I have been fortunate to work with world champions in professional sports, Olympic gold medalists, Special Forces operators, and some of the most successful coaches in the world. During that time, I’ve begun to recognize certain skills that separate the great from the very good. First, I will tell you that getting to the top of the mountain is a tremendous accomplishment—and the hardest thing to do is to stay there.
Look at a few of today’s most accomplished teams and how often they’ve returned to the pinnacle, from the time of the first championship to their current run: The New England Patriots have won six in 18 years, Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team has won five in 10 years, and the Golden State Warriors have won three in five years, but each only has one back-to-back championship. Because these teams are always in the playoffs, it’s easy to take for granted how damn hard it is to win a championship!In my experience, the truly elite demonstrate three character traits in a superior manner to those who are unable to remain successful, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
This article is not about the average performer or the ones not living up to their potential. It’s about those who already have the fundamental skills to succeed: work ethic, consistency, and the requisite talent. Furthermore, it’s not just about reaching the highest level of performance but finding methods to sustain that performance. In my experience, the truly elite demonstrate three character traits in a superior manner to those who are unable to remain successful.
As a strength and conditioning coach, my ability to teach and lead in the development of these traits is as important as my efforts to enhance athleticism.
As mentioned, all top performers work hard. Good performers, however, train relentlessly, and then perhaps go home and eat poorly. Or they don’t unplug early enough so they can get a proper sleep. Or they will allow themselves to be consumed by social activities or partying. All of these lapses hinder recovery and inhibit the next training session. Over time, these less-than-optimal training sessions accumulate and add up to a poor performance. Great performers, on the other hand, prioritize their training and their recovery.
A number of years ago, I began working with an extremely talented, but still young, fighter. He had all the tools a champion fighter needs—precision, power, speed, and timing. During training camp, he was laser-focused: diet, training, sleep, and mentally prepared at all times.
Between camps, however, it was a complete 180. He would then show up for our next camp out of shape and 20–25% off from being on-weight. Consequently, the first three weeks of our eight-week camps were then dedicated to getting him back into the condition necessary to actually get in a high volume of skill work.
Skills win fights. Don’t be confused—I can get a fighter stronger, faster, and more explosive, BUT if they haven’t gotten in enough skill work…they’ll be the best athlete getting knocked out. This fighter had the talent to get away with his lifestyle in Amateurs and early on as a Pro, but it clearly wasn’t going to work as a long-term strategy.I can get a fighter stronger, faster, and more explosive, BUT if they haven’t gotten in enough skill work…they’ll be the best athlete getting knocked out, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
If you want buy-in from an athlete, simply talking won’t work—you have to earn your stripes and get skin in the game. In this instance with the fighter, I began tracking his progress during camps and showing him how much he had regressed, coupled with the amount of time it took us to get his performance measures back to where he had been at the previous fight. Then, I made deals with him—he could eat steak during camp, have one session/camp where we regen only, have an extra off day, and the anaerobic conditioning emphasis sessions would only happen in the first three weeks. Then, we’d transition to more speed and power for the remaining five weeks, which was my intent all along.
The key to the deal, though, was that to earn those considerations he had to show up to camp no more than 10% over weight—meaning, if we’re fighting at 140 pounds, two months out he would be at 154. Anyone who has experience with weight-class athletes knows this is a tiny weight cut, but that was the point: We wanted to focus on skill development and enhancing recovery. Fatigue impairs skill acquisition, yet athletes put themselves in this situation when they wait for camp to emphasize conditioning.
The other part of the deal was that on day 1 of camp, he had to be able to spar an entire fight while we rotated in fresh partners. The first S&C session also had performance goals in challenges such as the prowler, incline sprints, upper back, and core work. If he failed in any of the areas, the test ceased—but then, the deal was off.
This was simply meant to identify preparation; it wasn’t intended to be a punishment or some threat looming over him between camps. Of course, we worked together to ensure success. We ate together and went to the grocery store together, and I spoke regularly with his mother and wife about nutrition and recovery. We formed a plan using activities he enjoyed as our main strength and conditioning modalities between camps.
