I’m going to start of with a long series of quotes from an article in The Cut titled “What Separates Champions From ‘Almost Champions’?
It’s the perennial million-dollar question of nature versus nurture, sure. But 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 recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, talent development researchers Dave Collins, Aine MacNamara, and Neil McCarthy examined the differences between athletes who overcame adversity and went on to become world-class (what they call super champions) and those who struggled in the face of hardship (the hearthbreakingly named “almost champions”) . Whereas super champions were playing in premier leagues and/or competing on national teams (think: Olympics), almost champions had achieved well at the youth level but were playing in the less prestigious leagues as adults.
The researchers found that 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 thanks to a “never satisfied” attitude. This runs in contrast to almost champions, who blamed setbacks on external causes, became negative, and lost motivation.
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 why almost champions got discouraged during rough patches.
World-class performers, then, don’t rely on either nature or nurture, but on a combination of the two — and they are really good at nurturing their nature. All of which suggests the recipe that gives rise to super champions is worth emulating: Individuals who demonstrate persistent effort follow their interests; practice foremost to get better, not to outdo others; derive satisfaction from within; and feel constantly supported, but not pressured, in their journey toward achievement. If these criteria are in place, experiencing failure doesn’t weaken motivation — it bolsters it. In the words of Michael Joyner, an expert on human performance at Mayo Clinic, “With enough persistent effort, most people can get pretty good at anything.”These results touch on a number of topics I’ve covered in previous posts: having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, focusing on the process rather than results, focusing inwardly on how you’re performing per your own standards instead of worrying about how you’re being perceived externally by your opponent or your friends, engaging in deliberate practice to improve, not just repeating what you already do well and not pushing yourself in practice and having grit as a personal quality. The Cut article doesn’t specifically touch on all of these points while I think they’re all implicitly involved.
I figure someone reading all of this might ask how studying world-class performers applies to us. How many of us really fall into that category? I know it will sound arrogant or obnoxious but I like to think I applied these ideas when designing and delivering presentations when I was working, in my tennis game and in other areas of my life such as relationships, etc. While I’ll probably never climb to the A level of players at the clubs where I play I do know my game has continually improved thanks to my constant investment into getting better. I like to think I’m now a B+ player! ;-) That’s why I believe the quote at the end of the article is key, which is why I’m repeating it below.
In the words of Michael Joyner, an expert on human performance at Mayo Clinic, “With enough persistent effort, most people can get pretty good at anything.”Amen!