5 Traits That Are Common To The Greatest Athletes Of All Time

To be considered the greatest in any sport you must have certain qualities but any ordinary person can have them in life too

Dr. Conor Hogan Ph.D.
7 min readJan 12, 2021
Photo by Al Soot on Unsplash

To be the greatest of all time you need to be the first name on most people’s lips when they think of that particular sport.

Of course, there will always be a couple of names that will cause debates or arguments, but to be in the mix you need to have certain criteria in the first place to help you decide on who really is the greatest in a sport. To be even considered to be the greatest of all time in a sport an athlete or player must have the following 5 traits.

These are ability, leadership, consistency, longevity, and the ability to overcome adversity.


First and foremost for a player or athlete to be considered the greatest of all time within their sport they must have a great level of ability. Yet, they don’t have to have the greatest level of ability or even be the most all-rounded one in that sport. That may seem strange to you when you but let me explain.

Being able to dominate in your sport is about being able to utilize what you are good at to overcome an opponent’s set of skills. In the main, they may have more skills than you have and they may be faster at them than you are. But if you have one single fundamental skill of the sport that you are better at than them then you can beat them every time.

Take the sport of golf. It’s mainly about striking the ball.

Of course, there are many ways to strike the ball and with many different clubs. You`ve got the driver which takes care of the very long shot, the long irons which enable the golfer to have more adaptability to their long play, the shorter irons which give the player a chance at a good approach shot, and putting which provides the finishing finesse.

Although Tiger Woods is a top golfer he’s probably not as long a driver as Bryson DeChambeau

or as fine a putter as Jamie Donaldson. But you sure as heck wouldn’t want to bet all your money against Tiger to finish behind those two in all tournaments in a given season either!

There are many different golfers who excel at two or more skills of the game, but few master each one all of the time.

Yet, the best golfer that is most comfortable at striking the ball in all ways will generally come out on top. That fundamental thread running through all of these various striking skills is the ability to strike the ball cleanly.

In team sports, there are many forms of football around the world but one consistent skill within most of those sports is the ability to kick the ball better than others.

Similar to golf, if a player has a better fundamental strike of the ball than the other players then they are giving themselves a greater chance of shooting, passing, or scoring more scores than their opponents.

David Beckham mastered the right-footed crossing of a football but as the great George Best once said of Beckham:

“He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn’t score many goals. Apart from that, he’s all right.”

and Beckham was alright as he regularly topped the UKs sporting rich list.

Many great players can be so dominant at one skill that teams and opponents create tactics to stop them from playing in this way. But the sheer skill of the great player will outshine what has been put in place to stop them from playing. Such can be their extreme ability that it can change the way the sport is played for years to come even after they have competed in the sport.

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To be even considered the greatest of all time in a sport you must show leadership. Still, you do not need to be the greatest leader in that sport either.

Leadership comprises of many different attributes. Even the greatest leaders outside of sport usually don’t possess all of these attributes.

But, to lead in sport and be considered a great player you need to show some form of leadership at some stage of your sporting career.

In tennis, Pete Sampras showed leadership when at 19 years of age he was the youngest ever champion at the US Open. He later stated that winning more than his opponents was important to him because:

“That is how I was raised”

By Sampras trying to win all of the time, he was attempting to lead himself into the record books by having the most wins.

Although being a great player in a team sport is important, having the ability to lead others on the team so that you can get the best from their individual and collective ability is a great attribute to have. This means that you are more than likely going to be on the winning team more often than not.

Richie McCaw was the winning captain in two Rugby World Cups for the New Zealand All Blacks. He got the best from his players on the field of play. He once said:

“Sometimes the worst experiences are the ones where you learn the most lessons”

McGaw proves here that a great athlete must be prepared to learn from their mistakes to continue to have a chance at victory.

Photo by Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

3. Consistency:

To be considered the greatest of all time an athlete needs to be consistent.

Most sports are measured over one season. They use a quantifiable measurement system of league tables broken down by a series of league positions. In this way, other statistics can be easily deduced from individual athletes and team performances.

In American football, a complex but fairly designed league system is the Super Bowl. For example, as the National Football League (NFL) has 32 clubs they need to be fairly divided up so that all teams receive a fair chance of winning. They are separated by putting teams into one of two conferences in which there are four league divisions within each conference.

The overall Super Bowl winner is considered to be the greatest in that given year because they have come out on top of those teams from the various divisions. Great players often come from great teams and that’s why the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco 49ers have many of the greatest players of all time as these are the teams that have won the most Super Bowls.

Eddy Merckx is considered by many to be one of, if not the greatest cyclist of all time. The Belgian won 11 Grand Tours in the 1960s and 1970s. His ability to win cycling tours was consistent throughout the two decades.

Photo by Corleone Brown on Unsplash

4. Longevity:

By being the greatest of all time a player needs to show consistently regularly. In doing so, it is demanded that they play or perform over a longer period than others in their sport.

Tom Brady started playing in the NFL in 2000. He spent over twenty years with the New England Patriots. There he won three league MVP awards and six Super Bowls. Brady was the only Quarterback to spend as long-playing for the same team in the NFL.

In golf, Tiger Woods spent a record 683 weeks of his career being ranked as the number one golfer.

One of the tricks of becoming a great player in a sport is to maintain a high level of performance not just consistently but over a sustained period. This time frame must be longer than most other players that have ever played that sport before.

5. Overcome adversity:

Many of the players that are considered to be among the greatest of their sports have overcome some form of a setback in their careers or lives.

For example, the great Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina was a child he was considered too small to play professional football. He had to undergo treatment to make him a stronger player before he eventually was given a professional contract.

Perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time and the greatest swimmer of all were the two Michaels, Jordan and Phelps respectively. Yet both Jordan and Phelps had attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Photo by Felipe Simo on Unsplash

Yet, they overcame this adversity.

As baseball great Derek Jetter said:

“There may be people that have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.”

So by using other attributes together with their ability great players in sport get there because they work at marking themselves that way.

Thankfully they do this so that we can all debate on who really is the greatest of them all.

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Dr. Conor Hogan Ph.D.

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