At the first camp, he held up his end of the deal: He was 10% from making weight and hit all of the performance markers. At the second camp, he was at 10% again and crushed the performance markers. At this point I trusted that we would never take a step backward in this regard, so we never did the performance test again. It’s worth noting that through the greater commitment to training between camps, his upper back and core strength were no longer considered weak points, and we could now focus the entire training camp on his long-term development.
Over the next 5 ½ years, he won world titles in four weight classes and went 9–1 in title fights. From this, I learned that making deals with athletes is a successful strategy to gain greater sacrifice on their end. As their strength coach, my commodity is their programming. I have no problem creating individualized programs, but that comes with the agreement that the athlete will be 100% compliant with sports medicine, including corrective/pre-hab work, the dietitian in body comp, fueling and hydration, sport psych in stressed-performance training, etc. If I were in the collegiate setting again, I would include academics and social conduct as well. An athlete fully committed to all these areas deserves increased autonomy and input toward their own success.
“The Good and the Great are only separated by their willingness to sacrifice.” –Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
It is critical to realize that those sacrifices being made need to actually improve performance. The commitment to be great seemingly leaves no time or energy for anything else; there is, however, a massive difference between being a martyr and being a champion. Spending 80 hours doing what you could have accomplished in 50 doesn’t mean you’re more dedicated.There’s a massive difference between being a martyr and a champion. Spending 80 hours doing what you could have accomplished in 50 doesn’t mean you’re more dedicated, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
Often, our personal relationships are compromised in our pursuit of excellence (a point that may hit home with my fellow coaches). The stress involved with a strained family life is often so consuming it diverts the energy and focus that need to be devoted to the pursuit of excellence. Now, we’re stuck in a vicious cycle. While I agree that being elite requires some imbalance, it’s necessary to prioritize the support structures that will keep us moving forward. The needed sacrifice in this instance is our efficiency—being efficient doesn’t mean doing less; in my experience, it means doing more quality and meaningful work in less time.
Time management is something that I’m sure most people will find significant in our section on strengthening deficiencies.
No matter how great a performer is, if they were to rank their skills, by process of elimination there would be a bottom three. These three abilities may not be a “weakness” in comparison to the competition, but they are definitely at the low end of the performer’s personal skill set. Good performers usually half-heartedly address these issues or ignore them completely. They rely on the rationale that they’re good enough, and by utilizing their strengths they won’t be exposed.
The elite performers I’ve been around give due attention to these less-developed skills. For example, I trained a medal-winning wrestler who routinely got beat in sparring because he chose partners whose strengths could expose his own weaknesses. He was completely dedicated to this process. No matter how bad it got in sparring, he would continue down the path of most resistance and not turn to his own strengths in order to gain an advantage. By doing so, he became a much more complete wrestler and enjoyed a decade of championship performance.
I have a simple system I like to use: Do More, Do Better, Do Less. For example, when training fighters at the beginning of each camp, I meet with the head coach and the fighter to do an evaluation of how the last camp impacted the fight and, from there, we develop our new fight plan. From this conversation, we identify what was working and how much we want to invest in it this camp, as well as what wasn’t as beneficial and how we can become more efficient and effective.
Video 1. Tire battling is great for building “structural strength” to fight out of the clinch or Front 7 engagements. Strengthening deficiencies is one of the hallmarks of a great athlete.
Almost always, the Do More and Do Better are designed to address deficiencies. Particularly after a convincing win, it is difficult for a champion to identify where we need work, because everything seemed to be on point. This process, however, is critical to sustained success. I absolutely DO NOT believe the old saying “You learn more from a loss than a win.” Both outcomes provide unique learning opportunities.
“Winning masks a lot of problems and allows a lot of people to cheat themselves.”– Jay Bilas
In order to strengthen deficiencies in time management and recovery, I use Omegawave with my athletes as a more objective measure and tool to improve education and communication. During periods of travel, when training options may not be ideal, athletes have to make modifications in their training. Omegawave is not only a way to monitor their readiness and recovery, but the data also provides us with a platform to discuss how training, travel, diet, and stress impact their measurement results.
