All of the data presented was based on qualitative analysis of interviews with Olympic Gold or Silver medalists, or world champions, representing both summer and winter sports. The transcripts were read several times by each investigator with goal of uncovering the underlying success elements that were common among the most successful athletes. I'll detail these success elements below, but in general these phenomenally talented and dedicated individuals explained commitment, quality training, clear daily goals, simulation training, and mental preparation as common keys to their success.
Not surprisingly, one of the most common elements that emerge in all of these interviews was the incredible level of commitment displayed by these athletes. Commitment wasn't unfaltering, nor was it myopic, but for a significant period of time before the Olympic Games, everything in their life revolved around training and competing. Prior to the Games, athletes focused on many of things that most of us would focus on (e.g., families, jobs, relationships, etc.), but in the period leading up to the games their athletic goals became the most important goals in their lives.
"Everything I do, whether it is weight, running, or the normal training things, or leisure activities I do, it is all geared toward how it is going to affect my paddling. Everything is opportunity/cost. If I go out to a movie instead of going hiking as my leisure activity, what is the cost of that? If I go to the movie instead of on a hike, does that help or hurt my paddling. [...] Ever since I saw John Wood win a silver medal, I have wondered, does he dream all the time about being the best in the world? I have always dreamed about doing that. Maybe that's different from other people (highly successful Olympian - canoeing)."
A lot of research on expertise and skill acquisition talks about the quantity or hours spent in training (...the magic number 10,000 hours...), which is important to be sure, but it is equally important, if not more important to consider the quality of training. The best athletes interviewed had discovered that the key to establishing dominance in their sport was to train with the highest degree of quality. Part of developing quality training was to focus on short-term training goals and imagine how they were going to accomplish these goals the night before, the morning of, and on the way to training.
"When I've done my best and worked my hardest, I feel good about that. If I'm going to be second or third, it's going to be because someone else has superior ability. I have accepted that too, but I am not going to question my training. That's the last thing I want to question. Knowing how to focus gives you a little extra push in the everyday sessions. As much as I feel flat getting into the workout, and I may be flat for part of it, I'll recognize the fact that I can do it. I ask myself in the positive sense, why am I here? At that point it becomes a mind game. I am here because I want to be the best I can be (highly successful Olympian - kayak)."
"To prepare myself for quality runs in training, I make sure I am in good physical shape, and I make sure when I do my free skiing that I try to make good turns. When I get to the starting gate, it is almost a race run. I have thought about the course, I have prepared mentally for the run, my boots are done up the way they should be, I'm concentrating, and I make a good run. I don't screw around because I only get a few runs a day. That's it. Plus, if you're not concentrating when you're going downhill, you don't just bump your head on the end of the pool right?... You have to be continually aware (highly successful World Cup skier - alpine)."
Clear Daily Goals
Another characteristic that all of these highly successful athletes had in common was their use of short-term goals, whether is was a goal for a particular day, workout, or interval. Athletes reported being determined to accomplish these goals, and being fully focused on doing so.
"My coach wrote up every single one of my dives on a piece of paper, all the bad things about my dive and all of the good things about my dive. I read his corrections everyday, before every workout. I set a goal to change something on that piece of paper every day. Even if part of the dive was bad, I knew something was better. That's why it wasn't boring for me to do the same dive 100 times, because each time I looked at it in a different way. [...] For me the dive is good, but there is always something to improve (highly successful Olympian - springboard diving)."
The best athletes had very well developed and practice imagery skills. Athletes reported using imagery to get what they wanted out of training, to perfect skills within training sessions, to make technical corrections, to see themselves being successful in competition, or achieving their ultimate goal.
"I can feel the initial pressure of the trigger, and then I'm looking at the sight, and then shot goes off itself. The shot has to break by itself because if you think about it going, you are going to disturb the gun. You have trained your reflexes to come back through the trigger positively. When I do mental imagery I see the rear sight as two light bars, and the front sight is really sharp. I usually look at the center, or a little bit to the left of the center, of the top of the front sight. Then I can see the target as a fuzzy gray blob. I'm not conscious of my hand, I'm just concentrating on that small part of the sight (highly successful Olympian - pistol shooting)."
Mental imagery is an interesting phenomenon for a lot of psychological reasons, but like any other athletic skill it is a skill that needs to be practiced to maximize its benefits. Even elite athletes, who have dedicate years of their life to mastering their sport, have to work hard at developing their imagery, but once you do, imagery is unique tool that allows to practice the cognitive-affective aspects of your sport. This is why imagery training is emphasized at the highest levels.
"It took me a long time to control my images and perfect my imagery, maybe a year, doing it everyday. At first I couldn't see myself, I always saw everyone else, or I would see my dives wrong all the time. [...] I worked at it so much it got to the point that I could do all of my dives easily. Sometimes I would even be in a conversation with someone and I would think of one of my dives and "see" it (highly successful Olympian - springboard diving)."
In experimental psychology there are a lot of principles which suggest that training should match the performance setting as closely possible to maximize the transfer from training to performance (see Identical Elements Theory, the Specificity Principle, and the Principle of Procedural Reinstatement). Elite athletes and coaches seem to support this view point and try to simulate the competitive environment during training. Simulating the competitive environment is important for both mechanical and affective reasons. For instance, you wouldn't want to train for football in one pair of boots and suddenly which to a different pair on match day (mechanical), and you wouldn't want to always train doing runs by yourself to suddenly be surrounded by screaming fans and tenacious competitors on race day (affective).
