In the mid-1980s, David Hemery set out to answer a burning question: “What makes a winner?”
Hemery was a winner himself, having taken the gold in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1968 Olympics. He was curious as to what contributed to this achievement, and to the achievements of others. Were there common qualities amongst those individuals who attained the highest levels in their field?
Hemery knew that innate talent and inborn traits (especially physical traits when it came to sports) had something to do with it. But why didn’t all who possessed these potential advantages make it to the elite level? And among the equally gifted people who did, what allowed one of them to best the others and come out on top? Talent, Hemery recognized, was necessary but not sufficient for greatness. He wanted to know what other factors were at play.
To discover the answer, Hemery interviewed 62 of the highest achievers in the world of sports — amateur and professional athletes who had won competitions consistently, earned Olympic gold, set world records, and/or become champions. To these athletes, who hailed from twelve different countries and were drawn from twenty-two different sports, Hemery put a set of 88 questions. He sat down with them for hours-long interviews, seeking to unearth the backgrounds, mindsets, and habits that had contributed to their success.
Hemery chose to study athletes because their achievements are easily quantifiable. But he believed that the bulk of what made for greatness in athletes would also apply to attaining excellence in “all fields of human endeavor.”
While not every athlete shared every attribute, many distinct commonalities did emerge. Some were based on circumstances that individuals cannot control; others were qualities that can be cultivated with intention. It’s unclear whether these factors cause greatness, or are merely correlated with it, but they’re interesting to consider regardless.
Hemery unpacked his findings in 1986’s Sporting Excellence: A Study of Sport’s Highest Achievers. Below we share some of the noteworthy attributes he found in common amongst elite champions:
Late specialization. When David Epstein published Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World several years ago, his observation that top athletes often pursued several sports as children before choosing to concentrate on one later in their youth seemed to be hailed as a new discovery. Yet Hemery found this exact thing amongst the high achievers he studied nearly forty years ago.
While a few sports like swimming and gymnastics “had a definite bias towards a younger starting age,” on average, the athletes Hemery studied didn’t specialize in a single sport until they were sixteen. Instead, they played a variety of sports (with an emphasis on having fun) through the first years of high school, only deciding to focus on a single sport in their late teens to see how far they could take it.
Stable home life. While the participants in Hemery’s study were drawn equally from middle-class, working-class, and outright poor backgrounds (interestingly, only 3% came from affluent families), they almost unanimously reported that their home life had been happy (93%), secure (94%), and stable (98%).
Only “6% had either a parent die or parents who were divorced” (a statistic that’s all the more remarkable given that the divorce rate peaked in the 1980s), and more than two-thirds had a close relationship with their parents.
As Hemery observed, “Crops grow better in good soil.”
Non-competitive, non-pushy parents. While we often think that behind every superstar athlete is a set of parents who drove their child to succeed, 95% of Hemery’s participants said their parents hadn’t been over-ambitious and pushy about achieving success. Only half of the participants said that their parents had high expectations for them, and even among this half, over a quarter of them said that these expectations concerned their education, not their achievement in sports. 92% characterized their parents as simply being “supportive and encouraging.”
By and large, the high achievers had reached for lofty goals because they themselves wanted to, not because their parents had pushed them to do it. While 92% of the athletes considered themselves competitive, and this competitive streak manifested itself early in their childhoods, less than half described their parents as competitive. As Hemery observed, “It is interesting that this is an attribute not acquired by example.”
Late or early puberty. 66% of the athletes Hemery studied went through puberty at a later-than-average age; 22% hit puberty early; only 12% had gone through it at an average age. It might be theorized that this is a case of correlation rather than causation, i.e., late puberty doesn’t lead to high achievement in sports; instead, these athletes were high achievers because they trained intensely, and intense training can delay puberty, at least in females. That may be the case, but most of the athletes in Hemery’s study were males, and remember, they did not begin training super intensely in their youth.
Hemery admitted that the statistics here may be misleading given the small sample size. But he theorized that those who hit puberty late are overrepresented among high-achieving athletes because the delay in their development gives these athletes something of a chip on their shoulder; they have more to prove and work harder to prove it. Hemery himself was the smallest in his grade when he was fourteen, though he later grew to 6″ 2′. Another example of an athlete who didn’t grow and fill out until later in life was Gene Upshaw, a pro football hall of famer and two-time Super Bowl champion; when “he left school at eighteen, he was 5 ft 10 in and between 175 and 180 lb. Yet he grew to 6 ft 6 in and 260 lb during his college days.”
On the other end, those who hit puberty early have an obvious athletic advantage in becoming physically developed before their peers, and may also be looked to as leaders on the field.
Introversion. 89% of the sports achievers classified themselves as introverts, 6% said they were extroverts, and the rest described themselves as being somewhere in between. While some of these introverts were also shy, most said they “had no problems getting on with anyone.” They were socially adept, but also didn’t mind spending time in solitude.
