It has become a passion of mine to figure out the secret sauce of champions, in order to understand how they are able to distinguish themselves from the rest of their field. What I have found is talent and genetics tell only a small part of the story.
I’ve known champions literally my whole life. My mother was a champion Tennis player, making it as high as 6th in the world after she progressed to the Wimbledon Semifinals. Onnit was founded with the help of a champion, Gold Medalist and multiple world champion, Bode Miller.
As Onnit has progressed, I have gotten to know other champions in virtually every field – we even have a disc golf champion!
I have had the privilege of sitting down with these champions to learn how they are able to excel in their sport. The following are 8 underrated attributes of champions that you can adopt as your own to help you become a champion in your field.
8. Champions are in a Committed Relationship with Their Body
Most of us have a tenuous armslength agreement with our body. We barely understand each other, which leads to a lot of cursing and frustration. It’s a typical bad relationship.
Champions demand results from their body, so they can’t afford that kind of casual affair. I have had the pleasure of training with Bode Miller on many occasions, and I always leave with a sense of wonder not only at his output, but at the diagnostics he is continuously running.
At any given point during his training, Bode can give you a fairly accurate reading of his lactate levels and peak heart rate. Meanwhile, I’m just figuring out whether I should vomit or not.
He regularly does ketotic ‘fasts’, and while he uses strips to test for the presence of ketones in his urine, he doesn’t need to. He is tuned in. This level of precision allows him not only to perform his best, but also to be able to cut himself just the right amount of slack.
Despite his hard charging reputation, Bode knows the amount of alcohol he can consume before it will affect his performance. He knows when he can afford to eat chicken tenders, and when he needs asparagus and salmon.
We haven’t yet figured out how to untether from this complex piece of machinery we call the body. So we might as well read the user’s manual. Bode developed his acute sense by using all the tools available to him.
From diagnostic technology, to a voracious consumption of text, and most importantly, impartial trial and error. The body can either be our greatest ally or our greatest adversary. To be a champion in your own field you need all the help you can get.
7. Champions are Relentless
Wakesurfing champion Ashley Kidd resides in Austin and goes out riding with my partner in crime, Whitney Miller. When she wants to practice something, she will not stop doing the same trick over and over until she perfects it. There is no other option.
Not only is this challenging to Ashley, it means that she is not shy about making the boat driver do endless circles to pick her back up out of the water. This process can go on for hours at a time.
Ashley does not get frustrated, this is simply the buy in for her to be the best in the world. Where others cow to their own frustrations and the pressure to be considerate to the driver, Ashley is completely relentless.
This same sentiment was echoed by my friend, Jason Ellis, talk show host and former champion skateboarder. He described the process for one of his most legendary stunts, in which he transferred mid-air from a skateboard to the back of a motorcycle.
The ramp launched them both 60 feet in the air going roughly 40 miles per hour. If Jason wasn’t careful mounting the bike, he would crash the motorcycle on landing.
For the first half dozen jumps, he wasn’t comfortable with getting on the bike, and so he bailed, slamming on the far side ramp with his torso. Every time it got worse. A broken rib, a concussion, a busted ankle. The list of injuries kept growing.
But he kept getting back on that skateboard – until finally he landed the trick. Then he went to the hospital.
It doesn’t matter what you are trying to be successful at, if you aren’t relentless you don’t stand a chance. For the writer, it is sitting down and doing the work. Writing, rewriting, writing, rewriting until finally you have your best work to show.
For the entrepreneur, it is going over the plan, premeditating the risks, studying the market until you are the unequivocal expert in your niche. Whatever the cost, champions are relentless.
6. Champions Have Rituals
The most dominant active athlete in any sport is probably someone you have never heard of. Kane Waselenchuk hasn’t lost a professional racquetball match in 8 years. He is so much better than everyone else, to practice against anyone would likely make him worse.
Instead Kane has a ritual. He takes six brand new racquetballs, puts on his headphones, and goes into the box. He doesn’t leave until all 6 balls are popped. Sometimes this takes 2 hours, sometimes this takes 4 hours.
He just hits corners and kills and serves until he is drenched in sweat and the balls have tapped out. That is a championship ritual.
I wouldn’t call myself a basketball champion, but I had my fair share of success. Part of it was due to a ritual I developed early on. When I picked up a ball to practice on my own, I wouldn’t leave the court unless I hit three 3 pointers in a row.
