The mental resilience that makes champions

As Olympic athletes make their final preparations for the biggest sporting competition of their lives, sport and performance psychologists at Loughborough University have published research that can help them overcome and even thrive on the pressure to win Olympic gold.

Dr David Fletcher, a Chartered Psychologist, and Mustafa Sarkar interviewed 12 Olympic champions and found they share a unique mental resilience characterised 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 medallists 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, visualisation, 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 medallists believe high quality social support is available to them, including from family, coaches, team mates and support staff.

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.

With Loughborough University hosting the Team GB Preparation Camp, the findings of the study are being used to help British athletes manage and cope with the huge expectations they face competing at a home Olympic Games.

Dr Fletcher explains:

“Over the past few years, we have had an increase in the number of elite and professional athletes approaching us for support handling the pressures inherent to competition at the highest level. 

“The findings of this study enable us to provide them with a superior psychology support service based on cutting-edge evidence with the world’s best athletes”.

Mustafa Sarkar adds:

“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”.