Positive environments for Olympic success

University of Portsmouth, Loughborough University and Cardiff Metropolitan University have jointly launched a campaign to ensure athletes from Team GB have the psychological strengths to deal with the pressures of competing at the Olympic Games. 

(Photo from the Olympic and Paralympic Village. Photo credit: London 2012)

The ongoing programme of research, Positive Organizational Psychology in Sport (POPS), is spearheaded by performance psychologist Dr Chris Wagstaff (University of Portsmouth), in collaboration with Professor Sheldon Hanton (Cardiff Metropolitan University) and Dr David Fletcher (Loughborough University), together with a number of national sport organisations whose responsibility it is to produce Olympic athletes.

The multi-year, multi-study project attempts to promote athletic performance by building highly-functioning and flourishing sport environments characterised by healthy, stress-free relationships.

Preparing for and performing at the Olympics has previously been reported to be the cause of significant levels of stress for sport performers. Indeed, many athletes report that the majority of obstacles to high performance they face relate to non-performance issues (e.g., media intrusions, national expectations, funding issues) rather than those primarily associated with athletic performance (e.g., competing) itself. 

A review of this area by Fletcher and Wagstaff, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, suggests that the ability to manage the pressure that accompanies living in the athlete village, intense media coverage as well as the expectations of a nation are cited by Olympic athletes as the most significant distinguishing factors in achieving Olympic success.

Therefore, without support to develop psychological strengths that buffer against and help athletes deal with such issues their ability to perform at the highest standards may be impeded.

The research conducted by the POPS team - which has also been published in Sport Exercise and Performance Psychology and the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology - has found psychological training to can enhance performers’ emotional and social intelligence and teach better ways to identify, process, and manage emotions in sport.

In turn, the development of such strengths has been shown to improve the functioning of individuals, teams, and organizations in Olympic sports. The training focuses on being able to identify emotions that might hinder athletic performance; to understand these emotions and why one is experiencing them; as well as the most effective ways to deal with and express such feelings without compromising preparation or performance in the Olympic arena. 

The researchers believe that an agenda to develop these psychosocial abilities in young athletes who aspire to compete in future Olympics should be of paramount concerns for parents, teachers, coaches, and sport organizations.