Football Coach Bill Curry’s “6 Characteristics of Champions”, Adapted for Endurance Sports

One of the best parts about being a coach is the opportunity to compare notes with other coaches. While all coaches are charged with optimally preparing athletes for competition, how you do that varies widely as you go from sport to sport. As a result, I have always found it enlightening to learn from coaches and leaders in all kinds of sports, from NASCAR crew chiefs to head coaches in basketball, ice hockey, and football. Recently, Coach Bill Curry was in Colorado Springs with a mutual friends and stopped by CTS. He has a list of “6 Characteristics of a Champion“, and I have applied them to endurance athletes below.

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Now, since some of you may be less familiar with football, let me give you a quick bio of Coach Curry. He played as a center (the guy who snaps the ball to the quarterback) in the NFL for 10 seasons (1965-1975), including seasons under coaching greats Vince Lombardi (Green Bay Packers) and Don Shula (Baltimore Colts). Curry played in the Super Bowl three times, winning twice (Super Bowl I and V). Following his own pro career, he moved into coaching and was an award- and bowl-winning head coach for Georgia Tech, University of Alabama, University of Kentucky, and Georgia State. When Coach Curry speaks of leadership and champions it comes from the experience of being led by great coaches and in turn leading teams to victory.

So here are his 6 Characteristics of a Champion, with my interpretation of how they can be applied to your pursuit of excellence in endurance sports. (I also added one characteristic to his list…).



“This is the most self-explanatory of the six characteristics. In all the years I was with these men, not one of them was late for anything… ever.”

In endurance sports athletes frequently train solo, so the idea of being on time for a team practice is less relevant. Nonetheless, it is relevant when it comes to group rides, trainer classes, or team and sponsor events. And even when there isn’t anyone marking time, the most successful endurance athletes I have known are regimented with their time. They set a schedule and stick to it, even when no one is watching. That doesn’t mean your schedule can’t change, but it does mean you’ll find a way to complete the things you have committed to. Showing up means getting out the door to get your workout done!


“Champions produce laser-like focus on the goal, shutting out all distractions.”

While elite athletes absolutely have this single-minded focus on performance, that is a statement that needs to be modified for time-crunched athletes who have important priorities outside of athletics. When it is time to train, you need to have singleness of purpose. Training time is time for training. For many time-crunched athletes, training provides valuable time away from thinking about work, family, and social priorities. Not only does this improve performance during workouts and competitions, but also creating this space often leads to “ah-ha” moments and solutions that were not evident while sitting at your desk or kitchen table.

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“Champions never intentionally draw attention to themselves. They talk little, and perform a lot. They LOVE their team.”

For endurance athletes I think this idea translates to: “Let your performance do the talking.” We all know cyclists, runners, and triathletes who like to make sure everyone knows their power outputs or the paces they can hold. But the athletes you need to watch out for are the ones who are really friendly, yet say nothing about their training or race results. Interestingly, I think elite amateur and professional endurance athletes actually need to intentionally draw attention to themselves. The business model of endurance sports is different than it is in team sports, and attracting personal sponsors is the way many endurance athletes make a living. So, while pros need to be careful not to come off as too full of themselves, they also have to promote their personal brand and represent sponsors.


“Champions are leaders by example and by word, if necessary. Yes, this means playing low and hard on the goal line. But more importantly, it means taking responsibility for one’s actions and for those of one’s units… all the time. There are never excuses or finger pointing.”

There is no doubt that toughness plays a role in being a champion, and as Coach Curry says, it’s not just being physically tough that matters. Champions don’t blame teammates for costing them victories, or find excuses for why they lost. If you can honestly say you gave everything you had and that someone beat you because they were better than you on that day, then you are a step closer to being a champion. For endurance athletes, toughness is also largely in your head. It’s not always playing through pain or taking responsibility for your role on the team, but rather reaching deep down and finding the toughness to keep your head in the game when the start line is far behind you and the finish line is still miles away.

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“Champions are willing to do that which their opponents are not willing to do. They start early and stay late.”

I agree with the idea that champions are smart and prepared, but in my view the bit about being willing to do more, start early, stay late, etc. is actually an outdated and somewhat dangerous notion. It’s important to do everything you can to be a 100% prepared athlete: to train intelligently, pay attention to your nutrition, and leave no stone unturned when it comes to maximizing performance. But doing more just for the sake of doing more than the next guy is not wise. Training works best when it is specific to the individual, which is an opportunity endurance athletes have that team-sport athletes sometimes forego. The right amount of training load is crucial, rest is important, and doing more than you are prepared for is not going to make you better.

