What can great athletes teach us about training?

by on October 12, 2016 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Rapid Learning Insights
What can great athletes teach us about training?

World-class athletes can make it look easy. But the truth is, it’s not. For every shining moment of glory, there were countless hours in the gym or on the field training and preparing for the big moment.

Sure, talent is a part of achieving lofty goals. But talent alone can’t make you a champion. It requires practice. It requires learning from mistakes. And it requires training. In effect, great athletes aren’t just superior performers – they’re dedicated learners.

So what can accomplished athletes teach us about training and improvement? Researchers in the UK recently conducted a study to find out.

The research

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The researchers decided to study the difference between accomplished champion athletes – what the study calls “super champions” – and athletes that weren’t quite able to reach those same heights – what the study calls “almost champions.”

“Super champions” were defined as athletes that play in an elite professional league or for their national team (e.g., Olympic teams), whereas “almost champions” had similar success and promise in their youth but were playing in less prestigious leagues as adults.

So, what set the true champions apart from their similarly talented peers? Through a series of interviews, the study found one primary difference: How the athletes reacted to challenges.

The world-class athletes saw challenges as an opportunity to grow and improve their skills. When they failed, they pushed themselves harder. In contrast, “almost champions” viewed challenges negatively and became discouraged when they failed. They often blamed failures on external factors and tried to avoid things they weren’t naturally good at instead of meeting them head on.


Inevitably, learners will face challenges during workplace training. But the study suggests that it’s the learners’ reaction to those challenges that may decide whether they succeed and improve or fail and remain at the status quo.

Workplace learning has the potential to transform employees’ performance and, therefore, their careers. A successful training program can guide learners through the process of improvement and growth by helping them view learning through the proper lens. And learning professionals are uniquely positioned to help employees through the learning process, which can, at times, push employees out of their comfort zone and cause discomfort.


So, if you want to help create a group of “champion” learners, here are some recommendations based on the research.

Focus on improvement. Every learner’s goal should be simple: To get better at a certain skill or behavior. And while it may be natural for learners to compare their performance to others’, instead help them focus on self-improvement. Learners’ results should only be judged against their own past performance. As long as they are showing growth and improvement, they should feel accomplished, encouraged and motivated.

Frame challenges as opportunities. The champion athletes in the study weren’t discouraged when they faced a challenge – they saw it as a positive, an opportunity to learn and grow. Consider presenting challenges in a similar way to your learners.

The researchers noted that champions “mostly seemed to take a longer-term perspective,” while the “almost champions” focused on immediate results. You can easily see why a focus on immediate results can be harmful during training. In learning, there are many times when you stumble or fail. But these are natural steps in the learning process. Instead of focusing on today’s results, help learners see tomorrow’s potential. Through training and practice, what now seems like a difficult challenge will become a springboard to growth and improvement.

Remove the stigma from failure. Failure can be demotivating, as was found with many of the “almost champions.” But failure can also be a valuable learning experience. Failure reveals our weaknesses and shows where we need to work to improve. And many studies have shown that persevering through failure can set apart successful learners from the not-so-successful ones.

If you see learners becoming discouraged or frustrated, share with them that the learning process is full of frustrating moments, but that these are only temporary. Failures identify what we need to work on, and through focusing on those performance gaps, we learn, grow and improve.


Collins, D., MacNamara, Á., & McCarthy, N. (2016). Super champions, champions, and almosts: Important differences and commonalities on the rocky road. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:2009. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02009

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