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The mental edge of elite athletes

The mental edge of elite athletes

Sanjay Soekhoe
A professional strength and conditioning coach, boxing coach, videographer. He is one of the few Westside Barbell certified coaches in the world and the first in the Netherlands.
He also writes for the international publication World of Martial Arts.


“Boxing is 75% mental and emotional, 25% is physical.”
– Cus D’Amato


In 1994, George Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion in the world in boxing at 45 years old. He knocked out the 26-year old and undefeated Michael Moorer. How does an athlete manage to win when all the odds are against him? There are a lot of instances where athletes overcome difficulties and defy the odds in order to achieve success. There are several elements that come into play when overcoming the odds, one of the key elements is mentality. What shapes this highly sought-after ingredient and why is it so important? Do elite athletes and amateur athletes differ in the way they approach a sport mentally? What exactly is the mentality of a champion?

Certainly, mentality as a scholarly phenomenon is not a well-researched subject. There are thousands of sources that claim to address the mentality. Still, they usually end up covering only a facet of a complex notion, with attempts to describe elements of psyche, emotions, reactions, and aspirations. Not to say that this article provides a comprehensive explanation of what mentality is; it is an introductory stage on my path as a researcher and strength and conditioning coach to broaden my knowledge on the topic. The mentality is an inseparable core of high-performance sports in general and particularly in strength and conditioning.

According to EUASU Academician Oleg Maltsev, mentality (mindset) is “…the consequence of a person’s struggle with life, which is an inalienable element that could be an obstacle and change a person in a way s/he is not even aware of. In the modern era, the mentality is the main obstacle en route to dealing with tasks and shaping one’s future.” With this in mind, this paper looks into sports mentality, illustrating it with real-life situations.

On April 12, 2012, the Los Angeles Lakers were in their 80th game of the season. Kobe Bryant, one of the best basketball players of all time, made a lateral move to move past Harrison Barnes. In a split second Kobe floundered to the floor and held his ankle. The referee whistles for a foul and Bryant is allowed to take two free throws. He limps to the free-throw line and scores two free throws. Kobe limps away to the locker room after he scored the points. He underwent an MRI after the game, which revealed a ruptured left Achilles. How does an athlete rupture his Achilles tendon, walk up to the free-throw line, make the shots, and continue to walk off to the locker room seemingly unshattered.

Next to being physically fit and having the skills for your sport, there is one more element that plays a huge role in sports performance. That is mentality. Mentality is the psychological make-up of a person. It is made up of one’s attitudes, beliefs, philosophy, outlook on the world, and mindset. This includes the ability to handle stress and setbacks. The things an athlete focuses on, staying relaxed under pressure, having total confidence in himself, having a clear goal, what he wants to sacrifice, creating an optimal environment, facing challenges consistently and other things like that.

A person’s mentality is largely shaped in childhood and during the person’s upbringing. Moreover, mentality is influenced by one’s environment, family, geography/culture, and time (Oleg Maltsev, 2021). When a baby is born they are immediately thrust into a world of win or lose, this makes them either believe that they are successful or not measure up to status quo. Little kids are constantly told how good or bad they are at something and this shapes their self-worth. These words aid in shaping the attitude and outlook on life for an individual. Every word, every image, and every person a child encounters will shape his mentality one way or another. From the movies, he sees to the music that plays on the radio, unconsciously he will adjust to the things he observes with his senses. From there on out, as the child grows up all the things he encounters shaped his outlook, and all the things he chooses to do are filtered through this outlook. This is seen in children raised in poverty and gone into sports. They may not have any material possessions, but most of them will never lack confidence because they had to fight for what they wanted. According to boxing writer Springs Toledo, Roberto Duran is a product of poverty. From cleaning shoes in the slums of El Chorillo in Panama to becoming world champion in four weight classes and being regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time. Duran was already used to pain, long days, street fights, and not having food to eat. He became a boxer out of necessity. The inner drive to simply get food on the table took Duran to places unknown before. Duran had so many early deficiencies as a child that that became his fuel to succeed in the way he did.

If Duran would have been born now, things might have been different. Time plays a huge role in the shaping of mentality. Things are different now. We have the internet. Life is overall more comfortable. These things influence one’s outlook on life. If his family would have been different, the world might have not known Roberto Duran. It is known that families of low income tend to function with astounding strength. This might have been one of the reasons for Duran’s devastating strength and iron will in the ring. The future implications of mentality are far-reaching and can last a lifetime, affecting everything from career choices to personal relationships. Someone who is making life-altering decisions is always vulnerable to subjective judgment, which is often because of his mentality.

Why is a strong mentality important?

Mentality plays an important role in whether or not athletes will be successful. If athletes have a negative self-image, they are likely to struggle with the mental challenges that come their way. They are also more likely to struggle with stress and anxiety which can make it difficult for them to perform at their best. On the other hand, if athletes have a positive self-image, they are less likely to struggle with stress and anxiety as well as perform under pressure during high-stakes situations. In boxing, there are fights when there is an underdog fighting a world champion. An underdog is someone who is expected to lose, has a clear disadvantage, and has all the odds against him. But still, these fights are interesting. Why? Why is something with such an obvious outcome still interesting? Because the outcome is not obvious at all. The spectators have no clue with what kind of mental make-up both fighters enter the ring. This is what makes for an interesting fight.

