Making the Intangibles Tangible: The Overlooked Components of Greatness

Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed., CC-AASP

Most athletes, coaches, and performers are in constant pursuit of answers to the same question: What will it take to become great?  Through many years of working with athletes in the roles of teacher, coach, mentor, and now sport psychology consultant, I have come to discover that the answer to this critical question can be summed up in a single word.  Intangibles.

There is a direct correlation between sustained success and the quality of one’s intangibles.


Intangibles can be difficult to put your finger on and hard to articulate.  But if I asked you to come up with a list of the three people in your life whom you respect the most and why, your explanation of why would be loaded with intangibles.  The following represent a list of intangibles that is far from exhaustive:

– character                             – confidence                           – attitude/temperament

– discipline/work ethic           – vision/goals                         – being a good teammate

– response to adversity         – competitive drive                – mastery mindset

– optimism/hope                   – response to pressure         – self-awareness

It is qualities like these that, when paired with physical talent, create the formula for greatness.  The examples of this truth are everywhere, in every level and type of sport.  A few recent ones paint a clear picture of the power and importance of intangibles:

  • Kevin Durant, newly crowned NBA Most Valuable Player.  See his acceptance speech here.  26 minutes of Durant emotionally alluding to the intangibles that elevated his game and made it possible for him to become the MVP.   Confidence, response to adversity, being a good teammate, competitive drive.
  • Teddy Bridgewater, 2014 Heisman finalist quarterback.  Read the article here highlighting Bridgewater’s unique path to becoming one of the first quarterbacks taken in this month’s NFL Draft.  Response to adversity, self-awareness, confidence, character.
  • Shane Battier, NBA champion, Miami Heat.  I’m not sure there’s a more impressive statistic than this one: Battier has joined 3 teams since entering the league (Memphis, Houston, Miami).   Each team has improved their record after signing Battier, and seen their record get worse when he signed to play somewhere else.  Call it the Battier EffectCharacter, work ethic, mastery mindset, attitude.

So if the formula is a relatively simple one, then why haven’t more people figured it out?  Why do only a select few athletes seem to possess these intangible qualities that lead to greatness?

The truth is, in athletics and in life, you get what you emphasize.  And what we tend to emphasize in sport are things like physical strength and conditioning, speed, fundamentals, technique, and results.  Then we as coaches and parents act surprised when our players don’t live out the character and discipline we hope they develop.  Take the NFL Draft for example – millions of dollars are essentially gambled on these young men based on dozens of physical characteristics measured in a variety of different ways.  Yes, there is a bit of effort aimed at getting into their intangibles (Wonderlic test, player interviews, etc).  But Teddy Bridgewater has a mediocre pro day throwing the ball for 40 minutes and his draft stock immediately comes into question.  Something is terribly wrong with this system (an interesting read here on the talent assessment success – or lack thereof – in the NFL draft).

A central part of my role in working with athletes and teams is presenting them with this formula (physical talent + intangibles = greatness) and helping them make the intangibles tangible.  Just to get you moving in this direction, consider these tips:


– Develop your mental game.  Read everything you can get your hands on about sport psychology and the impact of mindset on performance

– Pick three intangibles from the list above to improve on this season, and share them with a trusted parent, coach, or teammate so they can hold you accountable and help you track your progress (for help with coming up with ways to measure these intangibles, feel free to shoot me a call or email)


­– You get what you emphasize.  Coach the intangibles – emphasize (and model) character, attitude, response to adversity, a culture of mastery and not results

– Look up the Positive Coaching Alliance in your area.  PCA is an incredible organization with a lofty mission of changing the culture of youth sports

– At the college level, find ways to assess intangibles and make this a central focus of your recruiting.  Many programs pay lip service to going after “high character” student athletes, but few build their program on it

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