What makes a truly great athlete? Is success a gift they are born with or developed?

winning medal

I am privileged that I have many friends around the world that are truly great athletes across many sports and yes some are Olympic medalists.  They all have very different personalities but they do have similar attitudes built on key personality traits.  I believe these personality traits are developed through years of reaction to social & cultural experiences, but these athletes are not just a product of their environment, they have learnt to control and shape it.  These key personality traits help athletes make decisions, react to people and situations to create the outcome they want . . .  which is to win.

These are 10 personality traits I see in successful athletes.  Do you have them in you?

Passion – to fight for what they want, winning with style and a smile.

Positive Enthusiasm – to say ‘come on let’s do this right now!’ and lead those around them.

Drive – a relentless focus that is well organised, planned and clear on the next step forward without the need to be pushed.

Single Minded Determination – the ability to stubbornly put their needs first and present them in a way to gain positive support from those around them.

Confidence – be able to walk head held high into an uncomfortable situation.

Self-belief – so strong they can take harsh negative criticism and turn it into a positive.

Dedication – good old fashioned willingness to train harder & smarter than others.

Commitment – focus on wining, with no concept of failure.

Openness – being approachable and willing to listen & learn from others.

Friendship Base – ability to select and build a friendship network of supportive, loyal and trustworthy friends & acquaintances.

If you can relate to all of the above, then in my opinion you are well on your way to being a great athlete, but note you will need to constantly develop these personality traits.

When an athlete takes a positive attitude to shape the environment around them it enables them to create the right training environment.  I believe a mix of peer support, strong competition, mentorship and trust in your coach are products created over time by athletes that continually work on developing the personality traits above.

You don’t need luck . . . you need to learn how to positively react to the people around you and continually strive for excellence.  If this sounds overwhelming, start by preparing mentally and physically (rest & fueling) for all training sessions, never show negativity towards yourself or others and it will make sense in time.

Please remember I am no psychologist, but I have been a reasonably successful athlete and coach that has been surrounded by many successful athletes for most of my life, which has given me the opportunity learn a great deal by talking, listening and observing what they do.  I really hope by sharing the knowledge I have built though my experiences I can help you get closer to your goal.

If any psychologists want to share there knowledge or can recommend further reading, please comment below.

Image sourced: courtesy of khunaspix – FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Olympian Stuart McIntosh - My Fitness Mentor

2000 & 2004 Olympian. Elite Sport Coach and Personal Trainer. Urbanist
This entry was posted in Athlete, business, coaching, confidence, elite sport, Fitness, psychology, Sport and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to What makes a truly great athlete? Is success a gift they are born with or developed?

  1. lemonbelly says:


    You are bang on with your list of personal qualities and values. Never underestimate how much effort and dedication is required on the journey to excellence. Above all, the athlete must have a growth mindset, one that is hungry for information and to continually learn.
    Working through, evaluating your list and being truly honest with yourself would be a great starting place for any athlete. Beware anyone who says, “yeah, I’m doing all of that” – complacency is definitely not a quality of champions!
    There is always room for improvement and learning – never put ceilings on your ability, challenge yourself and continually strive for personal excellence.

    Happy training y’all 🙂

  2. Hi Stuart,
    Fair play to call it as you see it! Us psych’s would say these are not necessarily traits (e.g., inherited characteristics) but learnable in the right environment. Particularly impressed with your views on luck…you were 4th in O.G. but that (not on podium) didn’t define you-and like how much friendship and positive environment are highlighted-not all our team experiences were so positive-LOL!! Hope you are still getting on the water these days!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nicely put Stuart,
    There is little to add to your piece and the comment above reinforces this. Many of these personality traits are transferable and can be seen in a variety of settings. Those that strive to achieve excellence in other areas of life would benefit from focusing attention in all the areas you list. However I worry about – Single Minded Determination – the ability to stubbornly put their needs first and present them in a way to gain positive support from those around them. Is there a fine line and a risk to being manipulative of those around you?

    Andy Shandy Roe!

    • You are right, it is a fine line! Many athletes do manipulate there environment to suit them, but the successful ones never close it and it is done in a way with many positive spin offs to those around them. . . Maybe I should use the words ‘positively shape their environment’. . . (Why am I thinking about Gordon Gekko?)

  4. charlypriest says:

    Got here through the blog Winewankers, happy I got here. Your right on the dime with the personality traits, if I had all those I´d probably be president.

    “James Bond Diet=no carbs after 4 pm and exercise lots!”= That´s a funny one, informative too.

  5. Kristina S says:

    Hey Stu, your article is thought provoking. The ten characteristics and personal attitudes you wrote about do help each individual achieve the best they are capable of, in any situation (whether they are an elite athlete or pursuing another career). They are also a nice arrangement of all the ‘important’ qualities you see in athletes that are positive about themselves, their future and their discipline. Although environmental and individual hereditary/genetic factors play a significant role in how these characteristics are manifested in each person, the mental attitude that each individual adopts and how they understand themselves in the world/ the schemas they hold, are arguable just as important. As you suggested, if the mental outlook is negative and for instance self-berating, then goals may seem unattainable and the possibility for success may be jeopardised. Likewise, with an optimistic outlook (and enthusiasm etc) those mountains appear a lot more conquerable. Identifying these characteristics or personal qualities is a great first step. Then, it’s up to each individual to discover how to foster and develop those qualities for themselves, because it may practically mean something different for different people; it’s a skill building process. For instance, people build and develop their confidence differently, they achieve determination and focus differently.

    And yes… ‘you don’t need luck’. We need to learn to understand ourselves and how we react in the world. Luck is a nice abstract concept that exists within us and as our projection… we only need to learn how to nourish it.

    A little fun fact: we can trick ourselves into believing that we’re ‘happy’… if a pencil is held between the teeth for long enough, the brain will believe that we are smiling (because the same muscles are activated) and release more dopamine and serotonin, which will in turn actually make us happy. Not to suggest that we all walk about with pencils in our mouth before a race (hah!), its merely to demonstrate the power of the mind.

    Thanks for the read!

  6. Pingback: The secret to elite level sport performance | My Fitness Mentor – Olympian Stuart McIntosh

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