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The Champion’s Mind

On February 5th, 2017, the world tuned in to watch Tom Brady lead his New England Patriots to the biggest comeback in NFL Super Bowl history. Trailing by 25 points midway through the third quarter made the chances of Brady, and longtime coach Bill Belichick, to winning their fifth Super Bowl ring seems all but impossible, yet somehow the man many consider to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history made it happen. How, we may wonder? Sure, he has been blessed with the physical attributes to succeed at the highest level, but what truly distinguishes him from the rest is what is found between his helmet. It’s primarily due to Brady’s psychological makeup, the champion’s mind, that allowed him to overcome all odds and once again capture the illusive Lombardi Trophy.

By dissecting the psychological characteristics that make up the mindset of champions, and exploring our culture’s greatest sports heroes, we have a chance to develop the champion’s mind within. While we may not have the physical attributes to succeed on the field, it is certain that by cultivating the mental characteristics of true sports legends, we can increase our chances for success across a wide variety of life areas.

The Psychological Mindset of Champions:

An image is shown of Olympian Hero Michael Phelps swimming in a race.Depending upon the individual sport, there may be certain psychological qualities that more readily determine the success of individuals. While a calm and patient demeanor is needed to succeed on the golf course, a fierce warrior-like mentality is vital for football. While the ability to stay locked into an unyielding focus is necessary for poker player Paul Phua, sheer willpower and determination are essential for those running marathons. Yet still, there are a number of qualities found in the champion’s mind that range across the entire sports world. Beyond having the physical attributes and a competitive desire to win, five psychological characteristics, in particular, are shared by all sports legends:

  • Passionate: It is certain that the starting point of all great sports achievement is an unquenchable passion for the particular sport. Unless an individual is completely immersed and in love with what they are doing, the likelihood of them rising to the top remains slim to none. Moreover, it is directly from an individual’s passion that the other mental characteristics of the champion’s mind develop.
  • Committed: What comes out of an individual’s deep-rooted passion for a particular sport, is a natural desire to succeed at all costs. Because athletic champions have a true love for the game, they are able to stay committed to the process of improving themselves, and their teams, day-after-day without losing their focus. It is by making this commitment to the daily incremental improvement, regardless of their initial success, that individuals are able to transform themselves into true champions.
  • Selfless: Rarely, if ever, do we witness teams of selfish ‘I’-first players rise above the competition to be crowned champions. Assuredly, deep within every great champion’s mind is an unquestioned belief that the goals of the whole take precedence over individual accomplishments or accolades. History’s greatest players and coaches, regardless of the sport, all possess a deep-found desire to help their teams win, even if it comes at their own expense.
  • Fearless: Fearlessness is one of the most important components of the champion’s mind and it is from this psychological characteristic that individuals are able to overcome even the most insurmountable odds. For truly great sports figures, fearlessness is a natural byproduct of determination, preparation, and an unwavering belief in one’s self. Additionally, fearlessness comes when individuals use their previous mistakes and failures as learning opportunities that spring them toward championship levels.
  • Poised: In nearly every sports game or competition, there will be particular moments when the pressure reaches heightened levels that cause many to crumble. During the most stressful circumstances, it is only the true champions that are able to stay cool and collective. While many people become overwhelmed, nervous, and clumsy at the most crucial times, champions are able to stay focused in the present moment and remain unwilling to let externals distract them from doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

As you can see, there are a number of important psychological components that merge together to create the champion’s mind. By either naturally being predisposed to these qualities or developing them within themselves, truly legendary athletes are able to rise above setbacks and obstacles on their way to reaching the pinnacle of success.

History’s Greatest Sports Heroes:

To bring the champion’s mind to life, we can illuminate the lives and careers of some of America’s most revered sports heroes. While each of these players and coaches exhibits every mental characteristic of true champions, some individuals show higher levels of the various psychological components:

Jackie Robinson’s Passion:

An image shows Jackie Robinson sliding into home plate.Jackie Robinson will forever be remembered as being the man who broke the color barrier in baseball, paving the way for countless other African-Americans to pursue their dream of playing professionally. Considering the massive amounts of racial prejudice shown to him every time he laced up his cleats, it would’ve been impossible for Robinson to amass the career statistics that he did without having a deep love for the game. Over the course of a ten-season career, Robinson accumulated a .311 batting average, hit 137 home runs, had 734 runs batted in, stole 197 bases, and gained the reputation of being a fierce competitor who brought it to the field every day.