I’ve found that when training options are limited, athletes tend to go back to their favorites and what they most enjoy, which usually gets them away from the emphasis on strengthening deficiencies. For example, I have a power athlete who is very type A and loves to push his own limits. Based on his trend data in Omegawave, however, we’ve discovered that a 30-minute aerobic development session every 7–10 days provides him with a tremendous recovery stimulus.
On a recent trip, his readings started to decline, which I brought up in a discussion. Only then did he mention stalled performance in his strength/power work and a lack of energy. Deeper into the conversation, we realized that he had forgotten to do an aerobic session for about three weeks. Once he began implementing these sessions again, everything corrected in a few days. Objective measurements provide an insurance policy that nothing has been overlooked or forgotten during the course of subjective monitoring.Objective measurements provide an insurance policy that nothing has been overlooked or forgotten during the course of the subjective monitoring, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
Identifying and persistently addressing deficiencies helps reduce the risk of failure. Although uncomfortable, it’s an essential piece of the process to maximize performance. Our next point addresses a similar concept, but from a different angle.
Whether we want to call it the “fear of failure” or even the “fear of success,” a lot of performers hold back slightly due to the fear that giving an absolute 100% and still failing is worse than having a built-in excuse. Performers who are merely good might self-sabotage by not emphasizing the preceding two character traits or taking the shortcut on conditioning, film, skill work, missing a training session, etc. Basically, those athletes might find ways to give 99%, so if things don’t go well, they can blame the missing 1% and then have a plan for the future.
“The little details add up until they represent significant differences.” – Bill Belichick
It’s a hell of a thing to truly “trust the process.” Very few athletes have this ability naturally. More often than not, it takes the assistance of those around them. This is where culture has its largest impact. Trust is key to attaining elite performance.
The performer has to trust that those supporting them will do as they say, are capable of helping get them to perform at the elite level, and have a deeply vested interest in their success. Only under these conditions can the performer truly trust that all the preparation will get them to the pinnacle. Please don’t misunderstand this to be soft and cuddly mush—those in supporting roles for the performer have to be honest, especially when uncomfortable. They, too, must be relentlessly demanding to keep the performer raising the standard with all three of these traits.
I have been fortunate to be part of a trio of major “culture changes” within Division I football programs (two as an assistant and one as head of strength and conditioning). Collectively, these teams won five games the previous year and then 19 our first season together. The first step is consistency of message and operation. Everyone who comes into contact with the athletes has to be on the same page at ALL times. This way, the expectation is set and being modeled by example.
Actions will always speak louder than words. There is no such thing as extra work, only work that needs to be done to accomplish your goals. When the athletes see this commitment from their coaches and all support staff, it goes a long way toward building trust.There is no such thing as extra work, only work that needs to be done to accomplish your goals, @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
There also has to be a belief structure. In these three situations where we set out to change team culture, the core beliefs have varied from our toughness to our work ethic, and in one case it began with simply getting the athletes to believe they had the talent necessary to win. In each situation, it was important to identify what the players valued and the areas where we, as coaches, needed to build their confidence. However, the toughness, work ethic, and talent need to be challenged and given an opportunity to be displayed in training.
There will be setbacks and teachable moments along the way. Every situation is a little different and will require a unique approach. Only through belief can you improve the behaviors and outcomes. This concept of culture change is a monster, worth a book of its own. I’m simply showing how culture is necessary to enable athletes to tap into that last 1% for elite performance.
So, there you have it—three critical character traits that basically demand you to defy human nature. No one enjoys giving up immediate gratification, working on things that are a personal struggle, or allowing themselves to be vulnerable. But those who stay on top of the mountain conquer these challenges. There are many factors involved in achieving greatness, but when you boil them all down, you’re left with one concept that covers many areas: Be willing to do what others aren’t.
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