When looking at sports, many athletes, coaches, parents, broadcasters, etc get caught into the trap of only analyzing numbers. These numbers are what wins games and therefore receives all of the attention. However, where do these numbers come from? Do they just magically happen on game-day or during an event? In my short four years of coaching, I have started to find a trend among the best athletic performances. If I look back at every personal best or huge breakthrough, I find these characteristics. Regardless of how strong, fast, or skilled an athlete is, every personal best performance can be tied to these non-physical traits. Therefore, rather than size or the amount of muscle on an athlete, these are the traits that I look for in an Ideal athlete.
Disclaimer: These views are only my own. Many coaches differ in their teaching/coaching styles and what qualities they look for in athletes.
The number one quality that I find from the ideal athlete is a motivation that is intrinsic in nature. If I look at my top athletes, they will occasionally post on social media and interact with the community, but they don’t seek approval for every workout, training session, or new personal best that they set. They are quiet publicly but very load internally. These athletes know what they need to do, they set goals, and they are motivated to hit those goals for their own reasons. These are the athletes that have continued to find success year after year and don’t feel the need to justify their success or downfalls to anyone publicly.
One of the largest flaws I currently see in athletics is the social media craze and everyone needing to feel accepted for what they are doing. This often leads to athletes needing others approval for anything they do and once that approval is gone or interest has faded, the athlete loses motivation and begins to lack in performance. From a coaching perspective, I love working with the intrinsically motivated athlete because I know that by proper goal setting and having a proper focus on the task at hand, they will continue to improve each year.
Disclaimer: Social media is here to stay. Every athlete is going to post on social media at one time or another regarding their sport. However, how an athlete interacts is what I am looking for. An athlete that needs approval from others will always lack motivation when things get tough. What we should be preaching in this social media era is being part of a larger community that can be there for networking or educational purposes, but isn’t the motivation for you putting in all of your training hours. That is a dangerous tactic that quickly becomes a black hole of trying to impress others rather than trying to improve yourself.
The Athlete Becomes a Student
I want my athletes to ask questions and try to understand the reasons for their workouts. I understand all coaches don’t want this interaction, but for me it is the strongest correlation I have to an athlete getting better. What I find is that the athletes that start to learn the methods to the madness start to excel at a much faster rate. Regardless if its a training day, or day of competition, there are going to be situations that pop up where the athlete needs to react on the fly. The athlete that understands principles can make a calculated decision for success while athletes that don’t understand principles must guess and hope for the best. As these situations arise on a daily basis, the athlete that can make a calculated decision is putting themselves in a better position to succeed day in and day out. These days and decisions begin to add up and the athlete that is a student of the game begins to overtake their competition in all of the critical components of performance.
I once read a book by Daniel Coyle called “The Talent Code”. In this book he talks about individuals replicating a skill they’ve seen vs truly learning the skill and its components. At the start of each session or training day, an athlete can choose to just go through the motions and train the body to react, or they can choose to truly focus on the training, understand it, and make conscious decisions throughout the motion/activity. While there are times that an athlete does just want a reaction, most of the time the athlete that fully understands the movement and has focused training will perform it at a higher level. The athletes that takes it upon themselves to learn the art/skill/science of their movement, often out perform others and are an absolute pleasure to work with on a day-to-day basis.
Note: “The Talent Code” by Coyle is the best coaching book I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.
Confidence not Cocky
This is key and one of the defining characteristics that I find amongst the best athletes that I work with. Each of my athletes that continually gets the most out of their performances tend to be very confident. If you were to ask the athlete before the event if they are going to succeed they will give you an answer that revolves around hard work but positive results as well. What I find is that the intrinsic motivation and the confidence/results tend to go hand in hand. This is because the athlete knows what they are capable of, they know the work they’ve put in to get there, and now they are ready to utilize that training, knowledge, and confidence for the best overall results.
These athletes are also never above the process and are constantly reminded of how humbling it can be. I believe this is where the confidence is drastically different from cocky. A cocky athlete would go into a contest expecting to do well because of their natural skill set and their extrinsic motivation is constantly being pumped by everyone telling them how good they are. A confident athlete would go into that event understanding that nobody is going to out work them, they can justify their effort to themselves, and they are confident that regardless of how hard things get, they are going to prevail because they trust in the work they’ve done.
I love working with these athletes because in training you can absolutely destroy them and put them through humbling experiences (cracking them and showing them that they aren’t invincible). However, as soon as you crack them and they don’t give in, they build that confidence that is a very scary thing for their competition. All of my confident athletes have been humbled in training, but it has made them extremely confident for the event and knowing that regardless of how hard things get, they won’t break or give in. Every athlete that reaches their best has this characteristic.
Friends and Athletes
My last point will be about the actual relationship that I develop with the ideal athlete. Some coaches don’t like developing a friendship with athletes because they believe it blurs lines. This works for some and therefore I will not try to contradict their coaching methods. However, for me the ideal athlete is someone that is willing to be a friend as well as a client. There is a very important reason for this in my opinion. In all of my years of team sports, I found that if a friend was standing next to me, I was willing to go beyond a point of comfort and sacrifice my well-being for their advancement. This is the same mindset that I want my athletes to have. Nothing in athletics is as powerful as working for someone else. You can often push yourself further than you ever thought possible and in the end, come out with a far superior product (performance).
I want my athletes to know that they can count on my for anything and that I will be willing to sacrifice my own well-being to ensure that they have what they need to perform. In return, my athletes will dig deeper than they ever thought possible in training and racing to get a performance that they are proud of and make results happen for the both of us. While some would say this contradicts my point on being against extrinsically motivated athletes (if they want to please the coach with their performances.. isn’t this extrinsic?), I would argue that this is intrinsic because the athlete is motivated from within due to the relationship that we have built as a collective unit.
While there are many different coaching styles out there, I have found that I tend to be “Cooperative” in nature. While that won’t work for every athlete, I have found that the four characteristics above tend to result in personal best performances and high levels of athletic achievements. If you are an athlete looking to get better, understand that it isn’t only about the X’s and O’s of your sport. If you want to reach a high level of athletic performance, you must start to understand what coaching style you work best with and how to best maximize that relationship. If you can take a step back as an athlete and start to look at the four points I made above, I would argue that you will start to see a large improvement in your overall ability to train and hit new personal bests.