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What Does It Take to Make a Really Good Athlete Great?

It’s a question weighing on Dirk Stroda’s mind. As the High-Performance Mental Coach for the Canadian eventing, dressage, and Paralympic equestrian teams, it’s Stroda’s job to help elite athletes peak when it counts most. Namely, at the Rio Games this summer.

“I’m not preparing the teams to come back in fourth place,” says Stroda. “I am trying to plant a seed that will probably go beyond where they see themselves because it’s the same effort. If you do things right, you can achieve extraordinary results.”

Stroda helped his first athlete to the Olympics in 1984 for the Los Angeles Games. He’s taken competitors to every Olympic Games since in a variety of sports.

“I was looking back and thinking what did the most successful ones do? What was their recipe for success? The majority of Olympic athletes will say, ‘I had something in me, I knew I could do it.’ But only three can go home with a medal,” says Stroda.

So what’s the difference between a really good athlete and a great one? It starts with creating the context for success. Stroda explains:

Great athletes are well prepared.

Ian Millar and Dixson 2

Great athletes have a strong vision. They are mentally very strong, physically very strong and they have the resources to do what they set out to achieve.

I compare it to sitting in an airplane about to take off. In that moment when you hit the runway, you have to go 100 percent. Go just 60 percent and the airplane doesn’t leave the ground. That’s what some athletes do.

In this kind of market, this kind of industry, 60 percent doesn’t do it. Eighty percent doesn’t do it. Because if halfway through you start to have fears—Am I on the right plane? Can I do it?—you’re going to turn around and fly back.

You have to commit 100 percent to get you where you want to go.

If you’re not prepared to do that, if you haven’t prepared everything—you don’t have the fuel or the crew—it doesn’t make sense to try and fly the Transatlantic.

That is part of preparation. The athlete has to become very clear. Pushing 60 percent will not help Canada to be a big surprise in some of the disciplines.

Great athletes create the context for success.

Chris von Martels and Zilverstar

Remember basketball’s dream team at the 2004 Athens Olympics? LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Lamar Odom, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire—everyone thought they were going to win every game and they didn’t. They lost against Puerto Rico. No one knew at that point that Puerto Rico even had a basketball team!

The difference was the Puerto Rico had a team. The dream team had six superstars, but they weren’t working together. That’s not a compassionate group. The sum of the athletes can do it. Each individual athlete cannot.

In equestrian sports, your team is so much more important. It’s really a big undertaking to get a rider to the top. Each member plays an important part of that and has to be valued, from the groom—especially the groom!—to the vet to the chef. These people are your capital. You want to have consistency on a very high level.

You also have to form a compassionate team—teammates that engage in every aspect of the preparation. Because non-functioning relationships can be the killer on the day of the event.

You have to engage with the right people. You have to invest in your relationships with your owners, your coach, your family, everybody. It gives you the foundation to build your success upon. If you don’t have a strong foundation, the structure collapses.

Great athletes have a legacy statement.

Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti

What kind of legacy, what kind of imprint do you want to have? When you look at yourself, what is it you want? What’s your vision?

The moment athletes start thinking about what they are capable of doing, they move in a completely different fashion.

They move with purpose. They decide what’s relevant and what’s not relevant. They decide what is drama and what is not drama. That is something that really separates the good from the greatest. They move with more clarity, with more focus.

Focus is part of every step of your path. You don’t want to jump into something and say, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ If you don’t know what you want, it doesn’t end on a positive note.

I want the athlete to create the whole picture of themselves—their financial situation, their relationships. If you go to the Olympics and come home with a gold medal, that has to have repercussions on your financial situation, on your career, on your business.

If an athlete wins a medal and they are still on welfare or crowdsourcing to get to the next event, well, then we missed some things. That is my legacy statement: to help the athletes to not only become successful but to become more financially independent.

Many great athletes are not.

Great athletes become bulletproof.

Belinda Trussell

The higher you get, the stronger the wind blows in your face.

You have to be resilient when you go to the Olympics. There are horror stories—we don’t have air conditioning, it takes two hours to get to the facility. If you make that complaint the most important thing, you better not go because there are many problems. Every day there are different ones. You have to focus on the solution. That is what helps you to move forward.

If you encounter a challenge, see that as an opportunity to grow.

Creating that context will give athletes a very safe and defined mission, a sense of purpose. We’re here to do a job. We’re here to joyfully do the job. We’re really enjoying what we’re doing here because we can also delegate things we’re not comfortable doing.

For example, talking. Some people really don’t like to go to the microphone, to give interviews. We’ll send someone who likes to do it. You need a well-lubricated engine when you take a team to the Olympic Games.

I really want us to be Puerto Rico.

Canadian Pan Am Eventing Team

Canada is not the dream team. We don’t have the luxury of Germany or the Netherlands. We don’t have 50 riders behind these four or five that can take over that spot. We have to face reality. We can say we have no chance, or we can create our own chance.

We have to be better in every aspect.

We have to really look at our resources, our riders, and get them the best possible support and guidance that we can give them.

At the Pan American Games, every member of the Canadian dressage team posted a personal best score. They have proven that they can do it once. We have to give them the resources to reach the next level and the next level after that. If we have that long-term plan, we can do it.

It’s not about ego at all. We are not taking that into our bags when we travel. We are not here to babysit them; we’re here to serve them the best possible way. We want them to shine. That’s the mission. You do it because you are achieving something only a handful will ever achieve. That is something really special.

Getting to the top is hard work. Maintaining and mastering it is a completely different game. You have to reevaluate every little piece. You basically have to start from the beginning. You have to pour the concrete, the strongest concrete that you can ever build and then you can build on that the structure of your success.

 

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