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Are Elite Athletes Born That Way or Does Hard Work Make Them Elite? You Decide!

Updated on March 4, 2012

Got Game?


What Research Says About Elite Athletes

Earlier attempts at understanding what makes a great athlete seemed to be going in the right direction because they understood that other variables determined what made someone a better athlete and what did not (Anshel, 2003). However, researchers studied certain variables and paired them against one another which is not possible in terms of athletic abilities (men and women, athletes and non athletes, etc).

Such research eventually died down because it was difficult to distinguish elite vs non elite athletes on the basis on personality tests alone (Anshel, 2003). Results did not come out as hoped, as only 10% of those who had taken the personality test were reported as having the ability to be “great”.

Although earlier attempts were not successful, it was demonstrated through further research that certain traits indicated who would be a better athlete and who would not be (Anshel, 2003).

Characteristics of Elite Athletes

According to Anshel (2003) certain core characteristics determine what makes someone an elite athlete. First, an elite athlete often possesses will and determination to succeed in whatever pursuit he or she undertakes. Essentially this entails the athlete not just receiving enjoyment from the experience but also a motivation for competing at a higher level. Even if the athlete faces failure the motivation is there to improve their game and perform better the next opportunity (Anshel, 2003).

Second, elite athletes are often mentally fit and possess insight and the fortitude to understand the game and all of the issues it can bring. This means that despite setbacks and facing tough crowds, fans, or opponents the athlete has the mental capacity to block this out and still do what he or she does best (Anshel, 2003).

Another characteristic of the elite athlete is their ability to take risks and not fear what will happen if they lose. Elite athletes are not afraid of the unknown and are more willing to see the challenge in risk taking. This often sets them apart from the athlete who is cautious.

A fourth characteristic is that elite athletes refuse to lose and if they do they learn from their mistakes so that they will not make the same mistake twice (Anshel, 2003). The elite athlete is fearless and approaches any situation with a must win attitude, however if the win is not achieved in team situations the athlete is not likely to see this as a setback. This serves as a reason to learn from the mistake to improve the game.

A fifth characteristic of the elite athlete is often leadership skills and the ability to look at others on the team for guidance as well. Elite athletes are not prone to thinking they are “know it alls” and are most certain to take advantage of learning what will make their game better (Anshel, 2003).

Finally, the elite athlete must also have some physical ability in order to perform the skill. Elite athletes often had some form of physical ability prior to becoming an elite athlete but through hard work and determination the skill was refined and made stronger. This is not to say that physical ability is a required component of elite athletes, however, without the ability to thrown, run, field, catch, etc one could not become elite.

In choosing these characteristics for elite athletes it would seem that all six somehow fit all sports and athletes. For example, all athletes must have some ability in order to perform their sport of choice. Without physical ability it would not be possible and if their ability is limited they improvise (ie Jim Abbott was a great pitcher and he had one arm).

In addition, athletes in any sport have a desire and motivation for their sport that is above and beyond an average athlete. The difference though will lie in how much of a certain characteristic is needed to succeed. For instance, individual sports would not be in such need of having a team leader as team sports. Instead, the athlete would need more motivation and will power, as well as mental fitness.

My Opinion

In my own opinion it is believed that great athletes are not always necessarily born with impressive abilities. However, if they are born with certain ability they must work to hone that ability in and continue to refine these skills. There are cases where some individuals possess athletic skills beyond belief, however, if they have no desire to utilize these skills and work every day it becomes useless.

One of my children does possess natural athletic abilities, yet he does not always have the desire to work and this affects his performance. My daughter is the opposite because she possesses ability and has a great desire to work and continue to refine her skills. She also has a love for the game which tends to make a big difference. I think that personality, motivation, and interest all combine with natural ability to make the athlete “elite”.


Anshel, M. H. (2003). Sport psychology: from theory to practice. San Francisco, CA: Pearson.

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