In sports, everybody believes in talent. Even – or especially—the experts. In fact, sports is where the idea of “a natural” comes from—someone who looks like an athlete, moves like an athlete, and is an athlete, all without trying. So great is the belief in natural talent, that many scouts and coaches search only for naturals, and teams will vie with each other to pay exorbitant amounts to recruit them. Billy Beane was a natural. Everyone agreed he was the next Babe Ruth. But Billy Beane lacked one thing. The mindset of a champion.

As Michael Lewis tells us in Moneyball, by the time Beane was a sophomore in high school, he was the highest scorer on the basketball team, the quarterback of the football team, and the best hitter on the baseball team, batting .500 in one of the toughest leagues in the country. His talent was real enough.

But the minute things went wrong, Beane searched for something to break. “It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.“

As he moved up in baseball from the minor leagues to the major leagues, things got worse and worse. Each at-bat became a nightmare, another opportunity for humiliation, and with every botched at-bat, he went to pieces. As one scout said, “Billy was of the opinion that he should never make an out.” Sound familiar?

Did Beane try to fix his problems in constructive ways? No, of course not, because this is a story of the fixed mindset. Natural talent should not need effort. Effort is for the others, the less endowed. Natural talent does not ask for help. It is an admission of weakness. In short, the natural does not analyze his deficiencies and coach or practice them away. The very idea of deficiencies is terrifying.

Being so imbued with the fixed mindset, Beane was trapped. Trapped by his huge talent. Beane the player never recovered from the fixed mindset, but Beane an incredibly successful major league executive, did. How did this happen...

Character, Heart, Will, and the Mind of a Champion

It goes by different names, but it’s the same thing. It’s what makes you practice, and it’s what allows you to dig down and pull it out when you most need it. Remember how McEnroe told us all the things that went wrong to make him lose each match he lost—there was the time it was cold and the time it was hot, the time he was jealous and the times he was upset, and the many, many times he was distracted. But, as Billie Jean King tells us, the mark of a champion is the ability to win when things are not quite right—when you’re not playing well and your emotions are not the right ones. Here’s how she learned what being a champion meant.

King was in the finals at Forest Hills playing against Margaret Smith, who was at the peak of her greatness. King had played her more than a dozen times and had beaten her only once. In the first set, King played fabulously. She didn’t miss a volley and built a nice lead. Suddenly, the set was over. Smith had won it.

In the second set, King again built a commanding lead and was serving to win the set. Before she knew it, Smith had won the set and the match. At first, King was perplexed. She had never built such a commanding lead in such an important match. But then she had a Eureka! moment. All at once, she understood what a champion was. Someone who could raise their level of play when they needed to. When the match is on the line, they suddenly “get around three times tougher.”

Jackie Joyner-Kersee had her “Eureka” moment too. She was 15 years old and competing in the heptathlon at the AAU Junior Olympics. Everything now depended the last event, the 800-meter race, an event she dreaded. She was exhausted and she was competing against an expert distance runner whose times she had never matched. She did this time. “I felt a kind of high. I’d proven that I could win if I wanted it badly enough. ..That win showed me that I could not only compete with the best athletes in the country, I could will myself to win.”

Often called the best woman soccer player in the world, Mia Hamm says she’s often asked “Mia, what is the most important thing for a soccer player to have?” With no hesitation, she answers, “Mental toughness.” And she doesn’t mean some innate trait. When eleven players want to knock you down, when you’re tired or injured, when the referees are against you, you can’t let any of it affect your focus. How do you do that? You have to learn how. “It is,” says Hamm, “one of the most difficult aspects of soccer and the one I struggle with every game and every practice.”

By the way, did Hamm think she was the greatest player in the world? No. “And because of that,” she said, “someday I just might be.”