This could be a major hassle when my stroke was off! By the time I was a senior in high school I had received various state honors, spent three years on varsity, and was one of the top shooting guards in Texas. My long range shot was largely the reason.
What are the rituals that could support your own championship career? Is it to journal every day? Maybe to meditate before bed? Read one new article about your field every day?
Figure out your ritual and don’t waver. Let it become a part of your ethos, a non-negotiable characteristic of your life.
5. Champions Master Their Mind
I once casually mentioned to Bode Miller that I had a song stuck in my head. He looked right at me and said, “Get rid of it.” I laughed, but then I realized he wasn’t joking. After a few minutes I had formed a tenuous truce with my mind.
He explained to me that allowing something beyond your conscious control to take place in your own mind is a serious detriment to success. He has no room for extraneous thoughts in the starting gate. He can’t have anything preventing him from “being on it,” as we used to say.
So no matter how catchy a jingle might be, he categorically denied those chords and choruses from spinning in his brain. It was practice for dispatching the more parasitic thoughts that might come into his mind.
I call this trait ‘mental override’. The concept of mental override is pretty simple, it is when your highest self overrides the protests of the mind for the good of the organism as a whole. It is the manual engaging of controls when the autopilot is inefficient.
When cultivated, this is the single most powerful tool that you can have. It is an assertion that you are in charge of your mind, and your mind is in charge of your motor functions.
Want to stop smoking? Mental override.
Want to go work out but don’t have the enthusiasm? Mental override.
Want to start dancing at the party, but feel shy? Mental override.
Want to finish writing your article? Mental override.
Want to change your mood? Mental override.
It is the ultimate weapon at your disposal, and it is really that simple. You just deny yourself any other option, and do it. No buts allowed.
4. Champions are Tough
There are a lot of reasons that Duncan Keith is a legend. In fact, his accolades sound like a Christmas song: Three Stanley Cups, Two Norris Trophies, and a Conn Smythe Trophyyyy. But those aren’t the numbers that make him a legend to many of his fans. Those numbers are 7 & 7.
In the 2010 playoffs vs. the San Jose Sharks, Duncan Keith took a puck to the mouth and lost 7 teeth. Seven minutes later he was back out on the ice to take his shift. After the Blackhawks won the game, clinching the series, reporters asked him about the incident.
He famously replied through his bloody and broken face, “It’s just missing teeth. It’s a long way from the heart.”
That is the first guy I want on my team, and the last guy I want to play against. But Keith isn’t the only champion with true grit, it is a characteristic found in every champion I have ever known.
Michelle Waterson is another great example. In her title fight for the Invicta Atomweight Championship, everything went from bad to worse in a hurry. Pinned down to the canvas, unable to protect her face, her opponent rained blows down from full mount position.
All she had to do was stop moving and the referee would save her from the onslaught. With each blow the face that gave her the nickname “Karate Hottie” became more swollen and distorted. But she didn’t stop.
Instead she gave up her arm which her opponent bent backwards like a longbow. Sinews stretched to the point of snapping, she still refused to tap. She wiggled until she found a millimeter of chance to break the hold. The bell rung and she went back to her corner.
A few deep breaths and a new round started. She wasted no time, and locked out an armbar of her own. When asked how she made it through the proverbial jaws of death she replied, “Fear does not crown champions.”
Life will test you. It will test your courage, your resolve, your will, and your strength. It will hit you where it hurts most. To be a champion, you have to be tough. And it starts with the little things. Push yourself a little longer in the sauna. Take a cold shower.
Do an extra round on your Tabata set. You never know when you will need to draw on that toughness.
3. Champions are Great Students
There is a famous clip online of the greatest Welterweight champion of all time, Georges St. Pierre in the gym with commentator, Joe Rogan. In the video, Joe is showing Georges his turning side kick. The champion is watching, enraptured. He is learning every cue.
Despite being one of the greatest fighters in the world, he is humbly and gratefully learning from a man he has only known as commentator. This is the sign of a champion.
As it turns out, Joe has one of the best turning side kicks in the world, so the champ was able to add another weapon to his arsenal.
When I met both Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Toews, and Super Bowl Champion AJ Hawk, I noticed something very similar about them. They were incredibly eager to learn. Whatever I wanted to talk about, they were happy to listen.
