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Finding The Winning Edge: Embracing the Champions Mindset

Picture of By Jesse Engelbrecht

By Jesse Engelbrecht

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When we think of champions, we often imagine them in their moments of glory, basking in the limelight of success. It’s easy to assume that they have some innate talent or skill that sets them apart from the rest of us, making their victories seem effortless. But the truth is, becoming a champion takes more than just natural ability. It takes a certain mindset, a way of thinking and approaching challenges that sets them apart from their competitors. They are able to tap into and find that winning edge more often than not.

So, What Does A Champion Do In Order To Win?

Everybody can look great and have a positive mindset when they are winning and confident and the scoreboard is in their favour.

But the champion is the one who can maintain a certain attitude when things may not be working out.

I have broken this mindset down into a simple ABC framework.

My hope, by you reading this blog, will be to showcase the attitude that champions foster and cultivate that allow them to become consistently great at what they do and how this is achievable in your sport and setting.

It boils down to the attitude you have before and during the match rather than about what happens.

Definition Of A Champion

Becoming a champion is not defined by the number of trophies you have, the ranking you reached, or the score in your win column. Rather, a champion is about the person you are growing and becoming along the way. The only thing you should compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday. This is the yardstick to use and the yardstick that champions measure themselves on also.

Not some external validation by a number on a computer screen, or the followers or comments on social media, or the amount of money in a bank account, or the shiny metal object that represents winning an event.

They say comparison is the thief of joy. Champions use other people’s successes as motivators to become better. Not to debilitate or sow doubt and fear into their minds.

Can you begin to see your world through the same lens as champions do?

I can help…

THE ABC FRAMEWORK TO FIND THE WINNING EDGE: ACCEPTING – BELIEVING – CENTERING

A – ACCEPTING

A champion knows that sport and life are filled with imperfections. The champion accepts this quickly and whole-heartedly. They know that the striving to play the perfect game is there, but they also know and accept that this may be unrealistic to achieve.

This is not defeatism.

But rather, an embracing of the facts with a rational outlook.

When the stakes are high, a champion works toward not dropping below a certain minimum level. Rather than adding more pressure on themselves by trying to achieve the perfect match. They accept imperfect.

As Marcus Aurelius says:

“We don’t control what happens, we control how we respond”.

This is what I call dynamic acceptance. A champion adapts and flexes to what is in front of them. They move like water finding and filling the cracks. Taking the shape of the container they are in. Carving a path in the earth patiently and consistently.

SPORTING EXAMPLE OF ACCEPTING

One example of dynamic acceptance was from Novak Djokovic in the 2021 French Open when he came back from two sets down against Stefanos Tsitsipas to win the match in five sets and claim his second Roland Garros title.

Throughout the match, Djokovic had to adapt his game and strategy to overcome his opponent’s strong start. In the post-match interview, Djokovic spoke about his ability to adapt and stay focused:

“I just felt like I found my rhythm in the third set, and started to swing through the ball better. I was serving better, moving better, and I felt like I was dictating the play. But it was anybody’s game really, up until the last shot…This is what it’s all about, these kinds of matches, these kinds of moments.”

novak djokovic

This quote highlights Djokovic’s ability to accept the imperfections of the game and to adapt to the situation. It also emphasises the importance of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity to allow him to gain the winning edge.

Novak Djkovic holding and celebrating with the French Open trophy after an epic comeback and adapting his game plan

B – BELIEVING

A champion believes not only in themselves, but more importantly, believes that the obstacle and the difficulty that they are presented with is a challenge to be faced and overcome, and not as a threat to shrink away from. They run towards this. The obstacle becomes the way.

The champion wants their opposition to bring their A-game, because this now places them in a position to exceed their own expectations and rise above the challenge. They do not wish to win by default or a weaker or injured opponent. With this way of thinking, the winning edge is increased.

The obstacle and the challenge may not just come from an external source however, such as a difficult opponent, a bad referee, awful conditions, injury, and so on. But, from an internal struggle. The monkey-mind hijacking the rational thoughts. Emotions such as fear, nerves, anger, and frustration taking over.

