The Sport Psychology of Champions
This article is written for Karateka, but the lessons are universal and beneficial to all. If you do not practice karate, just replace the word with another activity you are more familiar with. Enjoy!
Sorin is in the Semi-final match. He’s been fighting all day and training for years for this moment. He feels the tightness and pain in his ankle, the one he sprained not even 3 weeks ago. He ignores it. All of a sudden, Sorin explodes forward with the quickness of a cheetah and lightness of a feather mustered only by a true master of Karate. He punches his opponent in the head, scoring another point and winning the match and ultimately, earning a Bronze Medal at the Pan-American Games of 2011.
Sorin Alexandru is a master of Karate. What sets him apart from his competitors is his psychology. This winning mindset, shared by successful people in all fields is the real determinant for reaching the top in your field because all the actions you take will flow from the way you think. According to Sorin, who now runs his own dojo in Montreal and trains Team Canada, psychology is what’s most lacking in an athlete’s training. Simply put, it’s given token attention, but not the seriousness it deserves! I interviewed Sorin to synthesize the winning mindset, so athletes pay close attention because success leaves clues.
Sorin’s: Mindset of the Champion
Why do you want to be a champion?
Is it because your parents say you should? Do you want to impress your friends? Are you trying to impress the lovely ladies? None of those reasons are worth anything because they are based on trying to get others to like you. You need to find a deep level of motivation that comes from within. Why you want this. Only those internally driven reasons and emotions will push you through the tough times and keep you training where others give up. Think about the movies about the underdog beating the reigning champion. They win, not because they have extraordinary talent, but because of their dedication to hard work, driven by a worthy cause. They are fighting for something. Their cause is just!
When you have a good reason why, the how becomes much easier!
Believe in yourself
Next in our exploration of the mindset of champions we have to address your level of self belief. Do you think you can win? Do you believe that you can be the best? Sorin told me how in 2009, in preparation for competition, he watched YouTube videos of top karate athletes to see how they fight and to help him develop his strategy. Little did he know that in 2011, he would face one of his most respected champions in direct combat.
Many athletes psych themselves out in cases where they do not know anything about their opponent. They have thoughts like: ” Did you see him warm up? He’s so fast!” or “Look at his kicks!” or “He’s better than me” etc… They defeat themselves mentally before they set foot in the ring, where they live a self fulfilling prophecy.
Not Sorin… his only thought was “Don’t get too close, I’m dangerous”. He wants to show his opponent that he is a fighting force to be reckoned with. More importantly, he wants to make the vision in his mind of himself real!
When you believe you are worthy and that you can win, you will drastically increase your chances of winning!
Constant and Never Ending Improvement
A champion must be committed to constant and never ending improvement. There is no upper limit to human mental or physical development. Nobody who is best in the world stays best in the world without continually sharpening their skills. When you are at the top, people are looking at you because they want to beat you. That’s why you must always be committed to finding a way to become even better.
Think about your strengths and play to those. Think about your weaknesses and turn them into advantages. Think about what you do wrong and correct it. Think about what you do right and perfect it. Do it all the time and never stop, as a beginner, as a champion or anywhere in between.
In this regard, failure is your greatest blessing. When you fail, if you have humility, you will take an honest look at yourself and correct your mistakes. Even more paradoxically, success can be your greatest downfall. When people win, they tend to celebrate. They lower their standard because they falsely believe that they are the best, so they stop doing what made them successful in the first place. The next time they compete, they lose because they didn’t train as much or they became arrogant.
You need to accept that although talent does exist, it doesn’t come into being without being developed with training and constant improvement. Sorin (humbly) claims he never had talent, but after years of training and finally making a breakthrough in tournaments, people were telling him how much talent he had. What they didn’t see was all the training Sorin did behind the scenes. For example, after beating an opponent 6-1 and winning the gold medal, Sorin immediately went back to the drawing board to figure out why his opponent managed to score a single point on him. He kept his standard high and kept improving. That’s a real champion.
You will achieve great results if you are dedicated to constant and never ending improvement. Remember: If you don’t use it, you lose it!
Going the Extra Mile
The most difficult mental trait to adopt is going the extra mile. What are you going to do that others are unwilling to do? Will you train more? Will you train when tired? Will you practice the basics even though they are boring? Will you record all your matches and watch them to develop new tactics?
Champions are willing to put in the work their opponents do not. They deserve victory. Remember when Sorin twisted his ankle at the World Championships, yet won a bronze medal 3 weeks later? Everybody told him he couldn’t do it. Yet desiring victory, went to see an expert in sports physiotherapy. He was told he could compete, but he had to do the simple exercises prescribed to him for 20 minutes, 4 times per day for 3 weeks instead of doing his regular training. It’s a very rare and dedicated person who consistently does this type of exercise even once per day, but Sorin has a true winning attitude and it paid off with a quick recovery.
Do more than what others expect of you!
The Psychology of Champions, in short
The psychology of success is what will determine your success. Everything else, from how hard you train to the amount of rest you get flows from your winning (or losing!) mindset. I gave you 3 aspects of this mindset to think about and develop in yourself:
- Believe that you can be a champion.
- Always be improving.
- Go the extra mile.
But you’ll only give your chance to develop this mindset if you have a strong enough reason to push yourself through the tough times. Find a real reason to become a champion, a reason that warms your heart and inspires your soul.
A Concluding Curveball
Why did you start karate? Is the importance of it to learn to fight or to beat up your enemies? I propose we flip the switch! We discussed the importance of the winning mindset for karate, but how about looking at karate as a vehicle to developing a winning mindset that will permeate every other aspect in your life? Think of the psychology of champions as the end goal and karate as the pathway to put that mindset into practice.
The development of discipline, the respect of others and yourself, the desire to go the extra mile, the self confidence of being able to defend yourself without having to resort to violence… These are the true benefits of karate, martial arts and sports because the development of the powers of your mind can be applied to every area of life! Start thinking that what you learn while developing the winning mindset in sports, you are actually developing the winning mindset for life.