To be a world-class swimmer, it helps to have a six-foot-seven-inch wingspan like Michael Phelps. Meanwhile, Usain Bolt's extraordinary long stride has helped him rule the track, according to researchers, but his powerful frame would probably make him a terrible gymnast or jockey.

In short, excellence in different sports demands different physical characteristics, but apparently all athletes, whatever their discipline, share the same mental characteristics.

That's the takeaway of new research out of the Institute of Coaching and Performance at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK at least. The study offers a tantalizing glimpse of the attitude it takes to reach peak performance whatever the endeavor, be it track and field or business.

The Holy Trinity of peak performance

To uncover the mentality of true champions, the research team, led by the Institute's director, professor Dave Collins, spoke with a range of athletes in a variety of sports from soccer to martial arts. Each study participant was also given a performance ranking, so that the responses of the most elite performers could be compared with those of athletes who didn't quite reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport.

What set apart the truly world class from those the researcher's dubbed "the almosts"? No matter whether they engaged in rowing or skiing, the best of the best shared a suite of three key attitudes.

First, they were driven by an internal need to perform rather than any particular external goal like fame or glory. Second, the very best were never satisfied -- no matter how fast they ran or how many trophies they won, they still wanted to push themselves to be better. Third, setbacks and injuries just made the highest achieving more determined to win. While lesser athletes were surprised or demoralized by obstacles, elite performers were all the more determined to get back to training.

Does this apply in other domains?

The goal of the research was to better inform athletic coaches of the qualities to cultivate in potential stars. "We're assembling a set of rules to guide what a coach should be doing and what skills an athlete should end up with," Collins commented.

But if you're not pursuing athletic greatness, fear not. The lessons of the research are apparently applicable beyond the world of sports. "These characteristics hold true for other fields as well, from sports to music to any environment," Collins also said.

So if you're aiming to be truly world class at anything -- be it water polo, entrepreneurship, or playing the trombone -- keep these findings in mind. To reach peak performance, you might want to pay close attention to your mentality and whether it mirrors that of the true greats interviewed for this study.

Published on: May 10, 2016
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