The champion refuses to let this happen. They look at overcoming the doubting, fearing, angry mindset and know this is part of where the victory lies. In overcoming oneself. To not allow the fear centre of the brain to be all powerful and consuming.

Very often in sport it boils down to you versus you. And overcoming this is where the greatest victories may lie.

SPORTING EXAMPLE OF BELIEVING

On May 7th, 2019, Liverpool Football Club achieved one of the most remarkable comebacks in UEFA Champions League history, overturning a 3-0 deficit from the first leg of the semi-final against Barcelona. Anfield was electric, with the Liverpool supporters providing an intimidating atmosphere for the visitors.

“The belief the boys had was incredible. I saw it in their eyes before the game.”

Jürgen Klopp

The Reds started strong, with Divock Origi scoring in the 7th minute. In the second half, Georginio Wijnaldum netted two quick goals, leveling the tie at 3-3 on aggregate. The decisive moment came when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s clever corner found Origi, who scored the winner and completed the 4-0 victory.

Liverpool advanced to face Tottenham Hotspur in an all-English Champions League final on June 1st, 2019. A second-minute penalty goal from Mohamed Salah and a late strike from Divock Origi sealed a 2-0 win, securing Liverpool’s sixth European Cup/Champions League title.

The unforgettable comeback against Barcelona epitomised the spirit, determination, and belief that has come to define Liverpool Football Club, and will forever be etched in the hearts of its players and supporters.

They rose to the challenge. They played without fear. The believed that the obstacle in front of them was there for a reason. A reason and higher purpose for them to face and to overcome.

Liverpool's Belgian striker Divock Origi (R) celebrates after scoring their fourth goal during the UEFA Champions league semi-final second leg football match between Liverpool and Barcelona at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England on May 7, 2019.

C – CENTERING

A champion knows they only have 100% control over a few things in order to find the winning edge. To be able to control these controllables; their attitude, their body language, their thoughts, and their actions; they need to stay centred.

They need to be here and now in this moment. This is where the value lies and where they can control the controllables.

There is no hangover from the past and no desperation for the future yet to come. Rather, there is a centering and a love of this moment. There is of course an awareness of the past and the future, but, where the tactics, skills, and mindset are best executed are in the present moment.

A wise champion harnesses the lessons of the past to guide their present choices, much like a skillful driver navigating the road. Picture yourself in the driver’s seat, with the expansive windshield in front of you, representing the future, and the smaller rear-view mirrors reflecting the past. Naturally, the windshield dominates your view, emphasising the importance of focusing on what lies ahead. However, the rear-view mirrors still hold crucial insights, providing essential context for your decision-making. Just as a prudent driver checks their rear-view mirrors before changing lanes, it’s vital to consult the past before moving forward. Ignoring this valuable perspective would be unwise.

When emotions are brought in from the past to the present this is where problems begin. Emotions offer no value to the tactical play in this next moment. And a champion knows this. They can tune out the rest of the world and become immersed in the here and now.

SPORTING EXAMPLE OF CENTERING

One example of a famous sporting occasion where an athlete used breathing techniques to centre themselves and become victorious is the 2017 Australian Open Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer, who had been struggling with injury and had taken a six-month break from tennis, faced off against his long-time rival in a thrilling five-set match.

Throughout the match, Federer used breathing techniques to stay calm and focused. In a post-match interview, he said:

“I was just trying to stay focused and stay calm. I think the breathing techniques helped me a lot, just to slow things down and really focus on the moment. It’s amazing what you can do when you just stay in the present and focus on what you need to do.”

roger federer

This quote highlights Federer’s use of breathing techniques to centre himself and overcome the pressure and intensity of the moment. By staying focused on the present and using his breath to regulate his emotions and stay calm, Federer was able to play his best tennis and ultimately win the match.

Federer’s use of breathing techniques is a reminder of the power of mindfulness and self-awareness in sports performance. By staying centered and focused on the present moment, champions can overcome distractions and perform at their best.

