How Elite Athletes Can Help Improve The Rest of Us

I’m not sure about you, but I sometimes often wish I was an elite athlete.


The top 1%.

The Mount Everest.


Jordan Dunk

Imagine being at the top of your game or sport; setting records or getting close enough that current record holders begin to seriously sweat.

People see you striding onto your court, track or rink. A steely-faced look of determination is there, but so is this amazing calmness.

Immediately all your other competitors begin to do this:


That’s right. Imagine being the person that makes Usain Bolt start praying because he is worried you’re possibly about to smash him and his record.

Imagine having that much confidence, drive and impact in your chosen sport.

The thing is, it isn’t just elite athletes who can have this effect.

Picture a recent professional learning conference, seminar, meeting or session you were a part of that was hosting an amazing keynote presenter.

That kind of presenter where the whole crowd draws in a collective breath as they take the stage and are now facing you – yes, they are actually going to talk to YOU (plus the 250 other people in the crowd).

Or that person within your team people always confer with and who are hugely respected for their advice and knowledge. One word, look or breath can impact the whole environment around them.

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This elite person has the potential to rapidly shift the future direction of you, your team and your organisation.

That is an amazing amount of responsibility, trust and power within one individual.

So, what is is about those elite athletes, or colleagues, that makes them elite?

Yes, they may have some genetic traits that provide them with an edge. Physically, they may have slight advantages over us, but what about the mental aspect?


“The mental part is the hardest part, and I think that’s what separates the good players from the great players.”

– Michael Jordan

Mindset is crucial.

Actually – mindset is the key.

Specifically, a growth mindset is key.

(If you haven’t read one of our earlier pieces about Growth Mindsets and Usain Bolt, we highly recommend pausing here and checking it out)

A growth mindset means you see all of your potential abilities, intelligence, skills and whole self like a Mary Poppins bag o’tricks…it is seemingly impossible to reach capacity.

mary poppins gif

Growth mindsetters believe we are only limited by the time, effort, focus and energy we choose to put into something*.

We might not be able to do something yet – but just you wait.

We believe we are not born with a set amount of knowledge, intelligence or skills.

We believe we can constantly be added to.

But, before we get truly excited, back to our elite athletes.


What can we learn from these elite athletes?

What are some of the things they practice that can assist all of us to start filling up our own bag o’tricks?

Well, let’s make this pretty clear from the get go. First step is you have to hold a genuine belief that you can upgrade yourself.

That’s your foundation.

You wouldn’t start building a house by creating the roof before the four walls and a foundation, right?

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With that proviso covered, what is one of the key behaviours and skills that elite athletes focus on and practise that we can use?

Well, it’s fairly simple** – it starts with goal setting.

Like my Dad has always said,

If you can do one thing recommended on a blog, do it well“.

Don’t get me wrong.

This isn’t the only thing you have to do to become an elite athlete. However, the ability to set and work towards goals can be utilised in any area or field.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is massive in education nearly everywhere now.

Professional Goals, Wellbeing IndexesLearning Intentions, Success Criteria, Key Performance Indicators and Growth Targets make up the daily life of schools, corporations and organisations in Australia right now***.

Goal Setting is fundamental to success.

Which intuitively makes sense…would you jump into your car without knowing where you need to go?


Old Woman Shaking Head

The secret is to approach your personal and professional goals like an elite athlete: set and then work towards goals.

The key thing with goals is that they need to be specific to you.

I might reallyreally want to improve my basketball skills, but my goal has to be more specific than “Get better at basketball”. 

On top of actually identifying the skill and area of focus, you need to be able to measure if you have upgraded your abilities or skills. I could continue beating all of the Grade Fives and Sixes in basketball (surely it helps toughen them up, right?) but does that tell me I have upgraded my abilities as a basketballer?

We need to make sure we are setting specific goals that we can actually measure and track. Oh, and it must be achieveable and agreed upon. Whilst you might want to slam dunk like Jordan or LeBron, you should probably aspire to be able to touch the rim first.


Goal setting gurus and experts love acronyms, particularly ones that sound S.M.A.R.T.E.R.

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‘Smarter Goals’ image from (Duncan Haughey, 2011)

Let’s look at that basketball goal I first created and make it S.M.A.R.T.E.R:

 I am going to get better at dribbling with my left hand. I will be able to move freely, keep my head up and maintain control of the ball.

Specific? Yep.

Measurable? Indeed.

Achievable and Agreed? Um. Yes. I concur with myself.

Realistic? Tick.

Time-Bound? Let’s say one month? Yep.

Ethical? I’m not spraying any animals with lead-based paint, backstabbing anyone or lying to myself. Yep, it’s ethical and fits with my beliefs and values.

Recorded? Well, now it is.

Just remember, the key to setting goals like an athlete is to make them a little bit beyond your reach, but not so much that they stress you out. Make sure you are clear with what you want, how (and when) you can see if you’ve achieved it and that you (and others involved) really believe in it.

Then the crucial step:

Write down your goal.

See it in front of you.

Every day.

Do it.

You will be inspired to work harder to achieve that goal.

Simon Sinek: lover of goal setting.


What’s your next goal?

When do you want to achieve it?  

How will you know you’ve achieved it?


Stay tuned, next week we discuss how we can all use a second key skill of elite athletes. We’re excited to share our next upgrade with you all!

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*Dr Carol Dweck is the guru of Growth Mindsets, read her book “Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential”. Right now.
** Dr Martin Hagger, professor in psychology has a great TEDx talk from 2013 that discusses some of these…check out our Further Upgrades below!
***I’m not going to lie. I am a massive goal nerd. Or geek. whichever ones means I love it more. The more growth targets I can set and aspire to for myself, individual students, my classes or my school…the better. Shut up.


Further Upgrades

Dr Carol Dweck – Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

Carol Dweck Book

Dr Martin Hagger – Inside the Mind of Champion Athletes


Dr Craig Manning – Simple ways to use daily goal setting


Dan Highcock – Insight into the Mind of an Elite Athlete


Aimee Mullins TEDTalk – Changing My Legs and My Mindset


Kobe Bryant – Two fantastic videos showcasing Kobe’s mindset as an elite basketballer


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