The emotion of winning gold

Winning gold at the London 2012 Olympics will be the pinnacle of success for many athletes around the world. 

As Rebecca Adlington has experienced, becoming an Olympic champion can produce a wide range of emotions which are difficult to summarise. So why is winning Gold so emotional? 

In a video on the Team GB YouTube channel, Ms Adlington describes winning gold as happiness, relief, and excitement all rolled into one. 

Although most people would expect Olympians to be happy on achieving the pinnacle of their career, relief may seem somewhat of a surprising emotion; but relief from what? 

The happiness and relief, which are experienced together, reflect two of the primary drives that underlie Olympians’ motivation. 

Research has identified two basic types of motivation: achievement motivation (the pro-active seeking of achieving performance goals); and prevention motivation (the drive to avoid loss and failure. 

The type of emotion that medal winners experience will depend on their type of motivation to compete at the highest level.

Athletes who have more of a ‘promotion focus’ are more likely to feel elation and happiness upon winning gold. Athletes who have a prevention focus are more likely to experience relief upon winning gold. 

What is clear from Ms Adlington’s experience is that great athletes experience both these types of motivation (and subsequent emotion) in equal measure. 

Upon winning gold, the athlete feels happy to have achieved the goal and is relieved not to have lost. In other words, winning is only half of the story. Not losing is just as important and just as intense in provoking the post-performance emotion. The last ten years have been spent focusing on winning, beating everyone else, not losing...

This also puts into context the pre-competition nerves that almost all Olympic athletes will suffer from in London. The anxiety is not about the impending victory, the anxiety is about the potential for losing or losing face in the biggest ego-threatening environment of their life.