When George Kambosos Jr. fought world champion, Teofimo Lopez, he was considered to have zero chance of winning. He was a 13 to 1 underdog. It was supposed to be a walk in the park for Lopez. All the media talked about how Kambosos bit off more than he could chew. The undefeated Lopez entered the ring as the champion expecting to leave as the champion. Kambosos had other plans. Lopez was knocked down in the first round and that set the tone for the entire fight. Kambosos was prepared, both physically and mentally. The underdog became the champion of the world that day. One of the differences between Kambosos and Lopez was their outlook on the fight. While Teofimo was supposed to walk over his opponent, Kambosos walked in fully believing in himself. He only saw one outcome. In his own words: “I was prepared to go through whatever I had to go through in that ring. I was prepared to die in that ring and become the champion and fulfill my destiny.” That night Kambosos displayed a champion’s mentality. In the face of adversity, he decided to step up and not let the negative media outlets get to him. He rose up to the challenge of facing the undefeated champion head-on. Unlike Lopez, Kambosos managed his emotions well throughout the fight. And that is a crucial element when you’re in there with the best of the world.

Having the determination to win creates an unstoppable force. It is like a train with no brakes. It keeps on going, just make sure to lay the tracks in the right direction. Every athlete has those things that fuel him, whether it’s fame, money, revenge, etc. The bigger that desire to fill this lack he has, this deficiency, the more determination and zeal he can display. It becomes crucial for athletes to understand why they are pursuing what they want and how they use it as fuel.

When NBA All-Star Michael Jordan grew up with his brothers and sisters, he had competitions every day. He explained that he and his brother fought every day. When Jordan didn’t make the varsity team, because the coach picked another athlete over him, the thought that ran through Jordan’s head about the coach was: “You made a mistake dude.” A lot of similar events threw logs to the fire for Jordan. He created battles in his mind. He thrived on his competitive nature. When Jordan spoke about one of his basketball coaches, Jerry Reinsdorf, Michael said: “He provided a lot of different obstacles for me.” Michael needed obstacles and challenges in the form of competition. He always looked for opportunities to prove himself.

After a tough game where Michael managed to score enough points to win the game, coach Tex Winter said to him: “Michael, there is no I in team.” Michael’s response: “There’s not, but there is an I in win.” To be considered the best of the best, or even a legend in a sport, it takes tremendous effort, discipline, determination, and focus. When Kobe Bryant was a teenager he got a call from no other than the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Michael’s advice to Kobe: “There’s strength in isolation. There’s strength in being obsessive about something.”

Average vs. Elite athletes

In sports, there are two general categories of athletes: average and elite. In baseball, the batting average is one of the most important factors when it comes to baseball. The batting average is calculated by dividing the number of hits by the number of attempts, or what the baseball community calls “at bats”. A baseball player with a batting average of .250, i.e. out of 1000 attempts he makes 250 hits, may be considered an average athlete. An elite athlete is a more rare breed who can consistently hit near 300-350 on the batting average scale. There are many differences between the two athletes, one of them being their approach to the objective. In order to work on a weak area, an athlete must spend the required time on this area. It can take weeks, months, or even years before it’s where he wants it to be. This is where we find one of the differences between elite and average athletes.

The elite will carefully analyze their game, they are coachable, and know how to find solace in isolation. They have to be able to love isolation because it is in this deliberate practice where they can refine one specific part of their game. For most people, it is hard to voluntarily do literally the same thing over and over. There are not many people who are willing to wake up an hour earlier just to hit a curveball over and over, or stand at the free-throw line and make sure to make 500 shots before the real basketball practice starts. Failure for them is not seen as an end but as a part of winning. It’s what builds character. As Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton says: “Failure is 100% percent necessary for greatness.”

A term that is used in various disciplines is “killer instinct“. It is the instinct that kicks in when it is time for the athlete to perform. Like an actor stepping on stage. When an athlete steps into his territory, the switch is turned on and another part of himself is activated. Morals are out of the window. All daily matters are left in the locker room. Some people think participating is more important than winning, these “killer instinct” athletes do not agree. To elite athletes winning is the main goal and average athletes who think participating is more important, only make it easy to win for the elites. If you are not able to stay in the moment and focus on the task at hand, the odds of losing increase.

The higher the class you are in, the bigger the mountain you climb, the more eyes are on you and your goal. But an important thing to realize is that pressure is created by the athlete; It is not the crowd watching or chanting your name. It is the value you give to that situation and how much it will impact you. Emotions should not and cannot interfere with your performance. Someone with a killer mentality will always give his best. It is simply the only state the athlete knows. You thrive on the outlook of a challenge rather than staying in your comfort zone. It is a mentality that makes sure you’re 100% focused on one task and one task only. There is no room for any type of distraction. There are minimal thoughts, and if there are, it’s only about the objective. All performance happens on instinct.

