The Difference between Elite and Super Elite Athletes

21st July 2023
Read time:  2 min 5 sec

In 2019, there was an interesting study to explore the differences in athletes that compete and those that win.

They interviewed 16 Super-Elite and 16 Elite Athletes.

Elite athletes were those who had competed at major international championships and won minor medals.

Super-Elite athletes were athletes who had been Olympic or World Champions several times (post-1996) or had won at least one more gold medal at another important international championship.

Note: This study was done in Olympic sports, and I also acknowledge that this is a snapshot. The study is not a recipe for how to create success but highlights some areas that I think are interesting for everyone, and that you can put into place.

First off, the study found qualities that both Super-Elite and Elite athletes share:

  • From a family that values hard work and success.
  • Having positive experiences in sports when they were younger.
  • Being dedicated to training, working hard, and doing their best in competitions.
  • Trying different sports when they were young and specializing later.
  • Having coaches who help them improve and compete at a high level.
  • Taking part in international competitions and experiencing both wins and losses (note the losses!).

What are the differences?

Yet there were differences between those on top of the podium and those that weren’t.

Difficult early years

Super-Elite athletes had early experiences of loss (parental separation, death) coupled with positive sport-related events. Possibly making use of sport as an ‘escape’.

Interestingly, they were more likely to attend a state school (not a private school), which could be seen as more challenging with a lack of resources and facilities, which could create a more resilient mindset.

Mindset

Super-Elite athletes were higher in obsessiveness, perfectionism, ruthlessness, and selfishness in pursuit of success goals. While many of these are not traits that are always favourable, I like to think that you can have them and still be a nice person.

In the words of Jordan Peterson, “You should be a monster, and then learn to control it”.

Just because you are obsessive, perfectionistic, ruthless, and selfish, doesn’t mean you have to do it to harm others.

Super-Elite athletes also tended to be both mastery-focused and outcome-focused.

In other words, they were focused on winning but also enjoyed the process of getting there.

Practice and Coaching

The Super Elite experienced more organised practice in their main sport (and other sports) as well as play between their first international championships and their first peak performance.

Their coaches were seen as meeting there needs, both psychologically and physically.

Having more organised structure in your training, even in a range of different sports, along with support from coaches, is going to get you to where you need to be.

Setbacks

They experienced more setbacks year-to-year up to and following their near career peak performances.

Leaning into the fact that the more you fail, the more you learn along the way.

Takeaways

As I mentioned, this study isn’t everything; it may not have taken into account physical attributes, genetic advantages, and the like.

But it highlights some areas that I think are important to reiterate and that we talk about in MindStrong and some areas that hit home about what you can do to have a super elite mindset.

Be ruthless, obsessive and selfish, but not an a**hole

Some of the attributes of success can be intense, but packaged in the right way, they don’t have to come at the cost of yours or others happiness. Learn to turn it on and off at the right time.

More setbacks = progress

Whether it’s a setback early on in life or recently, your perspective on your setbacks (or failures) is everything.

The more setbacks you face overall, the more you learn about how to get the right outcome.

Get the right support (if you don’t have it)

Your coaching and practice is vital. Make sure you’re getting what you need from both. Sometimes your coaches aren’t best for you right now. If you feel something isn’t right and you can’t change that, seek out extra mentors or external coaches for additional help.

Whenever you're ready, there is a couple of ways I can help you:

MindStrong Sport App – Mental Skills Training for Athletes

Personal Mindset Coaching - Contact for more

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