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What Sets Elite Athletes Apart From The Average?

In the world of sports, the difference between an elite athlete and an average one is often not a matter of physical prowess alone. Sure, having muscles that pop out of your shirt and the speed of a cheetah helps, but the real game-changer is what’s going on from the neck up. As a mental performance coach, I’ve seen it all, from the determined to the downright delusional. Let’s dive into the quirks and qualities that set elite athletes apart, making them members of an exclusive club that thrives on adversity, challenges, and resilience.

The Mindset of an Elite Athlete

Embracing Adversity

Elite athletes view adversity not as a setback but as an opportunity for growth. This perspective isn’t something they’re born with; it’s cultivated through years of mental conditioning—and probably a few hundred motivational posters.

  • Positive Reframing: Instead of seeing failures or setbacks as negative, elite athletes reframe them positively. Kind of like when you realize that your broken arm means you get out of doing chores for a month.

  • Growth Mindset: Inspired by psychologist Carol Dweck’s research, elite athletes adopt a growth mindset. They believe their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. You know, the same mindset that convinces you that eating kale smoothies will turn you into a superhuman. (I actually can't stand kale!)

Resilience and Grit

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks, while grit is the sustained passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Both are indispensable traits of elite athletes—and also of anyone who’s ever tried assembling IKEA furniture.

  • Emotional Regulation: Elite athletes are adept at managing their emotions. They stay calm under pressure and maintain focus even in the face of disappointment. Imagine losing a game and not throwing your PlayStation controller through the window.

  • Persistence: They demonstrate an unwavering commitment to their goals. This persistence is not just about working hard but also about working smart, continually seeking ways to improve and adapt. Kind of like figuring out which angle your cat prefers to be pet to avoid a sudden claw attack.

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness encompasses the ability to remain determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure. It’s the backbone of an elite athlete’s success and the reason they don’t break down into a puddle of tears during a high-stakes game.

  • Focus and Concentration: Elite athletes have an exceptional ability to concentrate on the task at hand. They tune out distractions and maintain laser-like focus on their performance. Think about the last time you tried to focus on work while your neighbor’s dog held a barking marathon.

  • Confidence: Confidence in their abilities is a hallmark of elite athletes. This self-belief is built through preparation, experience, and a track record of overcoming challenges. It’s like the confidence you feel after successfully parallel parking on the first try.

The Journey to Mental Excellence

Setting and Achieving Goals

Goal setting is a critical component of the mental game. Elite athletes set clear, challenging, yet achievable goals that provide direction and motivation. And unlike your New Year’s resolutions, they actually stick to them.

  • SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals help elite athletes stay on track. They break down long-term objectives into manageable milestones. Kind of like planning your grocery shopping around the meat aisle.

  • Visualization: Many elite athletes use visualization techniques to mentally rehearse their performance. This mental imagery helps them prepare for various scenarios and enhances their confidence and focus. Picture yourself at the team Christmas party, imagining all the ways you’ll avoid awkward conversations with "super fans".

Consistent Practice of Mental Skills

Just as they train their bodies, elite athletes consistently practice mental skills to enhance their performance. It’s like training your brain to remember where you left your keys, but on a much grander scale.

  • Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices help athletes stay present, reduce stress, and improve their focus and emotional regulation. Also handy for keeping calm when you realize you’re out of coffee.

  • Self-talk: Positive self-talk helps elite athletes maintain a constructive mindset. They replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations that reinforce their self-belief and motivation. Think of it as your internal hype man, constantly reminding you that you’re awesome.

Support Systems

Elite athletes often have a robust support system that includes coaches, mentors, family, and mental performance specialists. This network provides emotional support, guidance, and accountability.

  • Coaching and Mentorship: Coaches and mentors play a crucial role in developing an athlete’s mental toughness. They provide feedback, encouragement, and strategies to help athletes overcome challenges. They’re like the human versions of those annoying but necessary GPS systems that keep you from getting lost.

  • Peer Support: Fellow athletes who share similar goals and challenges can offer valuable support and camaraderie. Think of it as a support group, but with more sweat and fewer donuts.

The Exclusive Club of Elite Athletes

Embracing the Grind

Becoming an elite athlete is not for the faint of heart. It requires a relentless work ethic and a willingness to embrace the grind. This means enduring long hours of training, making sacrifices, and pushing through pain and fatigue. Kind of like prepping for a marathon while surviving on nothing but coffee and determination.

  • Discipline: Elite athletes exhibit exceptional discipline in their training, nutrition, and lifestyle choices. They understand that every decision impacts their performance. They probably even resist the temptation of late-night pizza.

  • Sacrifice: They often make significant sacrifices, including time with family and friends, to achieve their goals. Like skipping the weekend Netflix binge to squeeze in an extra workout.


The ability to adapt to changing circumstances is another trait that sets elite athletes apart. Whether it’s adjusting to a new coach, recovering from an injury, or dealing with personal challenges, elite athletes remain flexible and open to change.

  • Flexibility: They are willing to change their approach if it leads to better results. This flexibility allows them to stay ahead of the competition. Imagine being flexible enough to change your entire morning routine because you ran out of coffee.

  • Innovation: Elite athletes continually seek new ways to enhance their performance, whether through advanced training techniques, cutting-edge technology, or novel recovery methods. They’re like the MacGyvers of the sports world, always finding a way to get better.


The journey to becoming an elite athlete is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. It requires a mindset that embraces adversity, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to excellence. This mental fortitude is what distinguishes elite athletes from the average, making them members of an exclusive club that continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible.

As a mental performance coach, I can attest that the path to greatness lies within each athlete’s mind. By cultivating the right mindset, anyone can unlock their potential and rise to the exclusive ranks of the elite. Remember, it’s not just about physical talent—it’s about what happens from the neck up. And maybe a little bit about having a sense of humor along the way.


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