5 Mental Skills of Successful Athletes

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Master of Athletic Administration

Male coach laughing with high school athlete

Measuring athletic success isn’t about counting wins, trophies or breaking world records. Achieving success doesn’t happen solely through physical prowess and natural talent. Relying on innate ability will only take an athlete so far, but it is through critical mental skills that an athlete will rise to success.

Being on the starting team and earning accolades do not make a successful athlete. Success is found in the pursuit of a goal, in the enjoyment of the activity, and in receiving satisfaction equal to the effort given. It’s a personal battle and challenge, overcome by pushing abilities to their furthest extent with the help of mental strength.

Mental skills are a necessity for peak performance in athletic events and are crucial for non-sports situations as well. Mental acuity is not found but learned and developed by any athlete who gives an effort. Instruction and practice build not only physical skills but enhance mental skills as well. Similar to physical challenges, building mental skills involves struggle and a drive to excel. Success is about pushing through and improving.

Jack J. Lesyk, Ph.D., CC-AASP, is the Director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology and the psychologist to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has been working with athletes since 1981. His experience includes working with all levels of players in 25 different sports. Dr. Lesyk has shown particular interest in the skills successful athletes share and has written about multiple mental skills found to be vital. Gaining and improving these skills will grow any athlete into a successful one.

Attitude: Choose and Maintain

Perhaps one of the most foundational skills to be acquired, attitude is a major part of success. Athletes first and foremost need to accept that attitude is a choice. Adopting a positive attitude will help individuals learn from both victories and failures, an important part of pursuing excellence.

It’s important to note that excellence and perfection are separate and distinct. Excellence is attainable and perfection is unreachable. A positive attitude helps an athlete distinguish these and find success through excellence. Most importantly, attitude breeds a character of respect; inside the game and out.

Motivation: Discover and Retain

Without motivation, athletes would find it impossible to continue toward their goals. It is a mindset of awareness, a drive to tirelessly push forward. It develops persistence, which fuels participation. Instead of searching only for the goal, athletes benefit from the participation itself. Motivation can be found in the little things throughout an athlete’s training, such as increasing intensity or accomplishing daily objectives. Instead of an athlete always pushing for results, they discover motivation through participation in an athletic activity they are passionate about.

Goals: Set and Pursue

Goals do not need to be ridiculous, far-reaching or extravagant. Goals need to be set realistically at an attainable level while still being challenging. Time and ability are the best goals to set because they can be measured, and their improvement develops more motivation.

Athletes must have an awareness of their level and progress. Being honest with themselves will result in better and more accurate goals. Once goals are set, a successful athlete creates a plan to reach those goals in a timely manner. They can only be met through commitment, resilience, and a plan.

Emotions: Accept and Regulate

Emotions, especially anxiety, can quickly arise when it comes to athletic activities. Sports, competitions and races offer athletes the opportunity to practice an extremely important mental skill: accepting emotions as they come and learning how to deal with them. Emotions can distort or bolster other mental skills, so understanding and regulating them distinguishes the most successful athletes from the rest.

Feeling emotions and accepting their presence is the first step. Realizing they can be channeled into productive effort is the second step. The third is knowing when to temper emotions that are too strong and having the awareness to do so.

Concentration: Possess

Athletes who are here-and-now, stay present and pay attention, are practicing the mental skill of concentration. Slippery skills to possess for long – constant vigilance, and concentration on the present activity, increase success and satisfaction. Athletes who want to be successful learn how to concentrate on the task at hand, even if it means blocking out the fans, blocking out the rivalry, and maintaining focus on what needs to be done.

Resisting distractions is a mental skill that easily translates to both athletic and non-athletic activities. Athletes who develop concentration can use that skill in a myriad other life aspects. Whether it is completing a project at work or creating a piece of art, concentration leads to less errors and higher quality work. Engaging fully in an activity, as opposed to just giving an unfocused effort, will draw more satisfaction whether it involves athletics or life in general.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Degree

Ohio University’s online MAA program is designed to teach professionals how to manage the many changes in interscholastic sports. The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to be a leader in sports business education.

Ohio University’s online MAA program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring the university’s dedication to providing world-class sports business education. The program works in collaboration with the National Intercollegiate Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA).


Sport Psych.org, Staff
SportPsych.org, “Nine Mental Skills Overview”
Psychology Today, “How to Develop Mentally Tough Young Athletes”