Going for gold: 8 characteristics for long-term sustainable success


Professional sport is a success driven vocation and is often cited as being a good model to work to. This has been the most successful away British Olympic Games ever, and Britain became the first nation to better their home Olympic medal table at the next competition. The focus is, quite rightly, on the supreme athletes and their achievements. However, when you talk to elite athletes they always credit their support network as core to their success, and key amongst these have to be the performance coaches. Ashridge findings show a number of major characteristics that are required by elite performance coaches to achieve long-term sustainable success.

Added on 19 August 2016 by John Neal

9 characteristics for success

In our work with many sporting performance coaches, we have built up a picture of what they believe are the characteristics of sustainable success at an elite level. The eight major characteristics articulated by elite sporting coaches are:

1.      ‘Bouncebackability’ (resilience)

Bouncebackability is the ability to contextualize and ‘bounce back’ from a loss. This is just as important for the coach as for the athlete. Coaches in many sports are not resilient, they sometimes struggle to sleep well and as a consequence, tiredness ensues.  Tiredness can result in a lack of emotional control. Coaches are encouraged to look after their well-being to ensure at key pressure points within the Olympic Games and other major championships, that their behavior is confident, calm and positive.

Often individual coaches are not the best team coaches; British Swimming has created and adopted a set of criteria for coaches which is now based on being a good team coach, showcasing resilience and performing well under pressure.

2.      Self-belief

Self-belief involves individuals that believe in themselves, but are not arrogant or over-confident. Coaches need to portray self-belief in their ability as an elite coach and belief in the athlete(s) to enhance their confidence and thrive in high pressure environments where opportunities arise for self-belief to flounder.

3.      Belief built on hard work

This is about the notion that self-belief is built on hard work and adherence to competencies. Most coaches will work on an athlete’s weakness rather than actively seek the positives. Where an athlete has major faults or areas for drastic improvement, coaches should aim to nullify them; Olympic champions work with their coaches to improve their strengths, to become more successful.

As we think about organizations, we see individuals who are recruited based on their strengths and investment then made in learning and development initiatives to improve identified weaknesses. A suggestion would be to allocate more resource to fine-tuning the strengths of individuals and teams.

4.      Highly motivated

Losing is part of the sporting process, so winning as a motivation is risky. We often see fear of failure among athletes and coaches and unfortunately with fear of failure does not come the joy of winning. Individuals refrain from challenging themselves and being in situations where they might be uncomfortable.  

Coaches will not always know what their motivation for training elite athletes is, and questioning them on it can come as quite a surprise. When there is purpose, barriers of tiredness as well as the continuous physical, mental and emotional challenges can be worked through.  

Taking time to understand the motivation of an individual, team or organization can clarify purpose and the pathway to sustainable success. We suggest asking a question such as: Why do you do what you are doing?

5.      Achiever

An achiever is someone who is driven to achieve above anything else. This is not always a positive, as this characteristic tends to be carried in everything an achiever does leading to obsessive behavior. OCD is common in elite athletes and coaches but if well-managed it is a critical characteristic for winners. They get the job done well, on time and to a great level.

6.      Decision maker

Successful elite sports professionals make simple, correct decisions. Rather than learning from mistakes or failure, our focus at Ashridge is on analyzing success and understanding why something went well, what you did right, why did you get it right, what are your values, what are your principles, what is your decision-making process, all regardless of the outcome.

Using this ‘feed-forward’ process allows you to analyze what you will do differently moving forward and how to become better in the future. If you replicate a positive decision-making process, you are more likely to win. 

7.      Curious learner

We search out athletes and coaches that are willing and want to learn. Working with people that ask, ‘how can I get better, what can I learn from a magician, musician or doctor?’ These individuals are always looking at all avenues from which to learn. 

8.      Courageous

Being courageous is not about being brave in a heroic sense like jumping out of a plane but rather facing their fears. The fear could come from anywhere, including the fear of failure. It is about trying to find a solution to win, even when the situation does not look like it will end in success.

Interestingly, humility does not seem to be a success factor. I would challenge this as incredibly important, in particular within a training environment. In a performance training environment, a lack of humility will increase ego and more divisive behavior resulting in a lack of improvement and long-term sustainable success.

Some of the greatest errors occur when individuals feel they are too good, too experienced to fail. Being humble is being respectful of those around you and always believing that you could be better. When humility is totally absent, hubris can take over and in such cases organizations can fail, relationships can break and the competitors can gain market share. 

John leads Ashridge's World Class Mentoring Program where elite sport and business work together.