Sports Psychology: What Does it Take to Be a Winner?

The brilliance of Sports Psychology is that it melds the magic with the scientific, giving athletes and trainers an improved understanding of what makes the ordinary athlete extraordinary. Sports psychology also teaches us that athletes’ success depends not just on physical ability, but also their mental and emotional acumen and the degree to which they think and behave like top athletes.

So what does it take to be a winning athlete? According to the father of Modern Sports Psychology, Coleman Griffith, there are six main factors that lead to athletic proficiency: mental alertness, headiness, psychological moment, jinx, break in the game, and over confidence[i].

Each of these factors points to the critical nature of the athlete’s mental game. Athletes who think of themselves and their skills positively, remain mentally alert and connected to their sport, and believe in their ability to win, typically enjoy greater success. Additionally, when athletes cultivate favorable atmospheres for themselves—ones with limited stress and empowering contexts—they often demonstrate greater athletic proficiency.

psychology of top athletes sports psychology infographic

What Makes an Athlete Excel in Sports?

Quite obviously, athletes must be physically skilled at their sports to excel. However, their mental skills seem just as critical. In their 2010 study “Psychological Characteristics of Peak Performance”, Krane and Williams[ii] identified six mental characteristics that distinguish good athletes from less successful ones. According to their findings, successful athletes are:

  1. More self-confident
  2. Better able to cope with stress and distractions
  3. Better able to control emotions and remain appropriately activated
  4. Better at attention focusing and refocusing
  5. Better able to view anxiety as beneficial
  6. More highly determined and committed to excellence in their sport

Numerous other studies and articles support these ideas:

  • Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford University, finds that masterful athletes demonstrate high degrees of self-efficacy[iii]. In other words, great athletes have confidence in their abilities to control their behavior, maintain their motivation, and establish a positive living environment.
  • Author Carolyn Gregoire, in her article, “The Brain Training Secrets of Olympic Athletes,” states that numerous professional athletes, such as Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Lebron James, and Misty May-Trainor, use meditation to improve their performances[iv]. Many studies show that meditation can decrease stress, improve focus, and stem anxiety.
  • In the same article, Gregoire states that successful athletes “evict the obnoxious roommate” in their heads by ditching negative self-talk. A group of academics in the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences at the University of Thessaly back up her claim by stating that athletes who think, speak, and act positively improve their performances

How the athlete moves through these four elements determines how well he or she is able to cope with stress. Optimally, the athlete responds with a certain amount of arousal (not too much and not too little) and empowering mental, emotional, and behavioral responses.

Athletes can build their capacity to stress and cope effectively by[v]:

  1. Reducing situational stress
  2. Building mental toughness
  3. Increasing his or her resources (tools for responding to situational stress) 
  4. Developing winning attitudes toward competition

How Do Athletes become Winners?

Ultimately, athletes become winners by developing their mental game as much as they do their physical strength, skill, and prowess. Consider that there are five great ways to build your mental game:

  1. Enhance your confidence.
  2. Learn to cope with stress.
  3. Remain appropriately activated.
  4. View anxiety as beneficial.
  5. Be highly determined.

The majority of Olympic athletes in one study stated that having confidence in their abilities, being able to avoid distractions, and having social support and good relationships with their coaches all led to better performance. Many also stated that they used mental skills training such as visualization and worked with sports psychology professionals to prepare for their competitions. Finally, most said that being physically well prepared for the competition contributed to their success.

In addition, athletes in the study noted that changing their training routine, being distracted by media attention during competition, and having issues with their coaches all negatively impacted their performance.

Clearly, being a strong athlete means having well-developed mental, emotional, and physical capacities.

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Sources: [i] apa.org/monitor/2012/04/sport.aspx | [ii] Krane, V. & Williams, J. (2010).  Psychological characteristics of peak performance. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied Sport Psychology (6th ed.) (pp. 169-188). Boston: McGraw-Hill. | [iii] uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura1977PR.pdf | [iv] huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/11/mind-hacks-from-olympic-a_n_4747755.html | [v] bethpageswimming.com/Various%20Docs/developing_coping_skills.pdf

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