"We didn't believe in the quantity idea: the more you do the better you get. Instead of coming in and saying, we're going to do three short programs, or we're going to do two longs, which gets you into the mind set of, 'I've just got to get through it,' we said, 'We're going to do one of each, and they're going to be good,' because that's all you've do at the competition. You've only got one whack at it and you'd better do it (highly successful Olympian - pairs figure skating)."
Mental Preparation for Competition
Athletes engaged in substantial mental preparation to have quality training (... think about how hard is would be keep the right mind set to do every rep, interval, run, or workout to the best of your ability...), but the best athletes also had systematic strategies for focusing and drawing out their abilities in important competition.
- The pre-competition focusing strategy: "We have a set warm-up, we know exactly how much time it takes and exactly what things we're going to do. Immediately before the race I was thinking about trying to stay on that edge, just letting myself relax, and doing a lot of positive self talk about what I was going to do. I just felt like we couldn't do anything wrong. It was just up to us. I said, 'There's nothing that's affecting us in a negative way, the only thing now is to do it, and we can do it... I just have to try my best' (highly successful Olympian - canoeing)."
- The competition focusing strategy: "My focus was very concentrated throughout the race. We have a start plan, and in it I concentrate only on the first few strokes. I've found that if I concentrate beyond that, those first strokes wont be strong enough. Then I concentrate on the next little bit of the race. [...] I look down the lane. The last 100m is marked with red buoys and I know how many buoys I had ahead of that to start our finish, because we had practiced for the course. When it was time for the very last part of the finish, we just go all-out power, forgetting style and everything else. Crossing the line, the thing I remember was just letting the emotion go, and being able to say, "That's it, it's over!" I just knew that we'd gone our very hardest (highly successful Olympian - pairs kayak).
- Competition evaluation: "In the last three years it has become important to identify as closely as possible where I screwed up, and then to work on that in practice to make sure that it doesn't happen again. [...] I'll sit back now after a race and I'll analyze it with a fine tooth comb, whereas before I might have just said, "Damn it, I lost!" I would just figured that I softened up at the middle and I'd say, "Well next time I'm not going to soften up." But now [...] I can pick a stroke here and there that might have affected the outcome of the race. When I do that, and I find out that I missed the 5th stroke off the line, or the stroke was still short and it should be long, or my transition wasn't as good as it could be, I can go back and work on that phase of my race and get the kinks out. The idea is you try and recall exactly what happened in the race and gain from it (highly successful Olympian - canoeing)."
- Distraction control: "I started to shift away from the scoreboard a year and half before the Olympics because I knew that every time I looked at the scoreboard, my heart went crazy. I couldn't control it. I knew that I dove better if I concentrated on my diving then concentrating on everyone else (highly successful Olympian - springboard diving).
Pre-competition focus, competition focus, evaluation, and distraction control are all mental aspects of the sport that have to be honed and developed between athletes and coaches. A large part of this can be the verbal cues that coaches learn with their athletes and the cognitive strategies that athletes develop as a result. These strategies can have significant impacts on the athlete's performance. Even for an athlete who isn't at such an elite level it is important to consider these 4 mental techniques for enhancing your performance.
Do you have a pre-competition focus? It is important to control arousal before the competition even begins, and the ideal focus will allow you to be at the optimal level of arousal prior to the start of the race, match, fight, etc. A good example of this is distance runners versus sprinters in track and field. If you watch sprinters in the blocks, clearly a lot of "psyching up" has taken place in addition to all of the dynamic stretching and explosive drills they've been doing to get ready. This is because sprinters need a high level of arousal very quickly; they need maximal power production from the time the gun goes off because their race might only be lasting 10-20 seconds, so time is precious. Distance runners, on the other hand, are not nearly so energetic at the starting line. Part of this is because there is a larger cognitive component to a distance race (e.g., Do I start my kick now? No, not unless so-and-so started his kick..., Do I need to accelerate here to avoid getting boxed in? etc.), but also because distance runners have a considerably longer time to build to their highest level of arousal and only worry about max force at the end of the race.
Do you have a competition focus? Is it effective at eliminating distractions? The focus you adopt during competition is critical. Research on choking, for instance, suggests that the optimal thing to do is try to stay focused on the outcome that you are trying to achieve (e.g., riding your line down the hill in alpine skiing) because if your self-awareness increases and you start focusing on your body or your mechanics (e.g., maintaining the correct leg position in a turn) you increase your chances of failing. This is similar to the mu shin ("no-mind") concept in Zen (see my post on mu shin and the concept of flow), which suggests that the athlete should be as unconscious as possible in their movements; instinct and reaction should govern you movements. If you stop and think, however briefly, you disrupt the harmony (read as efficiency) of your movements.
And finally there is evaluation. I think this is one dimension that is highly under-appreciated at lower levels of sport, although it justly recognized as invaluable at higher levels. For evaluation, I am a major proponent of video analysis. From experience I know how important it can be to view yourself from the cameras perspective. In learning to throw the javelin for instance, I struggled to meagerly toss the jav for less distance than people with half of my size or strength. This probably doesn't surprise people who throw the javelin and understand that it is more about technique then strength, but the point is that even with very good coaching my javelin throw didn't really improve until I was able to watch myself and see just were my mechanics were going wrong (...it's amazing how something that can feel so right to your arm can be so apparently wrong to your eyes).