Labels: The Natural vs. The Bust

Labels are a part of life (right or wrong). They help us identify ourselves and others. In sports, we’re often quick to label athletes; good, bad, great, elite, and so many others.

There are two labels in particular when it comes to athletes that I want to dive into: the natural athlete versus the bust athlete.

The Natural – Believes they are entitled to perform well and everyone should make the conditions around them perfect. Any mistakes are never the natural’s fault, but someone else’s. If the natural is critiscized, they label themselves as a bust. The natural athlete trusts their physical skills too much, and any extra effort they feel they have to put forth means they aren’t good enough. Their default future, as the see it, is an easy life.  

The Natural’s Problem: It discounts hard work and creates entitlement. Natural athletes are viewed as winning the genetic lottery with god-give talent.

The Bust – Believes that always being harshly critical leads to success. A coach pointing out mistakes to a bust is a punishment for being bad and is entirely their fault. A bust athlete doesn’t trust physical skills, and they think that they don’t belong. Any bit of adversity in a bust athlete’s direction makes him or her give up or flip out.  Effort is not worth it and means they suck.  The default future is a road to nowhere good.   

The Bust’s Problem: The belief by them that there is no way out. No amount of work will help improve from being a bust and you are seen as a problem and just fooling yourself.  

Each label develops its own outlook and language, but the two labels are closely linked. It’s not uncommon to see someone deemed a natural athlete become a bust, and vice versa. So often athletes with either of these labels are trying to prove (natural) or disprove (bust) their given status which results in inconsistency.

I’ve helped a ton of athletes work through these labels. Below are examples of two whom I recently helped.

  1. A 14-year-old hockey player was told he was so naturally gifted that he was the future of a high school program. He was going to bring his team to the state tournament for the first time ever. He heard this over and over from coaches, parents, and his peers. The pressure was too much. He believed every mistake made him a disappointment to all. We worked together so that he could see he needed to put in more work and needed help from his friends to play on a competitive team. 
  2.  A 13-year-old girl was told by her coach she would never be able to develop the athleticism needed to be a great basketball player. Her coach told her she should spend her time trying something that was a better fit for her natural talents. She was devastated and struggled to stay motivated to play a game she loved. With the help of her parents, we were able to help her see that with some work she could could improve. 

Now I truly believe that, in both cases, the coaches thought they were being helpful, yet they were unaware of how their view and their words impacted those young athletes.  

In the exercise this week we use a little exercise to tease out what you think it is and how you might be thinking about yourself: Have you been labeled? By coaches?  By peers? By Parents? By Yourself?

Are you a natural? A bust? Is it even important?

We encounter labels everywhere, and it’s labels that help us to avoid challenges and the fear of embarrassment.  But labels create an illusion of certainty–good or bad. When you realize that your success depends on effort and when you believe being you is enough to succeed, that’s when you realize how unimportant labels are. 

So what’s your best approach? Work hard to drop the labels. Instead, focus on your why.  Play and live according to your values, and adopt a high-performing mindset that focuses on challenging yourself (i.e. compete with your last performance). Be self forgiving and learn from your mistakes while being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Don’t give up and develop a grit that no one and nothing can grapple with. That’s how we’ll move past the labels and into the athlete mindset you want.


This ted talk by Angela Duckworth talks about the power of developing grit.  TEDxBlue – Angela Lee Duckworth, Ph.D – 10/18/09