The making of a champion

By Dr. Jim Taylor

I was asked recently by a sports parent, “What does it take to make a champion?” I thought for a moment and then responded with three words: “Genes, motivation, and support.” So let’s explore these three essential components to athletic success.

Genes

Genes are the foundation of all athletic success. Athletes can have all the motivation and support in the world, but if they’re not physically capable of performing in their sport better than everyone else, nothing else matters. Though physical capabilities, such as strength, agility, stamina, and flexibility, can be developed to some degree through conditioning, we are all limited by the genes we get from our parents.

Genes are also the X-factor for two reasons. First, there’s no way to tell whether young athletes have good athletic genes until they show those genes by growing up. Sure, you can look at their parents and see what kind of athletes they are and what kind of body types they have, but if you look at the parents of a lot of professional athletes and Olympians, you’ll wonder whether genes have anything to do with being a great athlete. And early success that many see as indicators of good genes often doesn’t prove anything (How do you account for all of the late bloomers?).

Second, good athletic genes aren’t enough. I’ve seen many athletes over the years who had tremendous natural physical ability, yet lacked the motivation to become successful. These athletes invariably never lived up to expectations and many I have spoken with regretted not having had the work ethic to match their physical capabilities. Conversely, if you have kids who are incredibly motivated and well supported, but lack world-class genes, they may not win Wimbledon or play in the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a successful and rewarding experience as an athlete. Not only that, but it’s likely that these less naturally gifted athletes will learn important life lessons that will help them to be successful later in life. Ultimately, as I see it, you can’t control genes, so there’s little point in even talking about them.

Motivation

Motivation is the only contributor to athletic achievement that is thoroughly within the athletes’ control. They can’t control their genes, but they can do everything in their power to fully realize whatever genetic capabilities their parents gave them. And research has shown that the single greatest predictor of success is the amount of time athletes put in. Those who are most motivated will devote the most time to training which will lead to the greatest success. Of course, those with the best genes and are also highly motivated will have the most success.

So the $64,000 question for parents is: “How do I motivate my athlete-child?” Motivation is the most difficult psychological contributor to success because you can’t give your children motivation. Rather, they have to find it within themselves which means finding a reason that they want to play their sport and work hard toward their goals. If your children aren’t motivated, you’ll want to find out whether something or someone (often a parent) is squashing their motivation. They may be playing the sport for a reason other than to become a superstar or maybe that sport just isn’t for them and they should find something else to do.

Nonetheless, let me offer a few suggestions that can bolster motivation. The easiest way to answer this question is for athletes to have a great passion for the sport. Athletes who love to train and compete will do whatever it takes because they just love being out there. Setting, working toward, and achieving goals are immensely satisfying, so you can also help them set realistic, yet challenging goals toward which they can strive. Having your kids in a junior program with an inspiring coach and other motivated athletes creates an environment that fosters motivation. You also need to make sure that it’s fun. Given that the odds are very long that your children will become great athletes, there’s no other reason for them to be doing it. Finally, get out of their way! An absolute motivation killer is for you to get overly invested in children’s sport and take ownership away from them. If you care more about their sport than they do, you guarantee that they will not be successful or enjoy the sport.

Support

This is the other $64,000 question: “How do I best support my athletic children?” The answer starts with everyone involved understanding what their jobs are. It’s the athletes’ job to work hard, pay attention to their coaches, and take full advantage of the opportunities they are given. It’s the coaches’ job to prepare athletes physical, technically, and mentally to achieve their goals and have fun. And it’s your job to provide the opportunities for your children (e.g., coaching, camps, equipment), pay the bills (which can be incredibly difficult, especially these days), get them where they need to be on time, pat them on the back when they do well, console them when they do poorly, and support the coaches so they can do their jobs. If everyone does their job and their job alone, then young athletes have a good time and usually perform to the best of their ability. If someone either doesn’t do their job or tries to do another job, then things go south quickly.

Let me conclude with some thoughts about your goals in having your children participate in sports. If your objective is to turn them into champions, the odds are that you’re wasting your money and time and your children’s happiness. Sports are metaphorically littered with the scarred psyches of children whose parents tried and failed to do what Earl Woods and Richard Williams succeeded at doing. Your goals as parents are for your children to have fun, learn life skills to succeed later in life, value health and fitness, and develop a love of sports. If by some freak chance you give them world-class athletic genes, they love the sport enough to work incredibly hard, and they get the right kind of support from you, and they become professional or Olympic athletes, then that’s just icing on the cake.

Dr. Jim Taylor holds a Ph.D. in Psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, and blogs on politics, education, technology, popular culture, and sports for huffingtonpost.com, psychologytoday.com, seattlepi.com, and on his own blog at drjimtaylor.com.

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