What Separates a Good Athlete From a Truly Great One?

Could You Be Like Mike?

Michael Jordan is potentially the greatest basketball player of all time. He is also thought to be the king of staying laser focused and composed under pressure, and consistently performing at his best. He holds the record of 866 straight games in the NBA scoring at least 10 points, and he scored over 20 points in all of his last 47 playoff games.

Jordan holds ten scoring titles for the most points scored in a season, as well as the highest career regular season scoring average (30.12 points per game) and career playoff average (33.45 ppg). He went to the NBA finals 6 times, and won 6 championships with the Chicago Bulls, alongside 6 NBA most valuable player (MVP) awards. Jordan also won the defensive player of the year award once, played in 14 all-star games, made ten all-NBA first teams and won five MVP awards. He was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2009, and was named ESPN’s greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. Not too bad a career.

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How did Jordan perform to such a high level so regularly, especially when the stakes were the highest? The stadiums were packed with media and screaming and jeering fans, and millions more watched on TV around the world, and yet he managed to consistently step up, night after night.

Maybe it was just was genes or natural talent. However, if this was the case, Jordan’s children should have also been great, and Jordan wouldn’t have been cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore.

Maybe it was his physical conditioning. Again, this might be true, but there have been plenty of fit and athletic players in the NBA, and not all of them go on to become superstars.

There’s also the infamous ‘flu game’ in game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals against the Utah Jazz, where the commentator Marv Albert said this:

“The big story here tonight — the story concerning Michael Jordan’s physical condition. He is suffering from flu-like symptoms.”

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Because the series was tied at 2 all, Jordan didn’t want to let his physical state prevent him from playing. Jordan started slow, and later admitted that he felt weak, had really low energy and couldn’t breath properly. In spite of almost passing out and having to slump over with his hands on his knees whenever the game stopped, Jordan helped the Bulls fight back from a 16-point first quarter deficit to win 90-88 and then go onto win the series in 6 games. In the process, he scored 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and the three-pointer that sealed the game with less than a minute to play.

What separated Michael Jordan from the rest and helped him to become one of the greatest athletes of all time was his mental fortitude and mindset. He never gave up, truly believed that great things were possible as long as he put in the work and tried his best, and he never backed down from a challenge.

Here are two of his most famous quotes that perfectly exemplify this:

Jordan didn’t care about making mistakes or failing in the eyes of others. What he really cared about was trying his absolute best, and not letting fear of failure hold him back from doing everything he could to help his team win. It could be that Michael Jordan is an anomaly here, but I don’t think he is.

If you look at all the greats, their mindset and mental strength played a huge role in their overall level of success. Let’s look at Simone Biles in gymnastics, who has now won 25 medals at the World Gymnastic Championships in her career, including 19 gold.

Here’s how she approaches training and competitions:

Biles believed in working harder than anyone else in practice to be the best, but also prioritized being confident in herself and her abilities, and knew that in order to do this, she needed to also ensure that she looked after her mental and emotional health.  

What about Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated Olympian of all-time with 28 Olympic medals in swimming, including 23 gold:

Phelps, like Biles, tried to train harder than anyone else to be the best. He also focused on building belief and confidence in himself and not listening to any doubters who tried to tell him that something couldn’t be done. Like Jordan, he did not view it as failure to try as hard as he could to achieve his goals, even if he fell short.

All three amazing athletes had incredible success when it mattered most. Their mental attitude towards themselves, setbacks, practice and competition was no doubt a huge factor in the results that they achieved.

man climbing on rope

The Equation for Success

Some people may still try to put their success down to talent, but hopefully all of you know that this is wrong. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her book ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ developed an equation for success based on her research into the area:

talent + effort = skill

skill + effort = achievement

This means that the amount of hard work and effort you put into your training and preparation is twice as important for success than your initial level of talent.

Duckworth doesn’t exactly say this in her book, but once the effort has been put in at training, I truly believe that the next most important predictor of success is your mindset and mental strength on the day of the competition.

silhouette of a boy playing ball during sunset

Finding Flow

Most professional athletes know what it is like to be “in the zone” or in a “peak experience” as Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it. It has also been commonly referred to as a “flow state”, which was initially coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and examined in detail in his book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

Flow can be defined as:

“being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Your perception of time changes. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you are using your skills to the utmost, and those skills are significantly magnified. Physical skills, mental skills, psychological skills, social skills, creative skills, decision-making skills. Flow breaks boundaries. You are flow. It is you. There is no thought. You are fully immersed in your body and the moment. You experience profound mental clarity and a sense of oneness. Everything just works.”

