Talk with 10 sport psychologists and you will get 10 different lists of the emotional characteristics of exceptional athletes. However, almost all of them will agree with sport psychologist Jim Loehr, EdD, president of LGE Performance Systems, who says that drive is the most important predictor of exceptional athletic success. "These athletes are almost obsessed with succeeding," says Loehr.
Drive can be present at a very early age, or it can develop as late as the college years. Some children become so captivated by sports or a particular sport that they become nuisances to those around them. They always want to play. They nag their parents to throw to them, hit with them, kick balls to them, or take them where someone else will do these things. If they can’t find anyone, they’ll play by themselves, make up games, or create make-believe situations in which they make the last big play that wins the game. These children will shoot baskets in the dark, wear out the garage door with a tennis ball, or play with a soccer ball instead of eating or doing their homework.
"All great hockey players have spent time practicing by themselves," says Bob O’Connor, national coach-in-chief for USA Hockey. "They never get enough ice time by just going to practices and games. They spend hundreds of hours handling the puck, creating situations, and imagining themselves playing the game."
If your child only plays a sport during structured practices or games, he or she is probably not driven, although that doesn’t mean that drive won’t develop at an older age. Sooner or later, however, it has to be there for an athlete to rise above the others.
Although drive is evident in some children at preschool ages, it might not develop until much later in others. Dave Randall was a Southeastern Conference tennis champion at the University of Mississippi and later played on the professional circuit for nine years. According to his father, Jim, "Dave always had the talent, but he was not really driven until he got to college. Once he became part of a team and practiced against good competition every day, he started putting in the time and effort that made him successful."
Closely related to the drive factor is a love for the game. Greg Patten, national junior coach for the United States Tennis Association, says, "The first thing I look for in an exceptional player is a childlike sense of play. Great players abandon themselves to playing the sport. Even if they don’t have great physical talent, they have an intangible ability to compete that sets them apart from other players."
Shane Murphy, PhD, a private-practice sport psychologist who spent eight years on the Olympic Training Center staff in Colorado, comments on the devotion he has observed in talented athletes. "I really can’t see putting in the hours that some of these young kids spend in their sports. You can’t keep them away from the game. In fact, unless someone helps them understand the important of balance in their lives, the pursuit of excellence can become a negative experience."
John Heil, a Roanoke, Virginia, sport psychologist, warns that great athletes who have such a passion for the sport run the risk of having it define who they are. "Their interest is so one-dimensional that they can never take that passion to anything outside of the game."
Fortunately, others can transfer their passion for sports to other areas of life. Former New York Knick Bill Bradley and U.S. Congressman J. C. Watts, who played quarterback at Oklahoma, moved easily from sports to politics. ESPN’s Robin Roberts played basketball at a relatively obscure college, then became a broadcasting superstar. Roger Staubach went from the NFL’s hall of fame to being one of the most successful businessmen in the country.
Talented athletes tend to be emotionally stable. Loehr reminds us that sport is demanding. "A person who has a limited tolerance for the stress associated with training and competing is not as likely to be successful. The one who has a tolerance for stress in life and in sports has a better chance of making it. They can adapt to obstacles, and they don’t seem to be always pushed to the limits of the ability to adapt. Sport has a way of washing away those who can’t deal with stress."
Heil calls this quality "emotional resiliency." It is the psychological version of flexibility. "Even with all of the ups and downs that any athlete encounters, the great ones manage to survive and come out of adversity with renewed enthusiasm for the game. They always seem to be composed and rested, with plenty of energy reserves."
There are many exceptions to the emotionally stable characteristic, of course. Former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, for example, did not demonstrate that quality, as his postcareer record shows. John Daly, the golfer, always seems to be in trouble and yet plays at a very high level. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors appeared to live on an emotional edge from which they were always about to fall. Yet they used this semicontrolled rage to reach heights that other players could not approach. Unfortunately, their behavior influenced an entire generation of young players who grew up thinking they had to behave in the same way to be great.
Mental toughness has become part of sport vocabulary, but it means different things to different people. Loehr thinks it encompasses both drive and stability, as well as self-esteem and the ability to control confidence.
Exceptional athletes have to feel good about themselves, or at least feel good enough to think they can perform well. George Brett, the Kansas City third baseman, said he played well because he was afraid of failing or looking bad. Although most athletes are partially motivated by the fear of failure, outstanding ones know deep down inside that they are good.
Quarterbacks have a sort of swagger that can be irritating or offensive off the field. But in practice and in competition, it is a necessary requirement of the job that tells teammates and opponents, "I know what I’m doing, I’m going to do it, and you can’t stop me." Quarterbacks must take charge of situations. If they don’t have that attitude, they probably won’t succeed.
Regarding cockiness among golfers, one teaching professional, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, "You have to think you can take somebody else’s money."
Along with confidence, exceptional athletes often have a positive attitude. Again, a star quarterback has to think he can take a team 80 yards in less than two minutes against the wind, a good defense, and a hostile crowd. The odds are not good for that to happen, but he thinks it can. A gifted golfer who is down seven strokes with seven holes to play still thinks he can pull everything together in time for a win. To a star volleyball player, losing the first game in a two-out-of-three match means nothing.
"Athletes who are on the negative or pessimistic side rarely achieve a high level of success," says Loehr. "The fuel for their success is positive."
This is an excerpt from Sports Talent.