The Secrets of Elite Athletes
By Erik Hamre. Originally published on Medium.com.
We often think of elite athletes as some sort of superhuman, who have been blessed with abilities that the rest of us can only dream of.
But they have all kinds of the same shortcomings, issues and faults as the rest of us. We are often just not aware of it, as we are so used to seeing them when they are doing what they’re best at. The one skill that they have spent thousands of hours practising.
The biggest difference between elite athletes and the rest of us is in their mindset. They think, see and behave differently than most of us.
“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture in my head.” — Jack Nicklaus, professional golfer, winning 18 major championships (three more than Tiger Woods).
Elite athletes are very good at visualising what they want to become real. They can see themselves in the future, becoming champions, winning gold medals and performing to perfection. They imagine the movements and performances they want to make before they even happen. They define their futures in their minds and live there before it happens. When they come back to reality, they have seen what to do to get to where they want to be. And they have no doubt that it will happen because they have already visualised it in their minds.
Having a belief that you can do something is extremely important to be able to dedicate yourself to the necessary practice to become a champion. Having seen yourself succeeding, even if you know it’s only in your mind, is a powerful way to convince yourself that something is possible to do.
For example, before taking a free throw in basketball, it’s useful to close your eyes and imagine how you’re holding the ball, seeing the arc the ball will have towards the hoop and how it hits cleanly through the net.
From neuroscience, we have learnt that by visualising doing an action, you’re stimulating the same part of the brain as when you’re performing the skill. Quite incredibly, it’s possible to practice and improve a skill, just by thinking and visualising that you are doing it.
Visualising is a tool that we can all use in our daily lives. Whatever you want to perform, it can be useful to visualise how things will evolve, before you’re in the actual situation. If you want to perform at a sports event. If you’re going to do a presentation or sales call at work. Or if you’re about to have an important conversation with your partner. Imagine how the events could proceed and what you would do in different scenarios. Imagine what you would say or do if you weren’t stressed or feeling any pressure. Having gone through the scene several times before it even happens, makes it much easier to perform well when it matters.
The next key difference between elite athletes and most of us is how they practice. They are extremely good at what we call deliberate practice.
Deliberate is not just kicking a ball around or playing a game without focus and awareness. It’s the practice of specific components of a skill with an aim to improve performance. In this type of practice, you’re consistently pushing yourself to improve what you can do. You’re trying to achieve what is currently just beyond your level of competence. This involves a lot of failures, and then eventually getting there and being able to do something that you couldn’t previously do.
Deliberate practice is effortful and time-consuming and involves repeating the same movements over and over until you get it right every single time. You’re also dependent on having great feedback. Many of us don’t succeed in improving, because we don’t know what we’re looking at. And if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, you will never get there. Every elite athlete has a great coach, even when they are the best in the world at what they do. They need someone who can see things from the outside and suggest ways to improve.
By mastering deliberate practice and applying it to the skill they are best at, elite athletes start to seem almost superhuman to the rest of us. Their skill set is so advanced that we think it’s impossible for us to get there.
The good news is that it’s possible for almost any healthy person to achieve excellence if they want. If you’re willing to put in the right sort of practice in the necessary amount, you can also become world-class at anything.
You don’t need to become an elite athlete. You can also apply the same principles to become a world-class father, partner or friend. Or become excellent at your work or hobby. By using visualisation and deliberate practice, you may succeed in achieving things that you never even dreamt would be possible. Use them to your advantage to see how far you can get at whatever you want to devote yourself to in life.
Take home message
- Elite athletes are just like the rest of us, but they are extremely good at a specific skill.
- We often think of them as superhuman, as we are only used to seeing them when they are performing the skill they are best at.
- Elite athletes have a different mindset than most of us.
- They use visualisation to imagine where they will be and how they will perform in the future.
- They are also extremely good at deliberate practice, effortful training which is aiming to improve a specific skill.
- By applying this to your life, you can also become excellent at the thing you’re doing.