What Does It Take to Be a Champion?

Think about a person you consider an athletic champion.  Which words or phrases would you choose to describe that person? Strong?  Energized?  Relentless? Balanced?  Ambitious?  Some, or even all, of those words might apply.  And there are certainly many more words that describe it valiantly.

It’s a hot topic that is discussed pervasively.  All you need to do is an internet search and a plethora of information pops up.  In fact, books have been written about what it takes to be a successful athletic champion. And there is a professional speaking circuit for those willing to pay to listen.

The topic is also arguably subjective.  But are there commonalities that simplify the definition of what it takes to be a champion athlete?  Perhaps.

Recently, over chicken wings and few bottles of good beer, three professional coaches, one of whom is also a competitive athlete, took the dive into discussing this highly debated topic.

Two of the coaches agreed that the mental aspect, regardless of the sport, is the number one factor in becoming a champion.  The premise of the mental aspect is that with enough mental focus and a mental program, an individual can become a champion in his or her chosen sport.

Ordering another round of beers and snatching the last chicken wing in the basket, one of the coaches pushed back. Fundamentally believing that it is the athletic skill itself that is the number one aspect of being a champion, he argued that the mental bit, while essential, is secondary to core physical skill. In other words, he argued that an athlete can think about winning all day and all night, but if the work isn’t there the athlete will fail.

After getting to a point where the coaches were rehashing hash on the topic, and because of commitments like needing to go home to feed the dog and getting itchy to jump on the elliptical and burn off the calories from the beer and chicken wings, the three coaches abandoned the debate.  So they could reconvene to discuss, one coach volunteered to develop a simple survey to uncover what it is that turns athlete into a champion.

Level 3 and 4 archery coaches began the debate

The coaches agreed, that to give context to the survey,  a champion would be defined as an individual who wins a major sporting event, unchallenged as the victor.  For example, an athlete who wins an Ironman World Championship, a Gold Medal in an Olympic or Pan Am game, a National title or Professional Golf Association win would meet the criteria.

Through Facebook, a message was sent to recruit responses from 100 athletes and coaches. The same message was sent to everyone:

“I am asking 100 coaches and athletes a question where the responses will be compiled into a database.  I will write an essay based on the results.  I would greatly appreciate your brief responses. By brief, I mean your top three or four words that describe the answer.  The question is: What does it take to be a champion?

It was not anticipated that Facebook would block progress.  A firm notification was returned from the Facebook team believing the messages were coming from a robot.  While applause to Facebook for its vigilance to protect its customers is due, the interruption knocked back the messages sent from 100 to 54.  Still, 54 was an excellent sample set for an informal study and the coach was thrilled with a 100% response rate from the 54 who received the question..

There were 41 males and 13 females who responded from across the globe: United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Israel, France, England, Australia, Russia, Iran and Switzerland.

To make the survey information robust, the profiles of the respondents were captured.

Twelve sport disciplines were represented: golf, cycling, archery, running/marathon/ultramarathon (distance runners), football, shooting, swimming, triathlon, weightlifting, sailing, track/field (sprint, decathlon, heptathlon) and Karate. 

Of the 54 total responders, there were 23 world championships, two Olympic gold medals and four PGA wins.  And among the entire group of 54, there were 75 National titles.  Included in the 54 were eight athletes who consider themselves enthusiasts, but train for their sport nearly every day and compete on a regular basis.  Clearly, this was experience talking.

This was a solid cross section of people who could help define what it takes to be a champion athlete, and so began the arduous task of compiling and analyzing the response and profile data.

Feedback from the respondents resulted in a tally of 132 unique words and descriptors of what it takes to be a champion.  All words and descriptors were entered in a spreadsheet and sorted alphabetically.  From there, common words and descriptors began to emerge: work, confidence, determination, mental, emotional.

The words were then ranked based on the percentage of response between the athletes and coaches surveyed.  Two sets of interesting and potentially conflicting results were revealed:

  • Athletes used the word “determination” the highest, followed in order by “work”, “emotional”, “mental”, and “confidence” to describe what it takes to be a champion.
  • In highest place for coaches were words in the “emotional” category, followed by “determination” and “work” being equal, then “confidence” and “mental” respectively. Disciplines for the responding coaches included football (NCAA Div. II, SAC), track and field, triathlon, marathon running, cross country running and archery.
Coaches versus all athletes

So, what is “the” number one word to describe what it takes to be a champion athlete?  Determination, as presented by the athlete survey responses, or emotional, as presented by the coach survey responses?

The trio of coaches reconvened at the pub to discuss the results.  Additional questions were posited.  Is determination an emotion?  Does emotion evoke determination?  It could be argued that determination is a mental state that drives emotions like passion and commitment. An athlete can be physically extraordinary at his or her sport, but if there is no passion for the activity, what is the likelihood that individual will emerge as a champion?

Two of three coaches argued that the brain is a powerful thing and it can trick the body into elite performance.  One coach felt that when aggressive coaching is involved, the athlete’s mind can push the body into performing at an elite level.

Chicken wings were ordered and the survey results were studied in more depth. Thankfully the wings were served with a big pile of napkins, because the coaches needed to sketch out their theories on how the words garnered from the survey fundamentally aligned to what it takes to be a champion.

Ultimately, the trio agreed that based on the feedback from the 54 person survey, the first and most dominant factor in becoming a champion is determination.If an athlete is determined enough they’ll find a way to get the work done, to build confidence, control and use emotions, and develop a mental process to polish off perfection.

All responses: coaches, elites and enthusiasts.

“Work”, as one of the top three words selected by both athletes and coaches, is highly relevant.  Following “determination”, all 54 respondents indicated that “work” was the second word to answer the question ‘what does it take to be a champion’, followed in frequency of response by mental effort, emotional bearingand confidence, in that order.

There were two outlier responses, that have merit and are worthy of mentioning. These were: “being in the right place at the right time”and “great equipment.”

The first, ‘right place/right time’, can be considered luck or happen stance.  For example, if an undefeated champion is unable to compete one year, does that mean that the new champion for that year is a superior athlete?  What if in the following year the original undefeated athlete competes again and takes back the title?   There is no way to know. An athlete can only compete against those who show up.

Rankings by Elite Athletes compared to enthusiasts

The second outlier response, ‘great equipment’ can surely play a role when an athlete reaches an elite level and marginal gains become more important.  For the less aggressive or less accomplished athlete, great equipment, (i.e. expensive equipment), typically isn’t going to impact results as much as more training and practice.

As the last of the people in the pub began to leave, the trio of coaches decided to pay up and came to a somewhat conclusive agreement that determination and work, whether driven by emotion and/or great coaching, were the keys to becoming a champion. Do you agree?