I wasn’t ever an athlete of their caliber and I don’t come with any official credentials. But here we were discussing all manner of performance and training tips. They understood that to be a master, they had to be good students first.
Everyone has something to teach you if you are willing to listen. All around you every single day lessons fall on deaf ears. The more you listen, the quicker you see through everyone else’s eyes, the more knowledge you will gain.
The more knowledge you have, the better a champion you will be.
2. Champions Smile When They Go to Work
Smiling has the biological purpose of letting people know that everything is all good. Imagine seeing someone in the midst of a hundred snakes. It would be terrifying to watch, unless you saw them flash a big smile.
Once you see the smile, you know that everything is under control. Either the snakes aren’t that deadly or this person is so experienced in handling them, there is nothing to worry about. In any kind of endeavor where the stakes are high there are snakes.
Snakes of fear, snakes of doubt, snakes of looming pain of all sorts. When the champion smiles it is an assertion that those snakes are nothing to worry about.
This is why a smile is stronger than the lion’s roar. The lion typically roars to quell a potential threat. To smile is to say “there is no threat”. It is an act of supreme superiority over the situation.
The last thing you want to see in a gun duel at high noon is a smile before the gunslinger draws down on you.
Think about Michael Jordan on the court. It is hard to imagine that icon without seeing that little smirk on his face. The court was his domain, his playground. When he was out there, he let you know he was king. Not with his roar, but with his smile.
It is the same with MMA champions. After a good exchange, you’ll find Welterweight Champ Robbie Lawler smiling. When Conor McGregor enters the cage you see a crazy, wide-eyed Clockwork Orange smile.
When TJ Dillashaw was toppling Renan Barao, fighting at 100% of his potential, you could see a little smirk on his face. While TJ Dillashaw was fighting in the fight that would lose him his belt to Dominic Cruz, what was missing? That smirk.
While it may seem that the smile is the consequence of the action, I would argue that the smile is primary. When TJ is smiling, he is loose, he is fluid, he is accurate. Dominic made TJ angry enough that every one of his strikes were an attempt at decapitation.
His blows were heavy and his mind was stubborn – this was the reason why TJ was not at his best that night.
Are there exceptions? Of course. The great heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko wasn’t much of a smiler. But that was his culture. That cold deadpan look of death was actually the most levity his countenance could muster!
Regardless of the smile, he fought as loose and fluid as anyone.
And why wouldn’t a champion smile? It is an opportunity to do exactly what they have been training their whole life to do. It is a chance to apply one’s force to the maximum effect. If that isn’t fun, I don’t know what is.
1. Champions Utilize Belief to Their Advantage
I have never seen anyone use belief with such devastating effect as featherweight champion, Conor McGregor. It is so powerful, he shapes the destiny of his fights to match his belief. His accuracy in calling both the round and the method even earned him the nickname “Mystic Mac”.
But nothing was ever more impressive than when he fought Chad Mendes. Chad took him down repeatedly and held him on his back. He landed elbow after elbow to Conor’s head, splitting him open like a melon.
But there was Conor, talking the whole time. Not for one millisecond did he believe that he was going to lose. When a scramble took them to his feet, the talking continued.
As his predicted second round knockout seemed almost out of reach, he landed the left hand that rocked the world. Or at least, The Emerald Isle.
TJ Dillashaw was a +700 underdog against the seemingly indomitable champion, Renan Barao. But TJ had a secret. He believed he was going to win. He saw himself holding the belt, and he knew he was destined to be champion.
So he didn’t fight like an underdog. He fought like a maniacal surgeon. He danced and stung Barao for 4 rounds until finally, in the fifth, he ended the champ’s night with a headkick. “Belief is a powerful thing,” he said, with belt firmly in hand.
Every champion must not only believe they are going to be a champion, they must also believe they deserve to be a champion. But you can’t fake belief. You have to earn it with hard work.
Both TJ and Conor spend countless hours in the gym mastering their trade. For TJ, it is extra one-on-one sessions with his master coach, Duane Bang. Conor flies in movement specialists like Ido Portal. All of these things give the champion the belief. And from there, it is all on the mind.
There isn’t a single ingredient that makes a champion rise above the rest. Each of these attributes, combined with the single-minded focus of bettering the self, is the key to achieving total human optimization.
Whatever your endeavor, remember three things and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a champion yourself: You deserve it, you have earned it, and it is going to be yours.