And as we are well aware, Federer certainly had the winning edge in his distinguished career.

Roger Federer looking focussed and calm in his 2017 final of the Australian Open overcoming long-time rival Rafa Nadal. Federer attributes breathing techniques that helped him attain victory

THE ABC FRAMEWORK AND FLOW

When the ABC framework is executed in a match, and especially so when under pressure, it can lead an athlete towards getting into the flow state and ultimately improve the winning edge.

When an athlete is in flow there is no resistance. The ABC framework is a program running fluidly and seamlessly in the background. An athlete that gets into the flow state is at one with the task at hand. There is a quiet determination to what they are doing. There is an awareness of what is going on, and thought or ego is not getting in the way.

The ABC Framework To Access Flow

Accepting the imperfections, believing in the challenges, and centering into the moment. This is what a champion does and practices time and again. It becomes part of their DNA. It is a default setting that is ever-present.

But it has not just appeared overnight. It has taken years of honing and crafting in practice and in matches. Years of heartbreak and suffering. Plenty of highs and lows. Countless amounts of positive self-talk and affirmations. And every experience has been welcomed and embraced as a learning moment to bring them to this point.

You’re going to make mistakes, but the only way to actually overcome those is to keep pushing yourself and keep taking those risks, keep being aggressive, keep being in attack mode. When you’re in that flow, you can live with the results because you know you’re going to bounce back from it.”

Steph curry

This quote highlights that errors and mistakes will occur. This does not mean an athlete is now out of the flow state. A champion knows and accepts this and works towards keeping a non-resistant and determined state of mind.

Can you begin to hone and train this in all you do? This is 100% in your control.

Basketballer Steph Curry making a game-clinching 3-point shot

THE SECONDARY BENEFITS

In addition to the ABC framework. The champion doesn’t see things just as black and white. They do not just see a win as good and a loss as bad. They are more mindful and appreciative of the secondary benefits.

The secondary benefits of the journey are perhaps even more valuable than the ultimate achievement. Along the way, champions acquire layers of knowledge and skills that enhance their arsenal. They also have the opportunity to develop character traits that were previously untapped and strengthen existing ones.

Ultimately, the learnings gained during the journey become a valuable resource that champions can draw upon in the future to overcome new challenges and achieve even greater success.

And with this attitude before and during a match, this now becomes a win-win situation, regardless of what the scoreboard may say. It gives a winning edge!

As Nelson Mandela once said,

“I never lose, I win or learn”.

South African president Nelson Mandela smiling to camera

CONCLUSION

In summary, the champion knows that sport is not a win-at-all-costs game.  But rather, winning and success is important, but having the knowledge that to get there, the correct attitude must be trained. The correct attitude before and during matches.

The champion can grow themselves regardless of the outcome. The outcomes are fleeting at best, but the internals are for life. The champion does not rely on the external outcomes to try to fix their internal state. They work on winning the internal game as their true calling.

No matter how great the external victories may seem, if the internals have not been worked on and cultivated, eventually the cracks will show. And once they do, they are hard to patch up.

A champion knows that to achieve the outcome they desire, they need to strive for the victory but to do this through the right systems and processes.

Outcome Through Process!

My final thought comes from a Theodore Roosevelt quote and brings together the attitude a champion has and keeps working towards daily.

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are”.

Go out there and get to using this ABC framework of a champion to give you a winning edge!

STAYING IN TOUCH

Whenever you’re ready, here are 4 more ways you can consume SportMind content to help you train your mind:

  1. Check out the SportMind podcast. And this is my FAVOURITE episode to date
  2. Get your coach in your pocket by downloading the SportMind App on Apple or Android
  3. Ever wanted the tools to Unlock Flow? I have a workshop just for this
  4. Become a SportMind member and gain full access to mental training. Learn more here

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Jesse Engelbrecht

SportMind Founder,
High Performance Coach,
& Squash Professional

A professional and dedicated coach full of enthusiasm and passion for helping and teaching.

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