Teaching Athletes About Winning It All

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The amazing gold medal winning performances in the recent Olympic Games at Rio brought to mind a topic that coaches and athletes think and dream a lot about but rarely really understand: Winning it all. And fewer still know how to prepare to do it.

I once worked with a 15-year old athlete who was quickly moving up through the ranks and gaining national attention, yet he had no awareness of how champions behave and train. During our meetings we spent a lot of time reviewing ‘winners’ and how they think, feel, and act on a daily basis. As he gained a greater appreciation of how the world’s elite athletes stay optimistic, focused and disciplined while training and competing, despite challenges and setbacks, he changed his own approach and went on to become a 2-time national champion.

Although championship behaviors should be taught and reinforced throughout the year, pre-season is the ideal time to championship behavior awareness. Three-time national champion football coach Urban Meyer holds an annual ‘Champions Day’ during his team’s pre-season training camp. At this event current and former athletes and coaches across sports share their stories, and what Meyer’s current team members gain is a greater sense of just what it will take to win it all.

But you don’t need the resources of a major college sports program to raise awareness about championship-winning behaviors. Just follow these three essential steps.

1. Inspire
Even the most motivated athletes need regular doses of inspiration. A powerful way to do this is to have athletes watch videos of champions winning it all. Coaches most certainly will have their own preferences. Some of my favorites are the entertaining interviews with legendary winners produced for the television show Undeniable with sportscaster Joe Buck. However, athletes also should be asked for their own suggestions to watch with the team. Coaches could task athletes with finding 2-3 online videos each to send to the coach in advance of a team championship awareness video session. After screening the videos to ensure they are appropriate, the coach can select from this bank of videos to complement their own video examples. Having athletes search and retrieve video examples of championship moments is valuable because it will increase athlete engagement and ownership of the activity while they are learning about the championship behaviors on their own.

For large teams coaches may decide to break athletes into small groups of 4-5, with each group being responsible for bringing 1-2 video examples back to the team. After watching the video as a team the group could then be required to explain why they selected the video and why the think the athletes were able to win it all. In addition to sport specific and popular sports media websites, the ‘All Sports’ page of the 2016 Rio Olympics website maintained by NBCUniversal provides a vast library of online videos that can be used to raise championship awareness. Ideally coaches will include videos that demonstrate winning moments from athletes across a wide range of sports. This will help reinforce the importance of the championship behaviors by illustrating common elements of winning performances.

2. Define
The next step is to identify and clearly explain the meaning of championship behaviors. In his book What Drives Winning Brett Ledbetter shares definitions of championship behaviors gleaned from interviews with legendary college basketball coaches. The championship behaviors are summarized in a list of 15 performance skills deemed critical to winning.

Hardworking: pay the price with effort
Competitive: strive to be your best
Positive: good and useful thinking
Focused: eliminate distractions
Resilient: bounce back from setbacks
Confident: trust in self
Enthusiastic: express enjoyment
Disciplined: self-control
Curious: eager to explore, learn more
Creative: out-of-the-box thinking
Motivated: strong purpose and desire
Courageous: fortitude in face of challenges
Accountable: responsible for own actions

This type of list is a good starting point for creating your own list that aligns with the core values and expectations that represent you and your program. You might start by creating a list of 10-15 championship behaviors and their definitions that you feel are critical for success. After completing this exercise, have the athletes repeat it in a team session. Then in a team meeting compare the two lists and discuss until there is consensus on a final list of championship behaviors and their definitions. This will ensure that (a) there is athlete buy-in for the championship behaviors and (b) the behaviors are defined in terms that are meaningful for your athletes.

3. Model
Inspired and with a clear understanding of championship behaviors, the final step is to have athletes witness and practice championship behaviors on a daily basis. By far the most powerful way to raise championship awareness is to model the championship behaviors. Through their actions, coaches serve as daily reminders of the championship behaviors. Paraphrasing human development expert Joseph Chilton Pearce, ‘what we are teaches our athletes more than what we say, so we must be what we want our athletes to become.’

In addition to teaching by example, coaches should provide athletes with multiple opportunities to watch championship athletes train. This can include taking the team on field trips to watch training sessions of winning teams, and exploring opportunities for their own team to train alongside champion athletes. Although watching others can be a powerful experience, training with a championship athlete can be a defining moment in raising championship awareness because athletes can directly compare their behaviors and effort in the moment. Athletes often underestimate how much physical and mental effort is required to train like a champion on a daily basis. Training side-by-side with a champion, even if just for part of a training session, will show athletes how the best push through physical and mental barriers.

Another valuable way to model championship behaviors is to bring back successful alumni to lead some training sessions. This strategy has the added benefit of reinforcing team culture and educating young athletes about the program’s tradition. For example, world-renowned championship teams such as the Manchester United soccer club rely heavily on providing their developing athletes with opportunities to train alongside the top players in the club. When asked to reflect on keys to becoming the best in the world, former players and coaches concluded that having strong models was critical because “models provide a living, visible ‘evidence-base’ of the behaviors, routines and approaches that developing players can use to create their own framework of what it takes to become a successful player.”

Every athlete and coach would like to “win it all” in their sport. Though that can’t possibly happen, by fully grasping what championship behaviors entail, they establish a mindset to be their very best on a daily basis. And that’s a great way to start a season.


Goodreads, Inc. (2106). Joseph Chilton Pearce quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/30099.Joseph_Chilton_Pearce

Horrocks, D. E., McKenna, J., Whitehead, A., Taylor, P. J., & Morley, A. M. (2016). Qualitative perspectives on how Manchester United Football Club developed and sustained serial winning (p. 471). International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 11(4), 467-477.

Ledbetter, B. (2015). What drives winning (p. 71). Green Dot Publishing.

Meyer, U., & Coffey, W. (2015). Above the line: Lessons in leadership and life from a championship season (pp. 194-195). New York: Penguin.

NBCUniversal. (2016). Rio 2016: All sports. Retrieved from http://www.nbcolympics.com/

Otte, P. (2015). We leadership (p. 153). Westerville, OH: Ross Leadership Institute.

Stulberg, B. (2016, August 3). Big goals can backfire. Olympians show us what to focus on instead. Science of Us. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/08/why-having-big-goals-can-backfire.html?mid=twitter-share-scienceofus&utm_content=bufferf40e6&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

What drives winning. (2016). Explore videos. Retrieved from http://whatdriveswinning.com/#video-link

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