What does it take to become a champion?

“You become a champion by fighting one more round. When things are tough, you fight one more round.”

James J. Corbett

We live in a sport’s crazy world. Old and young, men and women – they love playing, spectating and simply talking at length about pretty much every sport under the sun the world over. From acrobatics to mountain biking and netball to zip-lining… they all have a following. OK, so zip-lining isn’t exactly top of everyone’s agenda but it’s the only activity beginning with Z that comes to mind and, well, you get the picture!

However, while many people eat, sleep and drink sport there is an obvious demarcation that defines whether someone is a weekend warrior or the next Rory McIlroy. So, what is the difference between the unused Sunday League substitute in a public park in Dublin or Dundee and Kevin De Bruyne bossing a national team’s midfield at a major tournament?

What is it, this ‘X-factor’, that is needed to turn a passive sporting interest into the ability to be semi-competitive and then progress to the next level – a professional on a global stage?

Cold, Calculated Coaching & Training VS. Natural Born Talent…

There is a school of thought for both principles but what has the leading lights of the modern sporting era offered up as arguments for either?

Professional athletes are admired and lauded around the world on a 24/7 basis. Novak Djokovic, Beauden Barrett and Lewis Hamilton are splashed across our daily sports headlines in the wake of yet another ‘supernatural’ performance and the general sporting fraternity love to romanticize that pure, unadulterated ability has seen these global icons achieve their latest and great feats. However, has the modern sports landscape of forensic performance analysis, intensive training regimes, pre-meditated ‘systems’ and repetition stifled the extroverted individual that is solely reliant upon their biological capability?


In taking golf as a case study it presents some interesting cause for thought. Not even in two lifetimes has a sports personality’s ‘natural ability’ and ‘God-given talent’ been uttered so frequently by host broadcasters than that of 15-time Major golf tournament winner, Tiger Woods. Who could forget an adorable 2-year-old Tiger appear on the Mike Douglas Show where he displayed the early origins of that beautiful swing whilst chatting to comedian Bob Hope? Glossy montages show the progression of infant Eldrick chipping balls in his back garden, his triumphs at the Junior World Championships in the mid-eighties, his unprecedented hat-trick of US Amateur titles a decade later and, ultimately, his cementing as one of one of the world’s greatest ever sports people – TV montage gold! These stages are wrapped into beautiful 2-3-minute clips, portraying an effortless rise from back garden fun to sporting dominance and all solely delivered by this supposed natural ability and god given talent.

Tiger simply has / had (acknowledging that recent years haven’t exactly been rosy in the Garden for the walking Nike billboard) the X-Factor……. Right? Hmmmmmmmmm.

What of Earl, his father, who took it upon himself to exclusively coach Tiger for the first 5 years of his golfing life? He was the man who drilled this zealous enthusiasm for the game into his son from as soon as he could hold a club and swing it around his head. Woods then prospered under the tutelage of Don Crosby, his coach at Western High School during his formative years, before benefiting from the Stanford collegiate conveyor belt whilst studying for a Major in Economics. That is before we even give mention to backbreaking practice on the range with swing coaches such as Butch Harmon and Sean Foley and daily weight sessions in the gym. Perhaps not as carefree and plain sailing as we would like to imagine for dear Tiger, eh?

Advantage, Ms Williams…

Similarly, the William’s sisters have long apportioned their success on the court to their father and coach, Richard. It has been well documented that the father of the tennis powerhouses simply ‘decided to make them into professional tennis players’, drafting a 78-page master plan and commencing his coaching of his girls from age 4 and a half. More than 120 professional singles titles later who is to doubt that he did not single-handedly create such a scenario in an apparent pre-conceived, manufactured manner that even the likes of pop mogul Simon Cowell may well admire.

The Best of the Best

Lastly, the great Lionel Messi was not found kicking a tattered football around the streets of his native Rosario but was instead nurtured, initially by the renowned coaches at Newell’s Old Boys and then by the renowned Barcelona La Masia Academy.

31 August 2012; A general view of a Navy ball during a practice session ahead of the 2012 Emerald Isle Classic match against Notre Dame on Saturday. Lansdowne Rugby Club, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Multi-MVP recipient Tom Brady still poured over endless hours of opposing teams’ defensive set-up footage before conference matches. One can only imagine his endless scrutiny of the opposition whenever the Patriots made it to ‘the big show’ under his stewardship and is undoubtedly one of the many reasons that Tampa Bay feel that, despite being 42 years of age and in the twilight of his career, he was still worth landing for their franchise.

Egan Bernal must ensure his winter training regime will see him through those grueling mountain stages when he returns in 2020 to defend his Tour de France title, Le Bron’s 6 feet 8 inch stature is nothing without tenuous agility exercise and Michael Phelps (owner of just the 28-Olympic medals, folks) always trusted in his hybrid gym/pool sessions to earn him the required stamina to become the greatest Olympian in history.

All in all, the above back-stories aren’t quite as romantic as suggesting each athlete simply possessed that ‘Je ne sais pas’ gold dust, are they?

Are we any the wiser, then?

OK, so the above may be trying its best to suck the life out of what we would all like to believe – that sometimes the guy or girl with the burning internal desire, that sublime piece of personal flair or sub-conscious instinct will outwit the premeditated systems and protocols creeping its way into the suppose unpredictable world of sport.

In reality, of course, a little bit from both theories is needed to achieve sporting greatness… but the next time you take a moment to admire ‘Natural Born Talent’, take a moment to look beyond that glossy montage and see the inevitable hard work, dedication, coaching and planning that also contributed to the moment.

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April 1st, 2019

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Leftfield - (of artistic work) radical or experimental.