In 1949, Robinson was awarded with the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, and in 1955, he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the World Series Championship. More importantly, Robinson’s passion went beyond the diamond and his righteous personality helped countless of others live above racial discrimination. When speaking of Robinson’s passion for the game, former teammate Duke Snider said:

He was the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen him beat a team with his bat, his ball, his glove, his feet and, in a game in Chicago one time, with his mouth.”

Nick Saban’s Commitment:

The University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban is shown walking with 5 of his players.

Photo by Gregg Segal

Throughout the history of college football, there have been few, if any, coaches who have been envied for their success like current University of Alabama coach Nick Saban. Over the course of a 21-year college coaching span, at four different schools, Saban has amassed a 210-61-1 record and won five national championships, with four of them coming since 2007. Saban will be the first to admit that his unmatched work ethic and dedication to focusing himself and his team on the task at hand are what separates him from the rest of the pack.

While coaching at Michigan State from 1995-1999, Saban and Lionel Rosen, a psychiatry professor at the University, worked together to formulate a strategy for getting the most out of the countless hours he and his teams put into winning the big games. Saban’s strategy, which has since been coined ‘The Process‘, revolves around focusing his attention, with complete conviction and commitment, only on the things that he can control in the present moment. He tells us:

Success doesn’t come from pie-in-the-sky thinking. It’s the result of consciously doing something each day that will add to your overall excellence.”

Herb Brooks’ Selfless Leadership:

An image of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks is shown while coaching on the bench.There are few inspirational sports stories that can compare to that of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team’s gold medal run at the Lake Placid Olympics. Most notably, the American’s game against an overpowering Russian team, now commonly known as the Miracle on Ice, will forever be cherished as one of the most inspirational moments in American sports history. Thanks to the leadership of head coach Herb Brooks, the United States team of all amateur players were able to selflessly come together and beat a Soviet team, made up of all professionals, who had beaten them 10-3 only two weeks earlier.

By getting his team to focus on a goal that was bigger than any individual accolades, Brooks was able to bring together a group of players that grew to hate each other while playing college hockey only a few months earlier. Only by instilling the belief that the whole is greater than the parts, was Brooks and team U.S. able to overcome the most insurmountable odds. Brooks is famously quoted as telling his team:

When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates, and the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back. Get that through your head!”

Michael Jordan’s Fearlessness:

An image of Michael Jordan is shown hitting the game winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz.Michael Jordan will forever be remembered as one of the most decorated American sports icons. Throughout his 15-year playing career, Jordan amassed over 32,000 points, won the MVP five times, and led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA Championships. Thanks to his relentless and fearless style of play, Jordan remains a cultural icon whose beloved by nearly all. Although Jordan’s success at the highest level is undeniable, his path to greatest was one filled with obstacles, setbacks, and failure.

In 1978, Jordan wasn’t chosen to represent his high school’s varsity basketball team, and even though this devastated him at the time, it is this experience that led to his tendencious and fearless style of play.

After being told he was not good enough by his high school coaches, Jordan went to work with a massive chip on his shoulder that seemingly remained for his entire career. More importantly, Jordan was able to discover that momentary experiences of failure don’t define individuals as people or athletes unless they allow them to. It is certain that Jordan’s fearlessness is directly related to his ability to fail intelligently. He tells us:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”

Tom Brady’s Poise:

Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts after throwing a touchdown pass during the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium on October 5, 2014 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Super Bowl 51 was just one of many examples showing the unshakeable levels of poise Tom Brady operates with, even when facing the most daunting of challenges. According to Elias Sports Bureau, there have been 2,656 games in NFL history where a team was losing by 25 points or more, and only seven of those teams, 0.2% of them, were able to manage to do the unthinkable. Throughout his career, Brady has amassed 39 fourth-quarter comeback victories and cemented his legacy as the most poised quarterback to ever play the game. This is what makes him a favorite for many fantasy football players. See Fanduel for fantasy football news.

