What do the greatest athletes, coaches, and performers have in common?


By Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed.

What do greats like John Wooden, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Jack Nicklaus have in common?   How did they succeed at levels others can only dream of?  There have been more talented athletes, coaches who knew the game better, and certainly those who have put in just as many hours of preparation, but none have succeeded at such a high level.  The reason?  In a word, mastery.

Mastery is a mindset – a way of viewing yourself, your sport, and competition in general.  To better understand mastery, I’ll contrast it for you with its opposite, Ego.

Those with a Mastery Mindset are driven by:

  1. Their love of the game
  2. The challenge of the game
  3. A strong desire for self-improvement

They understand that the toughest opponent of all is one’s self.  They get absorbed in the seemingly little details of the game.  They still bring the same joy and enthusiasm to their sport as they did when they first started playing.  They take on a long-term view of their competitive career and growth.

“I had no visions in my head of fans and trophies.  Basically I sought three things from the game: to improve at it, to compete at it, and to win at it.” – Jack Nicklaus

“The game of basketball has been everything to me. My place of refuge, place I’ve always gone where I needed comfort and peace. It’s been the site of intense pain and the most intense feelings of joy and satisfaction. It’s a relationship that has evolved over time, given me the greatest respect and love for the game.” – Michael Jordan
(I play the game) “to be the best I can be, to challenge myself, and to win every single time I tee it up.” – Tiger Woods

On the other hand, those with an Ego Mindset are driven by

  1. A quest for accolades, praise, and recognition from others
  2. Constant comparison with others
  3. A fear of failure and embarrassment in front of others

As you can see right away, for those with an ego mindset it is all about other people.  They are driven by external and extrinsic factors (which have been shown to fade quicker than their intrinsic counterparts).  They place a premium on the attention and respect that comes from performing at a high level.  Their confidence is intertwined with their success, which is once again measured by a comparison to others.  So a lack of success leads to playing to avoid embarrassment as opposed to striving for personal greatness.

Now, this begs the question: How can I develop a mastery mindset?  I coach my athletes to use three practical ways to build this as a competitor striving for greatness:

1) Revisit why you started playing the game
What drew you to your sport?  What compelled you to put in those long hours of hard work?  Why have you persevered through the ups and downs of your athletic career? Answer these questions and you are on your way to reigniting your love for the game.  Keep these answers with you, and you will find strength and motivation where before there was negativity and burnout.

2) Reprogram your response to mistakes
Create a simple, in-the-moment routine for what to do when you make a mistake, and practice it.  Mikaela Shiffrin’s youth coach helped her respond well to mistakes during training in order to help her handle mistakes during races, and to view them as opportunities.  I’m convinced this is something that sets this gold medalist apart from her competitors.  This can be something as simple as using your self-talk or a quick re-focus cue to help you move on to the next play.

3) Stop using comparison with others to define your success
Take a page from John Wooden’s book, and let success be defined by the effort you put forth to reach your potential.  Let the results take care of themselves.  It was Teddy Roosevelt who said that “comparison is the thief of joy”.

The greatest athletes and coaches have always had intangibles that gave them an extra gear and separated them from the competition.  Mental conditioning is about making these intangibles tangible, and a mastery mindset would be the ideal place to start.

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