Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Winning the Gold Medal in the Olympics appears a pinnacle in any elite athlete’s career, but physical fitness or technical skill may not, in fact, be the crucial factor. Increasingly sports scientists are becoming convinced that it’s grit and determination, resilience and desire, which separates winners from losers.
Motivation triumphs over muscle.
But what precisely are these mysterious, hidden, but crucial mental aspects which separate the winners from the rest, who appear to be trying just as hard? Can the rest of us benefit as well from the psychological strategies of our Olympic Gold Medal winners?
Dr David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar, sport and performance psychologists at Loughborough University, (where much of the science behind the training of Team GB’s current medal campaign has been developed) have just published one of the most in-depth studies ever, getting inside the mind of Olympic Gold Medal winners.
The investigation, published in the academic journal ‘Psychology of Sport and Exercise’, involved an analysis of 12 Olympic Gold Medal winners’ accounts to the researchers of how they used their minds to win.
The first startling finding is that all these champions’ lives were not dominated by accomplishment before getting Gold. Instead they constantly encountered obstacles and set backs on the path to success, yet it was their mental resilience in the face of adversity, which is what seemed to separate them from the rest of the field, and pulled them through to eventual victory.
One champion’s reaction to being de-selected for a major international competition illustrates relentless optimism and a proactive approach, characteristic of Olympic Gold Medal winners; ‘There were four of us challenging for these ﬁnal two places and I got told I was on the reserve list. And at the time it was devastating but it’s one of those things; if you don’t take a ticket in the rafﬂe, you’re never going to win a prize. So you have to take the ticket that’s part of life and it just makes you think “well, what can I do differently to make sure I do get success”?
Paradoxically, not being selected for major international competitions was frequently cited by Gold Medallists as the foundation for increased endeavour and exertion. Competition losses were viewed as learning opportunities, enabling future improved performances. Set-backs were re-interpreted in ways which meant they merely re-doubled their efforts, and didn’t become disheartened.
Failure didn’t break them – it made them.
One of the most intriguing findings from Fletcher and Sarkar’s study is that while journalists love to wheel out the cliché of ‘sacrifice’ when invoking elite performance, it wasn’t a concept these Gold Medal winners understood.
Instead the world’s best athletes take huge personal responsibility for their choices, and are surprisingly uncomplaining about how much they forfeit for their sport. They accepted they actively chose the challenges they encountered, and as a result endured a wildly different work/life balance to the rest of us, as one commented to the researchers; ‘We all worked. But in terms of the build up to the Olympics, we didn’t bat an eyelid in doing it… it was our choice to do it. I don’t like the word sacriﬁce… Sacriﬁce to me is about last resort and there’s no alternative… that’s rubbish. We made a choice to do that and I think that choice in what we did we highly valued and I think that inspired us, motivated us to perform on the pitch and as a group.’
One Gold Medal winner’s reaction to training during unsociable hours is characteristic; ‘I remember one of my coaches saying to me what was I doing over Christmas and I said ‘Oh, I’ll be training twice on Christmas Day . I know [opponent’s name] won’t be training on Christmas Day twice and that will give me the edge’. It was more the mental side of things because I knew that I’d be doing something that he wasn’t doing.’
These private dimensions of winning tend not to be confided to the microphones thrust in winners’ faces as they step down from the victory podium. Their sharing of such intimate secrets to success is therefore what makes this Loughborough University study so rare and valuable.
An example of their incessant thinking and re-thinking of every fine detailed aspect of their lives is this quote from a champion cyclist to the researchers; ‘Initially, training was just something to get out of the way. And then gradually I’d do training and I’d think, “Am I getting the most out of this? Am I exploiting the session?” And, you know, if I did take a bad lift in the gym I’d think, “I could have done that better. That’s a missed opportunity. What have I got to do to be better?” So I had an obsession on getting everything right rather than just waiting for the day of the ﬁnal and then hoping. It was about getting everything right before the ﬁnal so I had all the tools ready for when I was racing.’
Another undisclosed aspect of the mind of winners is what almost seems a sense of destiny – as this comment to Dr David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar illustrates; ‘I don’t know if there is going to be a theme where timing and luck have been in the right place, but I’m a great believer in it. I wasn’t selected for the original trip… and on the Thursday night before they [the team] were leaving, I was called up because an individual’s wife had gone into labor [and I was told] ‘be at [the airport] the next day: we’re playing [country] on the Saturday’.
They believe they make their own luck and that those who persevere will eventually benefit from chance.
Perhaps the greatest shock that is going to come from Fletcher and Sarkar’s study entitled, ‘A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions’, is that these Olympic Gold Medal winners were not as fixated, as the media and the nation appears to be, on winning gold.
Instead, it was fulﬁlling their athletic potential which primarily motivated them, rather than becoming an Olympic champion. Some involved in this research pointed out, amazingly, that their gold medal performance was not, in their view, the most outstanding moment in their career.
The following comment illustrates an athlete’s viewpoint on her gold medal performance in the 2000 Olympic Games; ‘This may come as a bit of a shock but I didn’t have a great competition in Sydney. I was consistent… but it wasn’t a great performance… ‘
The research on competitors who are most likely to cheat, via doping or any other means, is that if it’s being on the podium, waving the Gold Medal and soaking up the applause which is what is primarily driving you, then you will be tempted to take a short cut to get there.
But there are competitors, and this may sound strange after a week when the nation became obsessed with getting a Gold, for whom the Gold Medal doesn’t represent what it does for the rest of us praying for one. Instead the Gold Medal to these elite performers is merely an acknowledgement of excellence, and it’s that total mastery of self and sport which has always been the primary ambition. For these athletes coming first would still be vital, no matter if there was no audience, no media and no medal.
The medal is merely a measure, not a goal.
These contestants, research has found, are much less likely to cheat in any way, no matter what temptation is placed in front of them.
In a week where various forms of ‘cheating’ have dominated the sports news agenda, there is a danger in our obsession for Gold, that we could forget this fundamental aspect of the Olympic ideal.