When one of the greatest big wave surfers, Laird Hamilton, was a kid he was rescued so much out of the sea, there were hundreds if not thousands of instances where he thought he would drown. All these experiences made him tolerate fear and he learned how to use it as fuel for his performance. He understood the importance of the fact that failure is necessary for success. It was an opportunity for Laird to assess his strengths and shortcomings and improve them for the future.

The champion’s mind

Athletes who want to be successful must have a commitment to being the best. This means that willingly put in the hard work and dedication necessary to reach their goals. They must also be prepared to face the challenges and setbacks that come their way and more importantly, they must be ready to continuously challenge themselves. Athletes must have a positive mindset and be willing to work through the pain and discomfort. In order to be successful, athletes must have a strong commitment to their sport and be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.

Champions are at peace with being outcasts. Unlike many others, champions don’t see being different as a negative thing; it is exactly this that makes them unique and they embrace it. They set goals for themselves that seem impossible to ordinary people. Because of that, they’re often labeled as crazy people. Another thing that makes champions crazy is their obsessiveness with their goal. If you want to excel in a certain area, you must be obsessed with it. It must be your biggest passion in life. But it’s a choice. Being great is a choice. Once that choice is made, a champion understands that their life revolves around one thing, achieving their goal. Many people view this as a sacrifice, but the champion does not look at it that way. He is too obsessed with achieving his goal. Many individuals claim they wish to become great but are unwilling to make the necessary efforts required. They have other issues on their mind, some of which are significant and others of which are not, and they can not focus.

It is a choice to be committed. Someone who doesn’t have the drive or is not convinced that what he or she is doing will lead to success will never put in the effort needed to reach their objectives. We can all become outstanding and master something, but there is a cost involved. And this all relies on your choice. The presence of challenges can make a person grow. But you must be willing to take up a challenge; it takes guts. Elite athletes have that type of guts. It has been said that the easiest way to catch an alligator is to wait until it ate because it will have lost its ferociousness for a moment. Elite athletes are just like starving alligators. They will not stop by any means. Elite athletes know their prey and similar to alligators they create the most optimal environment in order to win. They surround themselves with the right people, books, coaches, and so on. Everything in their lives is dedicated to achieving one goal. Just like a soldier on a mission.

Champions are admired for their self-discipline and self-drive. They do not hit the snooze button on the early morning alarm clocks, work tirelessly again and again. It is their never-give-up mentality that heightens their performance every time. A champion understands the need for objectivity in training the aspects of their game that needs improvement. A champion’s intrinsic motivation is strong enough that they can consume new information and skills intently. Champions have an eagerness to become a master at their craft. They might have an ego, but it is not the leader; they are able to make it a great servant. While the average athlete has a superficial understanding of their game and even desires. An elite athlete understands the game thoroughly and are on a quest for self-discovery. Most average athletes do not explore the range of their limits, yet this is exactly the zone where champions thrive.

Athletes at the top of their game will always ask themselves what matters most to them. They feel guilty when they have not done everything possible to excel in their area. Moreover, elite athletes understand that true confidence comes from meticulous preparation. They are willing to do whatever it takes to reach the epitome of success. This also means doing things they do not like. That makes all the difference between elites and averages. The latter mostly does what he enjoys, while the former thinks of the bigger picture. The mountain the elite athlete climbs is a lot higher than what most people have their eyes on. The risk is higher, the climb is harder, and the higher the climb the harder it gets. At no point in the climb does it get easier. Champions are able to control their thoughts and do the work when they do not want to. No matter what happens, not a day goes by when they are not getting closer to their goal, one way or another. All the mistakes they make are viewed with a growth mindset. Each mistake is yet another opportunity for them to get better at their craft.

From sport to life and vice versa

In order to be mentally tough, athletes must learn how to push through challenges both on and off of the field. In a way, sport teaches athletes a lot about life. When an athlete is faced with challenging situations in their career, they will have already learned how to handle those situations. If they do not know how to move forward from a setback, they can look back at previous failures and use that as motivation for future success. Athletes who are successful reflect upon their past experiences and learn from them so that they can achieve long-term goals. Their deep understanding of the sport they chose to do makes them understand that sport and life, it’s one and the same thing. The same principles apply. Whether it’s boxing, basketball, or surfing. Once you become elite in your sports endeavor it transfers to living outside the field. Look at Michael Jordan with his famous Jordan shoes. Or look at David Beckham’s fragrance line, or, lastly, Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. In short, the sport athletes chose and the principles learned transcended sport and fitted perfectly into life.

To conclude, a strong mentality is important because it can make or break an athlete. It’s the difference between success and failure in sport. The most successful athletes are ones who have a strong mentality. They know that they can achieve excellence by pushing themselves to the limits of their potential. A champion’s mindset is one that is able to push through challenges both on and off of the field, which not only makes them mentally tough but also teaches them how to be durable in everyday life. These qualities are what separate success from failure. This is what separates the elite from the average.


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