What is it that truly separates the average athlete from the good or the good athlete from the great? If you answered that question with the word “talent,” I would say that that is only a small part of the equation. Muhammad Ali once said, “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 last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” Yes, skill (or development thereof) does have some basis in talent; however, the real message in that quote goes way beyond sheer talent, and even the skills of a sport (which can be learned and improved on). The key is in that last sentence, “the will must be stronger than the skill.” The power in that quote is exemplified in those last eight words.
Even the truly gifted will need to focus on certain guidelines if they want to reach the pinnacle of their sport and stay ahead of the pack. At least if they want to become what I call a “True Champion” – one who strives to reach their full potential without cheating (using anabolic steroids and other types of performance-enhancing drugs), develops solid foundations of good character and integrity, and reaps the intrinsic benefits from their endeavors.
Here are five questions (which in turn raise several sub-questions) that teenage athletes can ask themselves if excellence in sports is what they are after.
1. Why do I play?
• Is it the sheer nature of competition that drives your interest?
• The love of the game?
• The pure social aspect of being with friends?
• That your siblings play?
• That just playing sports, any sport, is fun?
Or is there something else, something more? See if you can narrow it down to one or two reasons that stand above all others. Self-reflection like this is a key to discovering enjoyment and happiness through your sports experiences, as well as in life. The answer to this question will help point you in the direction you want to travel, and will help lay the ground work for the next question.
2. What am I looking to accomplish?
• What do you want to do?
• Where do you want to go?
• What is your goal, your objective?
The answers here center your attention on some point, or points, in the future. It gives clarity to that direction you discovered in the answer to question #1 and greatly narrows your focus. Once decided upon you are not only pointed in the direction you want to go but have a place, a plateau, a level of achievement that you want to reach. Without goals or objectives, there is less “purpose” and the tendency is to flounder.
3. What is my plan?
• How will you make it happen?
• What do you need to, or have to do?
• What are the specifics?
• Can you set appropriate priorities?
• How will you implement this plan?
Determining your approach, and how you implement that approach, can make all the difference. It is not enough to just know what to do, the “how” will have equal significance to the accomplishment of one’s goals. Your plan must build one step upon another with each level below supporting the one above. Like building a house of cards, one unstable or missing card weakens the structure as a whole.
4. What is my determination, my “will?”
• Do you have the discipline?
• Will you make the commitment?
• Do you have the ability to follow through?
• Can you accept sacrifice?
• Can you accept disappointment, learn from failure?
• Will you persevere through adversity?
• Like the Gatorade commercial, “Is it in you?”
Make no mistake (as Muhammad Ali’s quote implies), this will make or break you as an athlete. It is where your heart and passion lie. It is what drives you, makes you stronger, especially when things become most difficult (and/or you are at your weakest). Once you have decided on your path, it is this factor, above all others, that ultimately determines your level of success.
5. Can I accept the possibility of not accomplishing what I want?
• Do you understand that there are no guarantees for success, or for “winning?”
• Can you accept the importance of the process over the outcome?
• Can you place more value on what you learn and develop on the inside rather than what you gain on the outside?
You should notice that all six of these questions, and sub-questions, center their focus on aspects intrinsic to the athlete, a common theme I emphatically support. It is not that “winning” – something outside oneself (and one’s direct control) is unimportant, it certainly is part of the nature of competitive sports. However, it is not the only thing, nor a certainty by any stretch of the imagination, no matter what you do.
Don't get me wrong, I loved winning, becoming a State Champion, National Champion and an All-American but would I have learned any less from my sports experience if I had taken second? It is the difference between sports becoming life and sports being part of and enhancing one’s life. Is it a fine line? Yes, absolutely, but a fine line that is critical to a true understanding and acceptance of what the sports experience is all about.