Psychology of Elite Athletes

Posted on June 19th, 2012

Studies involving Olympic and World Championship athletes provide researchers with a wealth of information about psychological characteristics of elite athletes. The researchers found that successful athletes are able to make tactical adjustments when necessary, they are prepared for distractions and perceive their coaches to be committed and to have realistic individual and team expectations 1.

The more successful Olympians also have a more positive attitude about the Olympics, do not complain as much about housing, and enjoy good team unity. The top psychological skill characteristics of the elite athlete are:   - Confidence in ability. - Able to make tactical adjustments. - Prepared to deal with distractions. - High in both task and ego goal orientation. - Positive attitude about competition. - Good perception of team unity.

To become an elite athlete, a person has to progress through four stages.

1. Sampling phase - try out different sports and games for pleasure.

2. Specialization phase - specialize in one or two sports (Michael Jordan - basketball and golf)

3. Investment phase - invest significant time and energy into one sport to become a world champion. During this stage, personal characteristics such as self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, and competitiveness are important.

4. Maintenance phase - make considerable effort to stay on top. The most important personal characteristics during this stage include self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, and competitiveness, being independent and always striving to learn and improve.

Elite athlete phases

Research data also shows that there different types of goal orientation that athletes have. The three main types are goal oriented, task oriented, and ego oriented. Those athlete who focus on both task and ego goal orientation show the highest level of psychological skills such as the use of visualization, goal setting and positive self-talk. Elite athletes are also skilled in self-regulation, which consists of four phases:

  1. Forethought phase - goal setting, strategy choice, self-efficacy.
  2. Performance phase - strategy use, self-monitoring, self- instruction, imagery, attention focusing.
  3. Self-reflective phase - self-evaluation, causal attribution, self-satisfaction.
  4. The self-reflective phase feeds back to the forethought phase.Forethought phase - goal setting, strategy choice, self-efficacy.

Peak performance

If an athlete wants to achieve peak performance, he or she must begin with a dream that is associated with positive feelings and emotions. To achieve the dream, an athlete must prepare to help him or herself achieve the dream. The preparation consists of physical and psychological training and skill development.

During the journey towards the dream, an athlete will face a number of obstacles. To overcome these obstacles, the athlete must revisit the dream in order to become more motivated and engaged in his or her preparation. The key to success is not to be caught in a loop of going back and forth between the obstacle and the preparation (working harder). An athlete must revisit the dream so that he or she can again re-experience the positive feelings and emotions associated with the dream

One of the best ways to overcome an obstacle is to focus on your dream and remind yourself why you do what you do.

Resonance Performance Model

  • Peak performance begins with the dream.
  • Preparation to achieve the dream.
  • Overcome obstacles to achieve the dream.
  • Revisit the dream to remain motivated.

There is one more model that tries to explain what makes an athlete elite - the athlete-centered sport model, which suggests that the purpose of sport is to contribute to the overall development of the athlete physically, psychologically, and socially. An athlete must always strive for performance excellence that can be observed in measurable athletic outcomes. This means that with practice an athlete will be able to jump farther, swim faster, and generally perform at an elite level.

However, from the perspective of the athlete-centered sport model, these goals are short-term and imbalanced. While we strive for performance excellence, we must also strive for personal excellence, which includes performance excellence and virtues that make an athlete a better person over time.

Athlete Centered Model

  • Sport must contribute to the overall development of the athlete.
  • At the same time the athlete is striving for performance excellence, he or she must strive for personal excellence (virtues that make the athlete a better person).

  1. Cox, R. H. (2007). Sport psychology: concepts and applications (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill. 

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