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“Champions never quit… ever. There is nothing that can be done to make them accept defeat.”

This is absolutely true, and the extension to endurance sports is that you can’t quit just because you’re not going win or achieve your pre-race goal. You don’t bail out because you missed the breakaway or the field split. You don’t pull off the course because you’re can’t maintain your goal pace in a marathon, ultramarathon, or triathlon. In endurance sports you will go through periods where you are suffering and all seems lost, only to rebound minutes, miles, or hours later. Being a successful endurance athlete means working your way through the inevitable rough patches in training and competition.

ARE ADAPTABLE! (My Addition to Coach Curry’s List)

I like Coach Curry’s 6 Characteristics of Champions, but I need to add one more. Champions can adapt to any situation and find a way to win. I have known athletes who would be unbeatable if only the race was in Boulder, Colorado, with no wind, no rain, 70-degree sunshine, smooth roads they are very familiar with, and their morning latte just so. But that’s not where we race. Sometimes it rains and the crosswinds put you in the gutter. Sometimes the food is whatever is available and you hope there is enough water, let alone your favorite sports drink. Champions roll with it, adapt, and perform anyway.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 10

  1. Pingback: 6 Tips That Will Help You Survive the Toughest Moments of Your Event - CTS

  2. OK as a list but ignores the brutal fact that in NFL 9999/10000 never even get to the starting line. The single most important factor in being a “champion” at that level is what die nature rolled when you were born. It’s a lot easier to do all the above if you are born with the right muscle set to run a sub 10s 100m so you find the physical demands of the sport relatively easy. A truly great champion succeeds despite the disadvantages they were born with.

    To recognise this my main characteristic of a champion would be “Exceeds their potential”.

  3. I couldn’t find anywhere to ask a question on the website, so I thought I would ask it here. I have ridden many years. Finished Leadville with the help of CTS. I once felt with a helmet and bright jersey, I was good to go. But now, my rides are limited to my trainer. How do you find the courage to ride the roads again? Thanks

    1. Your question sounds failure as there was a bad crash in my area of Ohio involving a truck turning in front of 8 cyclists. The first 5 hit the truck with 2 being killed and 3 others seriously injured. The last 3 could avoid the crash but watched their fellow cyclists get badly injured. I have wondered how I would react to either of the situations. I try to remember each day that I choose to ride and accept the risks of the road over the risks of my couch. I ride for the health benefits and because I love to ride. It isn’t easy to get back on the saddle, but take just one small step first like riding around your neighborhood. We have a towpath that runs along a river and offers an off road way to get back outside but still offer some safety, at least from trucks and cars. Choose where you ride once back on the roads can be important decisions. I choose to ride where cars expect me to be. I try to ride less in the areas where I can be more hidden to drivers. A cyclist I know has chosen to ride in the early morning when his lights are more visible and there are fewer cars on the road. Also add more lights and reflective items. The more we are visible the better, but the brightest jersey and lights and largest of pack of cyclists still isn’t without risk. Each day I choose to ride outside (or inside more based on the weather) is a choice I make understanding the risks of what we do. I still choose to ride on the road because of what it offers and how I like to ride. Take it slow, make it fun, and find out what changes you need to make to feel comfortable again. Ask your friends for help to get back on the road. You will be glad you did!!

    2. After the second time I was hit by a car, I decided that I couldn’t afford any more concussions. My solution to get back outside at least, was to get a fat tire bike so that I can ride the rails to trails. Those trails are nothing technical and there is no automotive traffic. The fat tires make the ride smooth, and slow the pace a little bit for the same effort. I’ve absorbed some things on that bike that would probably have thrown a road bike, even some mountain bikes to the ground in short order (such as the time a squirrel ran right out in front of me). Ten pounds of pressure floated right over it and apparently didn’t kill it.

  4. Ok, ok….. it’s 25 degrees out there and I am going to get to the group ride that I was seriously thinking about skipping until I ready this article. Striving to be a champion!

    Now where are those electric socks?

  5. 3 points really struck home with me:
    1. Train smart. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas and gear.
    2. Be tough
    3. Be adaptable

    Some business leaders look for people with a high FIO quotient. Figure It Out. A strong sense of situational awareness and how to respond is huge.

    Lastly to quote Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face!” It’s what happens next that makes champions.

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