The finding makes sense: even in team sports, elite athletes must spend a good amount of time training by themselves and be willing to forgo parties and other social opportunities in dedication to practices and competitions.
As mentioned above, Hemery thought that the same attributes which contributed to the success of top athletes would contribute to success in other fields of achievement as well. But in this case, he found that among individuals who became what he called “double achievers” and achieved success in both sports and another area like business, most were extroverts.
Sensitivity to what others think. There’s a popular idea in the modern world that not caring about what other people think is a superpower — that if you could just free yourself from thinking about the opinion of the crowd, it would unlock the limits on your potential.
Yet, nearly 90% of Hemery’s high achievers, the sporting world’s best of the best, “felt it was important what others thought of you.” And 92% said “they wanted to please others through their sports participation.” Who were these others they wanted to please? Their parents, coaches, spouses, teammates, friends, managers, sponsors, owners, or fans . . . often some combination of all the above. By and large, these elite athletes were acutely sensitive to criticism and the expectations of those around them. Only five athletes said “they were not aiming to please anyone but themselves.”
While public pressure might seem like an impediment to performance, it drove these athletes to the highest levels of success. The thought of letting others down was anathema; when they stepped into the arena, they would not, and could not, allow themselves to fail.
Sense of humor. Nearly 90% of the athletes Hemery studied felt that humor was important in day-to-day life. Because so much of the training and competitions they engaged in were conducted with seriousness, the ability to sometimes cut up, laugh, and see the funny side of life was a vital outlet for building camaraderie, reducing tension, and getting perspective.
Emotional intensity + high control. These top competitors unanimously agreed that true greatness came from possessing both high emotion and high self-control. Without intense emotional arousal, athletes don’t have the level of investment to put in their best day in and day out and compete with animation and energy. But without intense self-control, their emotions would get the best of them and sabotage their performance.
The best athletes were able to maintain “a calm and controlled approach while ‘fired up.'”
Ability to cope with pre-competition stress. Whereas some people collapse under the pressure of competition, these high achievers thrived under it. They did their best when the stakes were high. They enjoyed being under the bright lights. The comment of squash champion Jonah Barrington summarized the attitude of these athletes: “I love competing. I get fired up, no panic.”
All of the athletes Hemery interviewed reported either not feeling stressed out before an event or being able to cope well with any stress they did feel. 77% said they could “shut themselves off from their problems or concerns once they entered the sports arena.” Hockey great Wayne Gretzky spoke for many of the athletes in saying he was able to “block out” everything but the game.
Those who did get nervous before a competition experienced this feeling as a positive, energizing force that would only strengthen and fuel their performance.
Part of their adeptness in dealing with stress may have been inborn, but these athletes also cultivated practices that helped them manage their nerves. Almost three-quarters of them cloistered themselves before an event and disengaged from involvement with other people and “from distractions either mentally, physically, or both.” Some needed days of isolation; for others, it was enough to spend a quiet half hour alone before the start of a competition. Those who were going to be participating in a more periodic event like the Olympics tended to need more “monk mode” time than those who participated in a game every week, like professional athletes.
Said Olympic long jump champion Lynn Davies, “I think it’s part of the process. You train very hard and you withdraw into yourself. I think you seek inner strength and you can’t share yourself with people.”
Use of visualization. 80% of the participants in the study said they used a visualization practice as part of their mental training. They would mentally rehearse how they would perform during an upcoming competition, cognitively running through possible scenarios and what they would do under various conditions. They would often visit the stadium or course where the event would take place to add the landscape to their minds and make these mental rehearsals more detailed and realistic. Some so immersed themselves in these simulations that their heart rate would rise to around the level it would be during the competition.
By engaging in these sensory-rich visualizations, when the time of the competition arrived, the atmosphere felt more familiar, giving the athletes the sense they’d been there before and a greater feeling of being in control of their performance. Having mentally prepared ahead of time, changes in circumstances did not throw them off, and they were able to respond proactively instead of reactively. “Perhaps most important,” Hemery theorized, “the individual is convincing himself or herself that an improved and successful action is possible. This means that one is working not only on an improved physical action but also on an improved self-image.” Visualization allowed the athletes to conceptualize themselves as winners; embed the possibility of mounting the medal stand in their minds; generate the feeling that they belonged in the circle of champions.
High self-confidence. In answer to the question, “Did you always have the self-confidence that you could produce your best effort when you asked that of yourself?” 87% of the athletes said yes.
While this self-confidence derived from a variety of sources, one of the primary themes across the athletes’ responses was that they drew their confidence from the belief that they had done more or worked harder than their competitors. The decision to do a little extra practice on their own after their teammates had gone home or to train in the kind of inclement weather they knew would keep most of their rivals inside built their self-assurance.
Champion rugby player Barry John reported: “I still went out on my own when I felt I needed sharpening up, even in the snow and ice on the field by the river. I’d clear a little path through the light snow of about 100 yards, and I’d do twenty to twenty-five minutes to prepare my mind for the weekend game.” Another rugby great, J.P.R. Williams, ran the sand dunes near where he lived, feeling that his “work there gave him more stamina than most other rugby players.”