I’ve never been to an Olympics before, but I can tell you that when I am confident and in the zone playing basketball or volleyball, I feel like no one can stop me, the game is so easy, things seem to move in slow motion and my level of performance astounds me. I am not exactly the best shooter in basketball, but I have had some games where making a basket was as easy as throwing a stone into the ocean from the edge of a pier.

If you don’t know what I mean, check out Klay Thompson’s shooting performance in only one quarter of basketball, smashing the previously held record:

Notice how it didn’t seem to matter where he was or who was defending him; he was in the zone, and he was going to shoot the ball as soon as he caught it, and those shots were going to go down.

The book ‘The Rise of Superman’ by Steven Kotler suggests that extreme and adventure sport athletes are the best at getting into flow states consistently and remaining there while competing. Because of the real risk of death and serious injury with mistakes, flow is not just a desired state to aim for but a necessity in these sports. Consequently, only the athletes that can consistently do it survive, both in the sport and in their lives.

Kotler tries to go beyond flow to explain unbelievable performances, such as pro-skater Danny Way jumping the great wall of China with a broken ankle:

Kotler says that every athlete has the capacity to get in the zone. Unbelievable performances are about experimenting with the impossible once you are in a flow state, pushing your limits, and seeing what you are truly capable of. 

man wearing black long sleeved shirt standing on mountain

The opposite is also true. When I am not in a good headspace or my confidence is low, even the most basic moves feel difficult and scoring points can feel almost impossible. I’m going to guess that most of you have had similar experiences in your own sports too. When things just aren’t clicking. Where you start to doubt yourself. Where no matter what you try you just can’t get out of your head and you tense up. You start to miss free throws like Shaq:

What if you could be like Michael Jordan or Danny Way, and consistently perform at your best and reach your potential when it matters most? How would that feel, and how much would you pay to figure that out?

Fortunately, I won’t be charging you anything, but I do hope to help you unlock your own secrets to consistently great performance. In my next article, I’m going to teach you the mental skills and strategies to bounce back from adversity, take on helpful feedback from your coaches, and remain focused and composed even in highly stressful and distracting situations. I’m also going to help you to become more consistently confident and motivated, have clear objectives and be well prepared, perform at your best under pressure and not let your worries interfere with your game or prevent you from getting into a consistent state of flow. Stay tuned. 

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

3 thoughts on “What Separates a Good Athlete From a Truly Great One?

  1. I knew where you were headed w/ this article immediately. Strangely enough, over the last day I’ve seen this theme of flow and mental strength without looking for it.

    I, myself, have experienced flow playing violin. That is, back when I played in high school concerts. I was first seat second chair by Jr year of high school and thought I’d continue after graduating but contracted a bone disease making it sadly impossible to ever play again as it’s the only time I ever experienced flow:

    My instrument was no longer a separate entity but a continuation of my appendages. Everyone around fell away, & I was one w/ my instrument and the music. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to having a “spiritual” experience as I’m atheist. I’ve even tried mindfulness exercises to no avail.

    If you have any tips on successfully building mindfulness it would be greatly appreciated. The problems I can’t get past is my narcolepsy (I fall asleep) & focal points. Breathing doesn’t work, & I have a pain condition that I tend to focus on as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Coelleen. If you are interested in reading more about mindfulness, the books by Jon Kabat-Zinn are a good place to start. He has two that I have read called ‘full catastrophe living’ and ‘wherever you go, there you are.’ Personally, I still think that practicing it on a regular basis is the best way to become more mindful once it is something that you know you want to do. Formal mindfulness practice can be done by going to classes in your area if there are any, or trying any of the following meditation apps: insight timer, calm, headspace, waking up, guided mind, ten percent happier, simply being, smiling mind, buddhify and balance. See which one you like best, then set a reminder so that you meditate for 10 minutes a day at the same time using a guided meditation from one of the apps.

      There is also informal mindfulness, where you just try to practice the 7 attitudes of mindfulness no matter what you are doing. This includes being: 1. non-judging, 2. patient, 3. having a beginner’s mind and observing things like you haven’t experienced them before, 4. trusting, 5. non-striving, 6. accepting, and 7. letting things go. The more you practice being mindful, the more mindful you will hopefully become, and the easier it will be to get into a flow state, especially when you are doing something that you would consider challenging. Good luck!

      Like

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