The best athletes share 4 traits. They have nothing to do with sports

Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears circa 1987 prepares to play against the Los Angeles Raiders at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, California
Owen C. Shaw | Getty

When it comes to success, few physically embody that state better than sports stars.

Yet, while precision, strength and unwavering stamina are vital to athletic careers, what sets the winners apart from the losers comes down to a handful of underlying values — and they go far beyond sporting acumen.

That's according to motivational speaker and New York Times bestselling author Don Yaeger, who built a career studying some of the world's greatest athletes.

He's met more than his fair share of winners in his decades spent as a Sports Illustrated journalist, from legendary American football star Walter Payton to renowned basketball coach John Wooden, and he said the best among them all exhibited the same four traits.

Journalist and Co-Author Don Yaeger and Former MLB Catcher David Ross pose together after a signing for their book, 'Teammate'
Don Juan Moore | Getty

1. They have humility

First off, the best athletes manage to stay humble, no matter how successful they become. That means they can make critical, honest assessments of themselves and seek self-improvement.

"They have an ability to see themselves truthfully when others are busy adoring them," Yaeger told CNBC Make It.

"That ability to see themselves allows them to stay humble, reminding themselves — regularly — that they have much to learn."

2. They seek feedback daily

Secondly, the most successful athletes get feedback on a daily basis to see how they can become better, both professionally and personally.

That's lucky: Their high profiles mean they face constant critiques from their coaches and the public, whether they like it or not.

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions, and true champions eat breakfast," said Yaeger, joking that the notion has become something of an office motto for him.

3. They start every day at zero

Thirdly, the nature of professional sports means that players must start each day from the same base and complete their training routines from scratch.

Having that mindset positions them well for competitions, when every player enters the game at zero.

"The truly great ones believe that what they achieved yesterday means little today," said Yaeger.

4. They have an insatiable appetite for learning

Finally, whether it's training to run a bit faster, or figuring out the best strategy to outsmart the competition, successful sports stars challenge themselves to learn new things on a daily basis.

"The best ones have questions, they don't have answers," explained Yaeger. "They know they need the ability to recognize the needs they have to be better every day."

These lessons are from sports, but none have anything to do with sports.
Don Yaeger
motivational speaker

Yaeger acknowledged that the parallels between sports and business are often considered trite.

But he insisted that lessons can be learned from successful winners, regardless of their field of expertise, and they're worthy of study — whether or not we aspire to be them.

"These lessons are from sports, but none have anything to do with sports," noted Yaeger.

"They don't have anything to do with physically imposing your will on other people. These are about how you drive the best from yourself," he continued. "These aren't sports conversations, these are about how you win."

"Will you be more successful in business if you are humble, if you seek feedback, if you're an insatiable learner? In the words of Joe Namath: 'I guarantee it.'"

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