Study shows the right mix of mental toughness makes Olympic champions…
Why is it that some sport performers are able to withstand the pressures associated with the Olympics and attain peak performances whereas others succumb to the demands and under-perform? Sport and Performance Psychologists (Dr David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar) at Loughborough University aimed to address this question in a recent study by interviewing twelve Olympic champions from a range of sports regarding their experiences of withstanding pressure during their sporting careers. They found that the world’s best athletes shared a unique mental resilience characterized by five key psychological attributes:
A positive personality: Olympic champions possess positive personality characteristics including openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, competitiveness, optimism and proactivity.
Motivation: Gold medalists have multiple internal (i.e. passion for the sport) and external (i.e. proving their worth) motives for competing at the highest level. Champions consciously judge external pressures as important and so choose to perform in challenging sports environments.
Confidence: Gained from various sources including multifaceted preparation, experience, self-awareness, visualization, coaching, and team mates.
Focus: Champions are able to focus on themselves without distraction, and to concentrate on the process rather than the outcome of events.
Perceived social support: Olympic gold medalists believe high quality social support is available to them, including from family, coaches, team mates and support staff.
Mustafa Sarkar, a PhD student in Sport and Performance Psychology at Loughborough University, and co-author of the report explains:
“The interviews revealed many fascinating aspects of performing under pressure at the highest levels of international sport, but two things were very clear.
“Firstly, Olympic athletes experience considerable adversities during their preparation, training and competition, often over long periods of time.
“Secondly, and most importantly, athletes must learn to develop and maintain a very specific combination of psychological strategies and attributes to enable them to perform at their best and win in Olympic competition”.
Athletes interviewed had won Olympic gold at seven different Olympic Games spanning the past four decades. The champions represented nine different sports: figure skating, pentathlon, hockey, athletics, rowing, cycling, modern pentathlon, curling and sailing.
Mustafa Sarkar is in his final year as a PhD student in Sport Psychology at Loughborough University. As part of his PhD, I have designed the Sport Resilience Study, research that explores how sport performers react to and deal with pressure. If you have participated in competitive sport in the past month, please consider participating in his research study. The study itself takes just fifteen minutes to complete. The only criteria for completion is that individuals are above the age of 18 and have participated in competitive sport in the past month at club level or higher. You can access the questionnaire by clicking the link below
For further information about the research, contact Mustafa Sarkar at M.Sarkar@lboro.ac.uk
Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 669-678.