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Commentary: What Makes a Great “Athlete”

What makes a great athlete powerlifting

After lifting weights for a period of time, you start to develop a sense of who’s strong, maybe even follow a few high-level powerlifters. Feats of strength from athletes like Clinton Lee and Qian Qi are amazing. Watching their feats and performance on the platform, all the accolades they’ve won, the glory; it is almost impossible not to idolize them. Behind that thought you find yourself wondering: what makes them different? What do they have that I don’t? How do I become a great athlete?

One might be quick to conclude these Athletes’ achievements are due to their innate abilities – intelligence, natural physical capabilities, circumstances. To a large extent, that is true. Everyone has their own potential and limitations, and often you need to be blessed to perform at the highest levels of a sport. After all, you can train to jump higher, but you can’t increase your physical height. Sorry Ma, I tried.

However, is that all there is to it? Absolutely not. While you cannot change your genetics, there are plenty of things that you can work on. When you look at all the factors, there is really only one that you have control over – your mind. Great athletes’ successes are all, in fact, made up of small choices. They understand that attitude and discipline are the manifestations of well thought-out intentions. Goals and intent inform choices, choices inform processes and habits. Nobody else can put in the effort for them – there is no substitute. Great athletes put in hours and hours that feed into their eventual success down the road.

And these decisions aren’t driven by extrinsic rewards, but by an inner desire within to grow into their best selves. When the desire to pursue excellence comes from within, the current circumstances matter very little; they understand that they hold the power to shape their own journey. This is also why great athletes display high levels of self-confidence and humility. Do not mistake this for arrogance or cockiness. Rather, it is the cultivation of a deep resilient faith that they will achieve their goals as long as they pursue self-mastery. There is always room for improvement – for more hours, training, dedication, and heart.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Timothy Ferris, adapted from Worstward Ho (1983)

With all their awe-inspiring performance and countless achievements, it is easy to forget that these Athletes are humans just like all of us. They have issues that they struggle with. They have their moments of weakness, and moments of breakthrough. This doesn’t lessen their achievements. On the contrary, being Human is what makes them an Athlete. Behind the golden hardware lies the heart, character, dedication, and the commitment to do the best they can with what they’ve got.

Without a doubt, every sport comes with its fair share of stress, anxiety, and challenges. For some, the pressure is greater than others. But how do we keep moving forward with all these stress and pressure? You can only accept it, and embrace its necessity to push yourself to greater heights. As they say, “no pressure, no diamonds”. Yet, all these pressures will make you crumble without any strategy to deal with them effectively. During tough times, great athletes rely on positive self-talk. They visualise themselves in a position of success. For some Stoics, the reverse works just as well with negative visualization, something decorated Olympian Michael Phelps famously employed his entire swimming career. Most importantly, great athletes are part of a larger support system: their families, friends, training partners, coaches, and many others. They are not afraid to rely on others’ support and assistance. It becomes that much easier to handle all that stress and pressure when you are able to effectively communicate your thoughts and feelings to those who will support you no matter what. So don’t be afraid to share with your coaches how you are feeling. Bring your training partners up when they are down, and have the courage to step up and be a leader to bring out the best in yourself and those around you.

More than anything, traits are born from choices. You will find some of these traits in you. Shed the undesirable traits, as did and are doing the great athletes. Not immediately, but with conscious effort. Because you are much more of an Athlete than you give yourself credit for. At the end of the day, no piece of hardware can ever define the Athlete.

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This article and commentary first appeared on ENSO Powerlifting, on Apr 7, 2020.

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