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Are coaches effective when they tell athletes to be more like superstars such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or Wayne Gretzky?

On one hand, the stories of these superstars are not very useful because the one-in-a-billion success of a Michael Jordan is different from the stories of virtually every other athlete. On the other hand, if a coach can identify the learnable, teachable behaviors of these great athletes, these stories are very helpful because behavior is the bottom line.

It isn’t helpful to say, “Be like Mike, he’s a winner,” unless a coach can identify the specific behaviors that made Michael Jordan a winner.

The careers of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods all show three key behaviors that can help any athlete at any level.

Talent isn’t a gift, it’s a job!

A series of research studies found that people have two differing points of view about talent. One view is that talent is something you have or don’t have. Athletes with this view of talent expect things to come easy and tend to give up quickly when skills are hard to learn. This makes sense to them, because if it is hard to learn, then they must not be talented.

The other view is that talent must be developed through hard work. People holding this view stay at tasks much longer, expect skill development to take time and do not become highly frustrated when things aren’t easy. Research found that this viewpoint results in much higher performance, because these athletes expect to have to work long and hard to develop their talent.

Superstars are athletes with physical talents and a strong work ethic that refines and develops talent. Although early media stories focused on Jordan’s remarkable leaping ability, a recent biography, Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, focuses on something more important – hard work. Virtually every basketball coach and teammate describe him as the hardest worker they ever saw in the sport.

Gretzky and Woods also shared this intensity and drive to constantly improve their special talents. Woods and Gretzky had success as children, while Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team in his first try. Despite these differences, all three athletes worked relentlessly to improve. They never expected greatness to be easy. They didn’t become frustrated by the work to develop skills, and they didn’t stop working until they were satisfied that their talent was fully developed.

Be willing to change a successful formula to be even better.

Despite winning the Masters’ Golf Championship by a record margin a few years ago, Woods did something that takes a special kind of bravery and confidence. He took apart his golf swing and was willing to get worse before he got even better. Changing the basics of your game is hard enough to do when you are losing; doing it when you are winning is almost unprecedented.

Woods made the change because he felt his swing was not consistent enough. Making a change took time, and it initially caused a decline in Wood’s performance.

As most people now know, the change ultimately paid off. Tiger’s recent victories in the U.S. Open and British Open by record margins are proof of a special kind of courage. This type of courage comes from measuring yourself against your own high standards rather than another’s standards.

Although Woods and Jordan could beat most other players without making changes, their courage allowed them to improve and rank among the greatest athletes of modern times. Jordan played a very different game at the end of his career than he did at the beginning. As he lost some of his remarkable leaping ability, he added other elements to his game every off season. Despite regularly leading the league in scoring, Jordan worked to change and improve his game every summer, as if he were a rookie trying to make a team.

Learn emotional intelligence – Stay in Control!

Another common thread linking the careers of Woods, Jordan and Gretzky, was their shared ability to maintain control, despite the tremendous pressure they faced. A simple term for this control is emotional intelligence. It is the ability to use emotions effectively; emotional intelligence is absolutely necessary when athletes are asked to carry the burden of tremendous expectations.

Gretzky’s nickname, The Great One, is an indication of the expectations he confronted every time he stepped onto the ice. The pressure on Jordan and Woods was similarly intense.

In addition to the task of managing pressure, emotional intelligence allows these three superstars to be efficient and effective while competing. With a remarkable gift for scoring goals, and owning nearly every scoring record in NHL history, Gretzky was remarkably efficient while playing. He never appeared flustered or out of control, despite his intensity. Similarly, Jordan and Woods are both tremendously focused despite environments that would distract almost anyone else.

In Wood’s recent record victories at the U.S. and British Opens, he awed his opponents with his focus and control. One example of this control is a patience and restraint beyond his years. Imagine being able to hit a golf ball further than virtually every other professional, but choosing to hit a short safe shot instead because you know that the key to winning is avoiding mistakes rather than taking chances.

This type of self-restraint is a sign of emotional intelligence; it takes great mental discipline and a talent that requires work to achieve. Jordan developed emotional intelligence over time, learning when to attack and when to be patient. By the end of his career, Jordan learned to save his best performance for the most important moments at the end of the game-for the win.

This consistent ability to remain in control and act decisively when it counted led Jordan’s teammate Luc Longley to describe him with one word, “Predator!”

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