5 Lessons World Class Athletes Can Teach Us About Willpower

"Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."

In sports, as in life, some people begin with a head start. They are born with more talent, more money or more connections. 

In professional sports, you may find some athletes that have become successful purely because they are gifted physical specimens. They have phenomenal strength, speed and the game they play just comes natural to them.

But this this talent can only take them so far.

The ones who truly excel, those who become world-class in sports, as in life, are those who simply outwork everyone else. They are the ones who have such a purpose and drive that they push the limits of what we believe is possible. 

These are the stories that resonate with us. The stories of the ordinary individuals who rise to greatness through sheer power of will; because we know deep down that we have the ability to do the same. 

Many world class athletes fit this story. And here are 5 lessons we can learn from them about how to use our willpower to achieve our own greatness:

1.    Dream Big, but Be Patient

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was 12 years old, he saw an article with the world’s top body-builder, Reg Park, titled “How Mr. Universe became Hercules”. When Arnold read through that magazine, he had his whole dream laid out for him. He was going to become the most muscular man in the world and a huge movie star. [1]

But Arnold had two key problems:



He looked like this….





And he lived here...




Clearly Arnold had a long way to go in order to fulfill his dream. So he broke down the dream into what he needed to do each day. He started small by simply doing pushups and situps to earn his dinner. Then he worked his way up to lifting at his high school gym, then doing over 4 hours of strength training in addition to his military training. Day after day, year after year, slowly building upon his regimen until he became the most muscular man in the world.

Most of us do not have a problem dreaming big. It gives us great pleasure to visualize the future and see ourselves with the results we want. Our problem is being patient. We want those results now! 

But any dream worth having takes a lot of work. It takes a daily grind of consistent progress. Usually, once the initial spark of passion wears off and we hit the middle of this grind, we give up. Or we seek out a “magic strategy” that will get us faster results.

World-class athletes do not do this. Rather than wasting their willpower constantly searching for a new scheme that will get them faster results, they use it to see their goals through to the finish. They use their willpower to embrace the process and trust that the results will come if they just keep at it.

2.    Find a Hero 

When Kobe Bryant was 12 years old, he joined a summer basketball camp. Throughout the course of the entire camp, he did not score a single point. Not one.

He was about to give up on basketball entirely, but then he read about how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. He learned how Jordan used that as fuel to motivate him to outwork everyone around him and prove them wrong. [2]

This inspired Kobe to follow in Jordan’s footsteps. From that moment forward, he was going to become the hardest worker in the game of basketball. He began showing up at the gym 5am and not leaving until 7pm while in high school!

He would put himself through 4 hours of intense workouts even on game days. He would play one-on-one games up to 100 points after practice was over. He would practice without anyone else - or even a ball - in order to perfect his footwork. All of this because he had a hero who did the same. 

As kids, we all had heroes. We would put posters up in our rooms of movie stars, superstar athletes, or famous people throughout history that we admired. But as we grew older, we stopped. We stopped admiring the heroes of our society and began crediting their success to luck; while also criticizing them for any public mistakes that they made.

Heroes can have a powerful influence on our willpower if we allow them. When we become inspired as Kobe did when he read about Michael, the part of our brain that is responsible for helping us achieve long-term goals is activated. This gives us a rush of willpower to do what it takes to see our goals through to the finish. [3]

Find someone who has been where you want to go. Learn what motivated them. Learn what they did when times were tough and draw inspiration from their example. They may not be perfect, but their example can be a powerful motivating force if you allow it to be.


In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco 49ers were having a basketball game between the 49ers team of the 1980s and the team of 1990s. It was great fun for the fans to see their favorite players from each era square off in a friendly game of pick-up basketball.

Jerry Rice, who was on the 90s team, was the leading scorer in the game before he checked out in the 4th quarter. Then he began signing autographs, taking pictures with the fans and having fun with the event. However, as soon as he heard the announcers say that one of the players from the 80s had just become the game’s leading scorer, he immediately stopped taking pictures.

He checked himself back into the game and went on a tear. He made sure that no matter what, he was going to be the leading scorer in the game. [4]

This was a small representation of what Jerry Rice was all about. He was as fierce of a competitor as there was in the game of football. This competitive fire led him to having arguably the best career for a wide-receiver ever and was able to play at an extremely high level far longer than the rest of his peers.

Our brains are naturally wired to be just as competitive as Jerry Rice.

Millions of years ago, humans were remarkably weak and vulnerable. The only way we survived was by sticking together in a tribe. Because of this importance, we wanted to be the best members of the tribe that we could. So we began looking at our behavior and comparing it to that of the "top" members of the tribe. This was nature’s first competition. We wanted to be the best in the tribe so as to ensure our place within it. So we developed the natural desire to be the best. [5]

Unfortunately, many of us do not embrace this competitive fire in the correct way. Rather than using it to motivate us to outwork others, we use it to fuel our jealousy. We begin coming up with excuses why others had it easier than us. Even worse, we resist our urge to be the best and classify it as “evil”. 

