The Psychology of a Great Athlete

May 5, 2013

Psychology of a Great Athlete

Image Credit: Joel Stewart

by Korah Morrison

For athletes, mental resilience is a key indicator of success. There are exceptions to the typical physical requirements, but the mental ones can be harder to bypass. Drive and volition, confidence, focus, calm and emotional control are some of the psychological characteristics of the most successful athletes on the planet.

This article is an analysis of the key character traits of successful athletes, which confirmed by quotations stars such as Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, etc. Be inspired and aspire to more!

Drive and volition

“[Professional athletes] just work as hard as they possibly can. And the drive is usually propelled by intense passion for their sport; they just love playing the game.” Jim Taylor, Ph. D.


Volition is the deliberate act of decision-making. For athletes, volition is comprised of self-motivation and the use of physical skills, as well as the comprehension of emotional response. These tactics combine to generate self-confidence.

Work ethic: Everyone sees the greatness of a big-time athlete. But you don’t always see the sum of hours it takes to achieve that greatness.

Total commitment: Maria Sharapova turned that work ethic into commitment. As a child, she was often first on the court and the last to leave.

Motivation: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky

Conviction: “I cant” should never be uttered by a pro athlete. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; what if he had given up then?


Believing in yourself and your abilities is a substantial contribution to any accomplishment. It may also be a determinant of performance and efficacy in leadership.

Faith: “It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.” Muhammad Ali

Desire: “If at first you don’t succeed… I was given the ball 27 times with ten seconds left in the game and the winning shot in my hands… and I missed.” Michael Jordan

Abolish Doubt: “If you don’t have confidence, you’ll always find a way not to win.” Carl Lewis

Expectation: “My mind is my biggest asset. I expect a win every tournament I play.” Tiger Woods

Perseverance: “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” Michael Jordan


The best athletes have practiced staying cool under pressure and against opposition.

Manage tilt: “Tilt has many causes and kinds, but it has only one effect. It makes us play bad. It makes us do things we wouldn’t do it we were at our very best. And that’s how I want to define it, exactly like that. Tilt is any deviation from your A-game and you’re A-mindset, however slight or fleeting.” Tommy Angelo

Handling pressure: “No matter how tough, no matter what kind of outside pressure, no matter how many bad breaks along the way, I must keep my sights on the final goal, to win, win, win – and with more love and passion than the world has ever witnessed in any performance.” Billie Jean King



Focus means reigning in the ability to react quickly, but in a controlled manner. Attentional control may make the difference between an average athlete and a superior one.

Pursue the goal: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.’” Muhammad Ali

Make your goal the top: “I play to win, whether during practice or a real game. And I will not let anything get in the way of me and my competitive enthusiasm to win.” Michael Jordan

Abolish distracting thoughts: “Concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary.” Ray Knight

Emotional Strength


Emotions factor into an athlete’s abilities more than you might think. It ties back into confidence and mental strength, using acquired psychological skills to control these emotions.

Enthusiasm: “Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string,” Pele

Passion: “I run because it’s my passion, and not just a sport. Every time I walk out the door, I know why I’m going where I’m going and I’m already focused on that special place where I find my peace and solitude. Running, to me, is more than just a physical exercise… it’s a consistent reward for victory!” Sasha Azevedo

Control: “Learn to control your emotions or they will control you.” Edgar Martinez