The Power of a Mentor

It may be the most competitive event on the planet.

Every 2 years we see athletes from all over the world converge on one city to compete in the Olympic games. They do it for pride. They do it for their country. And they do it with one goal in mind – win medals. 

Many athletes train all of their lives and only get the chance to compete in just one Olympic games. Imagine that. Years of training from as young as even 5 or 6 years old for just one chance at glory. Clearly with that much time invested on an event that may span only mere minutes or seconds, athletes want to make sure they’re training properly.

So Sports Psychologist Joseph Baker and his colleagues set out to see what factors separated the Olympic Champions from the mere participants. He found several factors that influenced the success of the champions, but none was greater than the expertise of their coach. [1]


In the development of talent, one of the most important concepts is that of “deliberate practice”. Anders Ericsson conceived deliberate practice in 1993 and defined it as “forms of training that are not intrinsically motivating, require high levels of effort and attention, and do not lead to immediate social or financial rewards. Under deliberate practice conditions, experts develop specific skills that are required by their domain under conditions of high effort and concentration.” [2]

In other words, deliberate practice is extremely difficult. So difficult, in fact, that it isn’t intrinsically motivating to the individual engaging in it. This means that an expert coach is required to not only design this highly effective and highly difficult training, but also be there to motivate the athlete through the process. If an athlete can find a coach of this caliber, their chances of winning gold go up exponentially.


I’m not an Olympic athlete and chances are neither are you. But there are a lot of things that we can learn from this finding. Deliberate practice is not just a concept found in athletics. It’s something that can be applied to any domain. Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized this concept in his book, Outliers, when he found that the top performers in any field had roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice under their belts. [3]

However, acquiring these 10,000 hours isn't easy. Deliberate practice isn’t just difficult in athletics, it’s also difficult in sales, management, software development and other domains as well. So what we need is a coach of our own. Someone who can guide us to develop our talents and become experts in our domains. Someone who can motivate and inspire us through the tough times that we will face along the journey to our own 10,000 hours.


Finding a great coach or mentor is easier than many people believe. Anyone who is successful once had someone who helped him or her get there. So there is an intrinsic desire for them to pay it forward. The key is to prove to them that you’re willing to work hard and listen as they once did.

Kerry Hannon has a great article on Forbes about some steps you can take to find a great mentor, but here are my favorite:

 1.    Find the right person 

Find the person who’s going to be able to guide your development as well as inspire you to endure the grueling practice necessary to become a master. If you can get that level of mentorship, it will be well worth the effort.

 2.    Create a relationship first

Chances are this person is extremely busy and you’re not the first to ask him or her to become a mentor. So don’t. Not at first, at least. Begin by opening up a dialogue and asking for advice. Offer to buy them coffee or lunch and eventually make it a regular meeting. Build a relationship with them and the mentorship will begin to naturally occur.

3.    Listen and work

When you initially ask the person for advice, you had better follow it. This is most likely a person of action, so if you can show your initiative as well, then you will begin to earn their respect. If nothing else, following their advice will keep the dialogue open and create an opportunity to get feedback.


Well-structured deliberate practice has been proven time and again to distinguish the world’s top performers. The best way to follow a deliberate practice routine is by finding the right mentor or coach. A mentor will be able to tell you what you need to work on, and provide that extra motivation you need to keep going through the hard times. If you find the right person to aid in your development, there’s no telling where you can end up!

Do you have any stories of how a mentor was able to help your development?


  1. Baker, Joseph. "NURTURING SPORT EXPERTISE: FACTORS INFLUENCING THE DEVELOPMENT OF ELITE ATHLETE." Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 2 (2003): 1-9.
  2. Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance." Psychological Review 100.3 (1993): 363-406
  3. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. N.p.: Little, Brown and; 1 Edition, 2008. Print