Do not let yourself do this. The desire to compete to be the best is a natural human instinct and is one that will give you extraordinary willpower. Like with having a hero, competition activates the part of our brain responsible for our long-term success. It gives us a rush of willpower and focuses our minds on achieving our goals rather than coming up with excuses. [4]

Competition does not have to mean that one person wins and another loses. In fact the greatest competition is with the person you see in the mirror. Competition is ultimately about trying to become the best. You do not need to be a world-class athlete in order to use your natural drive to become the best you can be.

4.    Social Accountability

In 2004, a man named Jure Robic won the Insight Race Across America for the 2nd year in a row. The race, commonly referred to as RAAM, is a non-stop 3,000-mile bike tour that is a full 800 miles longer than the Tour de France!  

This event, which begins in San Diego and ends in Atlantic City, serves as one of the best tests of sheer willpower imaginable. It typically spans at least 7 days and, because it is non-stop, the racers spend as much time biking as they can - leaving few hours to sleep or rest.   

So how do the typical 24 racers do this for at least a full week? Better yet, how does Robic endure this kind of pain while only sleeping 90 minutes per night?

Robic does not give himself a choice.

“We are Jure’s software.” Said Miran Stanovik, a member of Jure’s support crew. “He is the hardware going down the road.”

To endure this hardship, Jure only has choice over music, food and bathroom breaks. Every other decision is up to his support crew. They decide when he rests, they decide when he eats, and they decide how fast he must go.

“It’s best if he has no idea about these things. He rides – that is all.”

A reason that Jure’s system works is because if he quits, he’s not only letting himself down, he’s letting down his crew. He and the members of his crew have a deep connection and love for one another. He has trust in them to make the right decisions, and keep him accountable for maintaining his speed.  

We will go to great lengths to keep a promise to almost anyone else except ourselves. We don’t want to let them down. We want them to know that we will keep our word. So when we have someone else to be accountable to, we focus less on reasons why we can’t do something, and focus more on figuring out ways that we can do it.

5.    Be Relentless

In his first meeting as the new head coach of the Green Bay Packers, the legendary Vince Lombardi addressed the team:

"Gentlemen we are going to relentlessly chase perfection. Knowing full well we will not catch it because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it. Because in the process we will catch excellence. I'm not even remotely interested in being just good." [6]

This speech captivated the team; especially the starting quarterback, Bart Starr, who said, "I couldn't even sit in my chair I was so excited."

This was a team that had little to believe in. Before Lombardi, they had not had a winning record in over a decade. So they knew that in order to achieve the success that their coach expected, they had an uphill battle. So they got to work and never stopped.

The coach demanded great effort out of everyone in the Packers organization. He personally would work from 7 in the morning until 11 at night - relentlessly chasing perfection. This relentless work created a powerhouse in Green Bay. Lombardi won so many championships with this team that the small city of Green Bay became known as "Title-Town".

In our lives, we have a tendency to believe that our work ends when the job we have done is "good enough". As long as we went through the motions and completed something, we are satisfied. This is the recipe for mediocre results.

To achieve great things in our lives, we must be relentless. We must consistently look for ways to be better than we were yesterday. We must embrace that greatness is a journey and not a destination. We must continually improve and achieve things that we once could never have thought possible.

This does not mean that we need to work 16 hour days as Lombardi did, it simply means that we do not accept something that is "good enough". We begin to believe that we can achieve something better than "good enough" and don't take our foot off of the gas pedal. 


Despite your personal opinion of sports, when they are taught and played correctly you cannot deny their value in our society. World-class athletes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Rice, Kobe Bryant and the other athletes mentioned in this article are all examples of how great things can be accomplished through hard work, determination and willpower.

These same principles can be applied to achieving greatness in education, science, business, or whatever your domain may be. You may never achieve the same riches or fame as these athletes, but the pursuit of greatness will always be worth the effort. 


  1. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Amazing Motivational Story. (2012, September 27). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJPRj19OU-w
  2. Bryant, K. (2014, December 15). Zero | by Kobe Bryant. http://www.theplayerstribune.com/kobe-passes-jordan/
  3. McGonigal, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery.
  4. Carroll, P., & Roth, Y. (2010). Win forever: Live, work, and play like a champion. New York: Portfolio.
  5. Duval, Shelley, and Robert A. Wicklund. A Theory of Objective Self Awareness. New York: Academic, 1972. Print.
  6. A Football Life S03E17 Vince Lombardi Part I. (2015, February 17). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvxynLd98hU