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Successful athletes: It is all in how they see it (and work through it)?

Rory McIlroy
Successful athletes: It is all in how they see it (and work through it)?

When I type here about successful athletes, I focus on the psychological skills and techniques they learn to separate themselves from their competitors. Successful athletes build mountains in their mind of tough, durable terrain to protect and separate them from their opponents. Over the past 50 years, researchers filled shelves of evidence to argue that at every level (e.g., non-elite, junior elite, elite and super-elite), successful athletes show the highest levels of (1) motivation, (2) confidence, (3) control, (4) mental toughness and (5) resilience. They (6) cope better with adversity, (7) resist performing worse than expected under pressure, and (8) assimilate into training and competition several mental skills (e.g., goal setting, anxiety control, mental imagery, self-talk and decision making).

Elite and super-elite athletes base their competence on personal improvements (Rees et al., 2016). They compare themselves with themselves and improve upon where they are now. But they do not dismiss their competitors. They see competitors as their opposition and wish to test themselves against them and compare their own ability. An ironic discovery is that athletes can perform their best and their worst when anxious. One reason for this paradoxical outcome is that anxiety is associated with higher levels of effort, which could improve performance – as long as the athlete does not interfere too much with how she performs. Being anxious at competition time is a normal human response. The better performing athletes interpret this anxiousness as a help rather than a hindrance – it is all in the way they see it.

When we think of high-level sport, we visualise the motivation and commitment to continue to train for years and years. The successful non-elite and elite level athletes show more forms of self-determined motivation – motivation from within – and this healthy drive lowers the chance of burning out from the sport. A strong extrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from outside of you) helps lots of athletes to play and compete at the highest level, too.

Through a thorough examination of the research, athletes achieve the greatest benefits when they understand their motivational profiles, change these profiles, and enhance their psychological skills for optimal performance in training and competition. When we develop skills to manage ourselves, we have a resource to sustain us. The best athletes in the world learned to manage themselves and their resources to train and compete at the highest level. Others can benefit from their knowledge and experiences. The goal for you is to assess where you are right now and what you can develop to improve in the months ahead. You can help yourself or seek the support you need from a chartered sport psychologist. Some people choose to help themselves while others select to work with a professional. Whatever you decide, remember that your choice should fit what you feel you need. Sometimes what we want is not what we need, and a sport psychologist could help you figure this puzzle.


Rees, T. (2016). The Great British Medalists Project: A review of current knowledge on the development of the world’s best sporting talent. Sports Medicine (Auckland)46(8), 1041–1058.

Attributed to Friedrich Oetinger (1702–1782), and to Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Serenity Prayer” (1934) (see Seligman, M. (2007). What you can change... and what you can't. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. 

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