Thanks to his passion, preparation, drive to win, and unmatched self-confidence, Brady is able to stay wholly in the moment during stressful situations and focus on nothing besides the task at hand. It is assuredly due to his psychological makeup that he is considered by many to be the greatest player to ever play the game. Kurt Warner, a former NFL great in his own right, tells us about Brady:

The great thing about Tom is that no matter what he went through, it didn’t seem like he allowed the pressure to bother him. A lot of guys might have reacted to the big stage of the Super Bowl by trying to force plays, but he just relaxed. Right now, he seems like a kid in a candy store.”

Cultivating the Champion’s Mind Within:

An image of a woman is shown working out with dumbbells as she looks into the mirror with determination.While we have just examined the champion’s mind from a purely athletic perspective, it is certain that this winning mindset can be adapted and utilized across a wide variety of areas in life. In particular, developing a winning mindset built around the science of peak performance can help us achieve personal development, physical fitness, and career goals. By consciously focusing our attention on developing the psychological characteristics that make up the champion’s mind, our opportunities for success will undoubtedly multiply. It is important to remember that creating change at the mental, physical, and emotional levels is a process that takes time and you should strive to take small incremental steps on the path to unleashing the champion within:

Find Something You’re Passionate About:

The most important factor in cultivating the champion’s mindset within yourself is to find something that you’re truly passionate about. Your ability to develop the other four mental characteristics will be dependent on if you have true conviction and belief in the ultimate goal. This means that for career aspirations, you’ll need to be deeply passionate about your work, and for personal development and fitness goals, you’ll have to determine the reasons why success is so important. As Jackie Robinson’s story shows, if an individual has passion and conviction while pursuing their goals, their chances for success greatly increase.

Make the Commitment to Succeed:

On the path to achieving with the champion’s mind, it will be imperative for you to make an unwavering commitment to succeed. By researching inspirational individuals that have made a historical difference in their lives, across any given field, it is clear to see that setbacks and failures are undoubtedly a part of the achievement process. Fortunately, if you aim to succeed in areas that you are passionate about, your levels of commitment and resilience will become much higher. Additionally, it will be vital to utilize a process similar to Nick Saban’s and focus on incremental improvement in the present moment, instead of worrying about the end result.

Develop a Team-First Attitude:

There is little denying the fact that what a single man can accomplish alone doesn’t come close to matching the impact that can be made by a group of individuals working together as one. Not only should you be willing to work with others, but you should also actively search for like-minded individuals who are similarly passionate about the things that you desire. When you surround yourself with like-minded people who want to succeed in the same ways, the whole group benefits as you push each other toward success. By developing a team-first mentality, as the one Herb Brooks instilled into his players, your chances for success become multiplied with each individual you bring onto your team.

Live Without Fear:

To live your life with the fearlessness possessed by Michael Jordan, you’ll have to transform your beliefs about what failure actually means. Instead of looking at setbacks as dream-crushing blows, you’ll need to begin recognizing them as important learning opportunities that will lead you to where you want to be. It is important to remember that each and every great success story has tales of failure woven within, and if you want to succeed with the mindset of all great champions, you’ll need to push your limits until you reach a place where the fear of failure and rejection doesn’t stop you from taking the chances that are needed to achieve. Two great strategies for increasing your fearlessness are the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercises of behavioral experiments and behavioral interventions.

Handle Stressful Situations with Poise:

Having the ability to handle stressful situations with poise, calmness, and confidence is the one aspect of the champion’s mind that is most challenging for most. This ability, however, can be cultivated within and is directly related to the preparation and present-moment focus. You can be assured that each and every person who has succeeded on the biggest stage has tirelessly worked and rehearsed for the big moment. This means that to enjoy the unshakeable poise of Tom Brady, you’ll have to incessantly prepare until your beliefs in your own ability become unbreakably strong. One step that you can take is to rehearse stressful situations in environments that resemble real-life circumstances as closely as possible. Additionally, to increase your ability to stay in the present moment, you can begin practicing mindfulness, which has become a staple in the world of sports psychology.

Be assured that there is a champion’s mindset inside each of us that we can develop and use to succeed in nearly any way we desire. If you desire to reach the pinnacle of your professional field or to accomplish your personal development goals, you’ll have to focus on the process day after day until success is yours. Now, to end this article, we’ll leave you with a quote from Muhammad Ali, a man many consider to be the greatest boxer to ever enter the ring:

Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

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