Ed Moses, who won Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles, found confidence in the fact that he could fast from food for up to a week and still train hard. Other athletes derived satisfaction in training on holidays like Christmas, knowing that most of their competitors had taken the day off.
By engaging in above-average preparation, the athletes gained a psychological edge when they competed. Hemery observed: “Knowledge that the work had been done to the best of their ability gave a strong sense of confidence and provided a sense of calm; all that could have been done had been done.”
High tolerance for discomfort. Much research over the last several decades has shown that the pain and discomfort athletes experience when pushing themselves, which seem to signal that their bodies can physically go no farther, is actually an illusion, the product of a cautious, scarcity-minded brain that puts the brakes on exertion well before one’s physiological resources have in fact been exhausted. Athletic excellence has thus been linked to the capacity to tolerate discomfort — to feel the pinch and the pain and keep going anyway.
This ability was evident in the athletes Hemery studied. 97% consistently trained hard and believed that the intensity of their training made a significant difference in their ultimate success. Many of the athletes believed that it wasn’t so much the physical intensity of their training that made the difference but the effect that the physical training had on their mental resilience. By pushing themselves in practice, the athletes learned that they were capable of much more than they might have otherwise thought.
Commonly made were observations like that from swimmer Duncan Goodhew, who earned a gold and bronze medal in the 1980 Olympics; he said that two or three times a week, he wouldn’t feel up to training, but when he did it anyway, “I found that 95 percent of the time it was psychological. I would get in, and forty-five minutes or an hour later, I was knocking out amazing times.” Another gold medal winner, Herb Elliott, who’s considered the greatest middle-distance runner of his era, put it this way, “In retrospect, my training wasn’t to improve my physical strength or stamina; those came along as a secondary result, but the primary purpose of every training session was to toughen up mentally. A training session was totally useless until it started to hurt. That was the point when it started to be worthwhile.”
Gene Upshaw said, “If you don’t push yourself that way, you’re never ever going to move higher than you are.”
Hemery wrote that Ralph Doubell, a track athlete who won a gold medal in the 800 meters, didn’t even “like the term pain. He saw it more as a willingness to push oneself, and that was both a mental and physical exercise. He referred to the classic comment of the Oxford University coach who spoke to an athlete who was sweating while running round the track, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only pain.'”
Enjoys their pursuit. Even though Hemery’s athletes subjected themselves to what at least most people would consider pain, practiced with great intensity, and had to give up social opportunities, leisure time, and indulgent habits to strive for excellence in their domain, nearly two-thirds did not think they “had sacrificed anything in order to pursue their sport.” Those things they had to forgo to attain their elite-level success did not feel like sacrifices because it was what they wanted to do, and because they felt amply compensated by what they received in return. They had liked it, all of it — the training, the competitions, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. They felt it had enhanced, not detracted from, their lives.
Because the athletes had chosen a pursuit they truly enjoyed, it wasn’t discipline but intrinsic motivation that kept them going. Olympian Lynn Davis said, “I believe if you spend two or three hours a day over a long period of time at something which you enjoy doing, you become very good at it regardless of what it is, but you have to tap what it is that motivates you, that you enjoy doing.”
Rod Laver, who won the most singles titles in tennis history, including 11 Grand Slams, told Hemery: “It was tennis morning, noon, and night. You slept it, you ate it, but that was never forced on me. I would get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to ride my bike, eight or nine miles sometimes, to get to the club matches. We’d play all day, and people would say, ‘Weren’t you tired after cycling all that way?’ Well, that wasn’t even thought of. It was just the opportunity to play.”
While it’s true that no greatness is ever achieved without doing hard things, it’s a misconception to think that hard things are always unpleasant. For each person, there are particular hard things that, though most people would find them a self-flagellation-requiring grind, he actually enjoys doing. As David Epstein put it, “What looks like grit, is often fit.”
Feels in control of their destiny. Nearly 90% of the participants said they felt in control of their destiny. At the same time, when asked, “Do you consider yourself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time?” 88% answered yes.
There is no contradiction in their belief in a strong internal locus of control and the power of luck. These high achievers felt lucky that they had found a sport so well-suited to their interests, motivation, and abilities. They felt lucky that they happened to be in the right spot at the right time to find the right coach and wind up on the right team with the right organizational and parental support. They felt lucky to have been given the opportunities that they were.
At the same time, they had decided to make the most of those opportunities. They had invested their everything into the chances they were given. As Hemery observed, these top performers didn’t “simply let things happen . . . [they] made things happen . . . they contributed to their own good fortune. The proverb that God helps those who help themselves was in evidence.”
Hemery shared the perspective of Olympian Duncan Goodhew, who “had a view that each individual has talent and the lucky ones are those who find it.” Goodhew said: “I think you are lucky to discover it and are extremely lucky and may be shrewd to recognize it at the time, and then the rest is the follow-through.”