What is it that makes one athlete brilliant and the other merely very good? Sports Psychologist TONI GADDIE digs deeper………

As a little girl I dreamt of becoming a Wimbledon Champion. At the age of 12 I was ranked number 1 in South Africa in my age group. At 18, I was selected for the National team to travel on the women’s professional, international tennis tour. But although I could beat the top 10 players in practice- people like Nathalie Tauziat(Wimbledon Finalist) and Gabriella Sabatini(French Open Champion)- I didn’t feature against them in matches.

After I retired from the tennis scene I was determined to discover what had made them, and not me, champions. I studied psychology at university and for my Masters, I looked at sports people like Amanda Coetzer( She’s been ranked 5th in world women’s tennis),Wayne Ferreira(7th in men’s),Maria Mutola(Olympic gold medalist and world champion in 800m women’s track events) and Herman Chalupsky(8 times world champion in ocean canoeing).

1. Champions are inspired

I initially thought it was parents who shaped their children into champions, but soon found that family systems and parenting styles were all different. However the first secret of champions did emerge while I was studying the relational systems of these champions.

All of them had been motivated by a source of inspiration, born either from a relationship with a key person, or from a significant feeling they had encountered in their lives.


A tiny voice of inspiration seems lodged at the back of all champions’ minds. This voice is what evokes the inspiring feeling that helps them to consistently strive towards optimum performance.

Maria Mutola on a high school scholarship programme for young African Athletes in the US, was homesick and ready to leave. She phoned home and spoke to her older sister, who asked her, with great intensity:” Do you really want to go back to school in Mozambique and be an ordinary Mozambican child? Hang in there!” These words changed her life.

Inspiration is the first step to acquiring the energy needed to change our thinking.

And it does not have to come from something profound. Three useful tools are music, movies and visualisation. I know someone who, once dissatisfied with his job is now director of sports magazine company after watching Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire.

All the tennis players I know on the international tour carry a walkman to listen to an inspirational song while visualising what they intend to achieve- as well as visualising the emotions they would feel while achieving their goals.

2. Champions Access Support

When I was homesick and battling to make ends meet on the professional circuit, I would phone my mother far away at home in Johannesburg, and it was her support that kept me going. While exploring the support systems of Champions, I found that the secret does not lie in the support itself, but the fact that champions go out and get the support when they need it.

  • Champions know when to ask for help.
  • They listen to advice with an open mind.
  • They are able to perceive resources and make use of them.

If you are in a difficult situation and you cannot access support for whatever reason then observation of yourself, without judgement is calming and is the best precondition for change.

Use this tool to receive support from a more rational calmer you, a part I call your Genie. Mentally step outside your body and try to see yourself thinking, without judgement, about the difficult situation. Imagine your Genie floating above your head and try to see yourself in the chair as vividly as possible. Most important let your Genie listen to your thoughts about your problem. This evokes a dialogue with apart of us that can speak rationally and calmly to our destructive selves.

3. Champions acknowledge self- doubt.

Contrary to my expectations, I found only some champions believed totally in a childhood dream of becoming one. But they did believe absolutely that they had the potential to achieve. It is, however, a self belief with a twist; the acknowledgement of self- doubt does not deter them from becoming champions. What is vital is how they deal with their self doubt, mistakes and failures.

As Amanda Coetzer says:” When in doubt, I set out to work harder, but there are also moments where I have to say: So what? Lighten up a bit and just try to have fun.

A champions’ acknowledgement of weakness enables him or her to learn from failures and strengthen weaknesses much more easily than those who desperately try to defend their inadequacies.

4. Champions know who they are and where they are going.

Champions can experience their full potential, as all their energy is channelled in that direction. They thus become very aware of their strengths, which reduces the need for external approval.

Champions know what ingredients (or secrets)will contribute to the realisation of their dreams- the key is to discover the right mix in the right context.

I used to train at Nick Bolleterri’s tennis academy made famous by players’ like Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. Like everyone else, I trained 6 hours a day. Agassi was different. He practises between 2 and 4 hours a day, and made his practising fun. He knew that to remain different disciplined, he had to be creative about his training. He always had targets to train for, like coke cans and empty ball tins, and he turned training drills into competitions by betting for CDs with his practise partner on what he could and could not do.

Most people know it is important to set goals or have a direction in life, but not many know the importance of making a goal real by integrating it into your daily life.

Accept your goal as merely one of the destinations on your journey. If it feels too large to accept, break it up into short-medium and long- term goals, and see these as 3 destinations.

  • Write your goal down (somewhere where you will peruse it frequently) in the present tense and be specific.
  • Write down the action steps (physical and or mental) you feel are necessary to achieve your goal.
  • Visualise yourself achieving your goal as often as possible.

5. Champions know how to boost their confidence.

All the champions I spoke to were very aware that the confidence a champion projects can defeat opponents even before a match has begun.

If sports people exude confidence, their opponents automatically assumes they are on top of their game, which is anxiety-provoking for the opponent.

Champions have their own idiosyncratic ways of boosting themselves, or appearing as if they are confident. One of these tools is to “act as if”.

Act as if you are confident and you will eventually feel confident.

Champions take on the roll of confidence with their body language, even at times when they might be feeling unsure. The body communicates at a subconscious or subliminal level so it makes sense that a body acting as if it is confident sends a message of confidence to the subconscious mind, as well as to the minds of others.

Maria Mutola says: “If I doubt myself I try to act as if I am the one the others are out to beat”.

When champions are in pressurised situations, they know what verbal and non-verbal rituals to adopt in order to reach the state of tension necessary to evoke champion performance. For example Amanda Coetzer tells herself to focus on the moment by repeating the word “compete” in her mind.

6. Champions can fully live the moment

So what is common to champions in the heat of the moment, when the opportunity to prove themselves really counts?

I discovered that when speed, accuracy and strength are pushed to the limit, champions can achieve the perfect balance of mind and body that facilitates a special state of peak performance called “the zone”. I would describe the state as vigilant harmony. They are unaware of their surroundings, the crowd clapping even the pain they’re in. The previous putt or shot, the next round or even what they will win, does not matter their minds.

The best way to improve your ability to live fully in the moment is to practise meditation or relaxation exercises. Also be aware of your thoughts when you are in the company of others. Are you really listening to what they are saying? Living more fully in the moment also communicates a more calm, collected and confident attitude.

7. Champions practise faith

Our faith affects our thinking and our perceptions, and these are the building blocks of the reality we construct for ourselves.

During my research it was interesting to find that champions ‘ inner world are profoundly affected by their faith- the conviction that somehow their dreams will become a reality.

Mutola prays before every race and, after every win, she gives thanks to her G-d.

Faith does not have to be of a religious or even a spiritual nature. The practise of intense faith in yourself, without spiritual faith, has an equally powerful impact on the conquering of obstacles and achieving goals.

Context markers- crucifixes and stars of David- remind us of our faith in G-d, and rituals are also tools we can use to process negative emotions and evoke a feeling of faith that a situation will improve. They shift thinking in difficult times from negativity and uncertainty to a positive view and faith.

Last thought

So champions are not the super humans I had pictured. They have the same insecurities as you and me. In fact, they are even more human, as they are in touch with their strengths as well as their weaknesses. The secrets they practise are not mysterious- they are simple and ordinary.