Qualities That Make a Champion

Qualities That Make a ChampionCompetitive sport at the very highest level is usually decided by very fine margins, the difference between winning and losing so small that even the slightest edge can make the difference.

Even to qualify for an Olympics requires certain qualities, but those that make an Olympic Champion often go beyond what you find in other elite athletes.

However, it is difficult to state a single set of attributes that go into making a winning athlete, as each Olympic Sport is very different and often suite different qualities better. The individual is also highly important. People of very different character have become champions in the same sport, and what may work in favour of one athlete may not suite another. Developing the qualities that make a champion can often take many years, even a whole career, it can even take the careers of several athletes, each influencing the next, to produce a champion.

Having said this, there are some common qualities every athlete needs, and we can also highlight qualities that are apparent in producing some champions, but perhaps not all. Some of the most important are discussed here, but different people will take a different view and what are the most important.

Before we look at the qualities of the individual, it is important to look at some other areas that influence why someone rises to the top and others don’t.

>There is obviously no doubt that physical ability is key in any Champion, however the exact physical requirements will be highly varied between sports. It is therefore not really possible to have common physical qualities that athletes need in general, though any Olympic Champion must have a training routine that puts them in the best physical condition for their sport.

Natural talent is also a key part of a Champion. Although we can alter the body through training to be more suited to perform different physical tasks, there are genetically determined restrictions that we cannot overcome. This can be anything from a person’s height to their muscle composition, body type or heart size. Different physical attributes will be better suited to different types of sport, so these will play a big factor in whether an individual is able to become a champion, or in which sport they can. There are also elements of natural talent that are not physical and are undefined, but nonetheless seem evident in the very best athletes. Having natural talent for a sport is usually a requirement of a champion.

Opportunity is also key and is arguably the most important in why someone becomes a champion. Ever more so, having access to suitable facilities and the best coaches is vital in developing initial talent into a champion athlete, and is becoming critical at increasingly younger ages. This reduces the ‘window of opportunity’ to develop , and therefore the fewer facilities and knowledge sources there are, the more people with the potential to become champions will be missed.

This is why it is no coincidence that there are historical trends in where successful athletes in each sport come from. You will see in many sports a particular group of countries, a single country or even a single region producing more champions in a sport than others, and this is because success breeds success. The knowledge and understanding of how to become the best is passed on, and opportunities to access is greater developed. Over time, this advantage to the people in those areas increases. Although opportunity in sports is widely increasing, due to increased access and sharing of knowledge and expertise as well as increased funding for development, whether you have the opportunity to become a champion in a particular sport is still highly linked to where you come from.

If you ask any athlete what helped them to become a champion, somewhere in the answer you will find aspects of social support. Whether it comes from family, friends, coaches, mentors or other individual and groups, the support that people close to an athlete give are crucial to enable an athlete to reach the top. This is not the technical support, but the social and emotional support, which can be negative as well as positive. You will often hear athletes talk about how a negative experience has driven them on even more to be the best, and it is this complex and personal combination of social experiences that is highly important in producing an Olympic champion. While it can be argued that this is quality of an athlete; to produce and develop good social relations, it is in a large part beyond the control of an athlete.

Individual Qualities

One of the main qualities any champion athlete must possess is a large amount of determination. To become the best in their sport, an athlete will need to spend many years, often with periods of many months at a time, working without reward, or even an opportunity of reward. This is particularly the case for Olympic athletes, especially in sports where the Olympics is the ultimate achievement, as it can be a long, four year struggle working for that one opportunity to become the best.

During this time, athletes will often be training six days a week, up to three times a day and have to sacrifice many other areas of their lives. They will have to be very strict about what they eat, be optimally prepared for each training session and have very structured off time. To continually put themselves through what is a very demanding physical and mental period requires huge determination and self drive, particularly when the Olympics is many years away. The determination to go out and give 100% to your training when you feel it is the very last thing you want to do must be very high in all elite athletes if it is to be sustained throughout the preparation for the Olympics.

This determination is also critical when it comes to competition time. Competition will be the most ferocious and the physical and mental strain at its peak during an Olympic event. Pushing the body to its limits and beyond to make the difference when it really matters draws on huge amounts of determination and self drive.

Champion athletes must also be highly dedicated to their sport. Professional sport now requires many more areas athletes must adhere to. The more our understanding of the body and sports increases, the more factors go into affecting results and performance at the highest level, and these factors must be addressed by athletes. Letting one area of an athlete’s preparation drop can mean the difference between winning and losing, and putting their sport first before everything else, making sure each element of their preparation is given the time and focus it needs requires athletes to be totally dedicated. There will be many things that come along during their preparation that can be a distraction, and often the champion athletes are those who have been able to minimise the impact of these on their training.

A part of this determination and dedication must be the desire to be the best; the will to win. It must be highly important to a champion athlete to be at the very top of their sport. If winning is not a critical factor, if it is not highly important to an athlete they will not reach the top. Whether the motivation comes from the gold medal, the recognition, an Olympic record or just proving to themselves that they can be the very best, that desire to come out on top will be innate in all Olympic champions. While it is important that it doesn’t become the sole motivation, developing this desire to be the best has often turned elite athletes into champions.

Mental Toughness is a term that has been used more recently in sport, and often not fully understood. Nevertheless, champion athletes must be mentally tough in order to reach the top. This is the ability to produce optimum performance whatever the conditions of competition. There are many things in both training and during the Olympics that can have a psychological effect on an athlete, potentially causing a distraction that can have a negative effect on performance. The ability to be in the right mental state where an athlete can perform at their best, and more importantly sustain this optimum psychological mind set throughout competition is key to becoming a champion. This optimum mental state will vary depending on the requirements of the sport and the characteristics of the individual, and strategies of achieving it will also vary, but the end result will be the ability to perform at their best when they need to, whatever the conditions.

This mental toughness and the ability to perform goes beyond that purely of competition or even the actual sport itself. It is the ability to be mentally in the right state to do what is needed when it is needed, whatever the particular aspect might be. This could be, for example, doing a recovery session when the body is completely exhausted, or coming through a lengthy injury rehabilitation. There are many things that can have a negative psychological effect on an athlete, which can in turn have a negative impact on their preparation or performance. Mental toughness is the ability to continue to do everything an athlete requires to become a champion despite them.  

Intelligence is often a quality not recognised in athletes, but ever more so it is of key importance. Not only is there a much greater requirement of scientific knowledge and understanding by athletes, but they must also have an intrinsic and thorough understanding of their sport. At the peak of competition, the physical demands are extreme, and this has a great impact psychologically. To overcome this requires a high degree of intelligence. This is particularly the case in sports where there is a very high element of technical or tactical requirement, such as in team sports, where the mind has often a split second to make a decision that can make the winning difference.

Finally, perhaps the most important quality for a champion athlete is enjoyment. Having fun and enjoying their sport must be part of champion’s makeup. It is not possible to sustain and come through the stresses and pressures of training and competition if an athlete does not have both an intrinsic enjoyment of the sport that they do and also enjoy the competitive environment that they place themselves in. A combination of love for their sport and enjoying the thrill and challenge of competition can be found in every champion athlete. The exact elements of each that an athlete finds enjoyable will vary, but there must be a strong enough enjoyment factor that an athlete experiences to bring them through the toughest and hardest moments every athlete will go through in their career. 


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder

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