It’s All in the Mind: Elite Performance
By Dave Horrocks, Lecturer – School of Sport & Applied Coaching Sciences at UCFB
Psychologists all over the globe have researched and postulated on the personality characteristics of the elite for decades, but only in recent times have true elite performers been accessible for scientific study and quantification. This article aims to shed light on the psychological make-up and the winning DNA of truly consistent elite level sporting performers.
Initially and at a very young age an inextricable romantic love for sport is evident. This often appears innate, is often the result of personal choice and is derived from an environment of reasonable choice. The child is often repetitively yet lovingly entertained in their pursuit of happiness through this primitive version of what will ultimately resemble a sport.
The close proximity and facilitative support of significant others is a second major factor in the development of an athlete. This is often a close relative with a shared interest and often a person of reasonable competence in that activity.
Intrinsic recording of standards, knowledge of past and present performance and a subconscious affinity for beating oneself is displayed quite consistently through the romance, learning and developmental years. This behaviour also carries itself through the lifespan in terms of training, competition and personal performance indicators.
As opposed to a fixed mind-set which implies that one’s self-perception is that of a static being, successful athletes have a growth mind-set. Elite athletes understand that failure is the pre-cursor to success and mental and physical capabilities are malleable, and they are persistently open to improvement. The athlete is therefore an existential evolutionary being who learns and develops on a daily basis at a rapid rate. The athlete adopts new technologies before the majority of their peers and is in touch with developments in coaching practices, tools and facilities. The athlete is highly coachable and also has great trust in significant knowledgeable seniors.
Athletes are also highly adaptable to circumstance under pressure when required. Top athletes can implement change quickly and efficiently with unwavering belief that what they are doing is correct and will be the required process for success.
Men and women at the top of their games are extremely disciplined people from a very early age. They sacrifice other ‘normal’ growing up activities to dedicate themselves to the cause. This type of personal sacrifice is persistent across the lifespan of the majority of elite athletes in modern day sport.
A reduced interest in general common human life is often prevalent, with the elite sportsperson being self-indulgent in relation to the cause and often oblivious and non-interested in general day to day goings on within normal human existence. Many athletes report a lack of real personal friends.
An extensive knowledge of the sport in question, the technical, tactical and physical side of the sport, the evolution of the particular sport and the lives and careers of past greats is evident in successful sportspeople.
This obsessive nature often floods into controlled perfectionist traits of cleanliness, routine orientated behaviours, expectancies of others, an orderly self-organisation and an intolerance of sub-standard actions or behaviours in others.
Introspection and evaluation is a key fundamental of an elite performer’s make up. An accurate self-awareness and ability to improve via personal and external critique is evident in times of both success and failure. Any resultant ideas from such analysis are quickly refined and turned into solution-focussed process-orientated action.
An integrated body and mind has become a facet of key importance in modern sporting performance. Be the athlete tall, small, strong, slight, powerful or flexible they will do the utmost to maximise their genetic disposition and steal an edge over their opponents. This takes into account, nutrition, flexibility, body composition, weight, sleep, speed, endurance, posture, eyesight and a whole host of physical characteristics that must be in optimal operating condition for performance to peak.
Preparation is the cornerstone of all breath-taking performance. Years are spent engaging in all of the above, and ultimately a little situational specific fine tuning is the icing on the cake. The final days before an event are often spent focussing on the specifics of the environment and opponents. However once the situational analysis is complete, the final moments are all about the athlete. In their eyes, only they can win this game and control their own destiny. Elite athletes do not shirk responsibility and take everything on their own shoulders in the quest for glory.
The language used is often key to the brain’s reactions, emotional disposition, feelings and speed of process. To be perennially efficient the language amongst a team and within oneself must be short, succinct and positive, and must prompt executable actions.
All of the above traits are persistently common in the world’s elite sporting performers. This psychological DNA of choice and human behaviour is the combined and cumulative strand that millions of people the world over crave for.
David Horrocks BSc (Hons) MPhil MBPsS
David is the Assistant Head – School of Sport & Applied Coaching Sciences and Assistant Head of Research at UCFB. With a highly distinguished academic background in sports psychology, David is currently working with two high-flying football clubs, one in the Premier League and one in the Football League Championship, as well as in European Tour Golf.
This research featured in the League Managers Association’s (LMA) the Manager magazine as part of UCFB’s exclusive partnership with the LMA.