unless it is in a competitive manner and adjustments are made accordingly (movement speed/practise intensity increased, for example). This again ties back into having trust in the process they are following, and trust in their coach. They look at the entire process with an understanding of the big picture.

This brings us to the athlete being comfortable with change. This may be a new coach, new training environment or new technique to grasp. It comes back to the point of doing what is required to progress, and occasionally that may feel like taking one step back to take two steps forward. In strength and conditioning, it can be revising a technique due to skill, injury or even physical growth. Revising a lifting or movement technique can involve stripping a movement skill right back and relearning it from the ground up. In the short-term, this can involve removing weight or movement speed, and often leaves the athlete feeling as if all their progress has been instantly wiped clean.

In conclusion, the best young athletes that I have worked with have the right attitudes to training and competition. This includes a highly competitive nature with a belief that they can grow and improve. Losing increases their motivation as they enjoy competition and they accept that they can overcome obstacles through development. This development comes from feedback through competition, and constructive criticism from their coach and surrounding team who they trust. Finally, this focus on the task in hand will show a maturity and independence to deal with what is required, and adjust things when they prove to be essential.

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