The 11 mental skills that make an elite athlete

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earlier this year, I wrote about a Swiss study who suggested (With apologies to Yogi Berra) that cycling up a mountain is 77 percent physically and 23 percent mentally. There are plenty of reasons to take these specific numbers with a grain of salt, but one reason in particular: There is no universal agreement on the traits or mental skills that contribute to athletic success. The Swiss study used questionnaires to assess five potential psychological factors including mental toughness and self-compassion. But what else might be missing?

This is the fundamental question that lies behind ambitious new research into Journal of Applied Sports Psychology (Free to read over here). Back in 2019, it was a Canadian non-profit organization called Own the platform, whose mission is to propel Canadian athletes to Olympic medals, brought together a group of six elite sports psychologists to come up with what they called the “Gold Medal Profile for Sports Psychology,” or GMP-SP. Their task was to compile the vast and expanding literature on sports psychology and to create a definitive list of mental skills separating the good from the great, and how to develop them.

The new paper is an abridged version of a document that the group, led by Natalie Durand Busch of the University of Ottawa, submitted to Canadian sports governing bodies in 2020. It lists 11 “mental performance competencies” divided into three categories, which contribute to maximizing athletic performance and maintaining health. mental. It is by no means the first attempt to summarize the psychological components of peak performance, but the field continues to evolve: the GMP-SP is the first to incorporate mental health as an explicit goal, and includes attributes such as resilience gained. Lots of research interest in recent years.

Without further ado, here’s the graphical version of GMP-SP, which showcases the three classes and eleven competencies along with plenty of stock and deep engineering symbolism:

personal drawing sports psychology
(picture: Journal of Applied Sports Psychology)

The first category, colored gold because it is the most important, contains the core competencies that underlie all other competencies:

  • Stimulate: The importance of motivation is fairly obvious, studies such as this I found that, for example, among fencers and long-distance runners, those who are most motivated are willing to train harder and end up achieving higher performance levels. But not all types of stimulation are created equal: intrinsic motivation It is, in many contexts, more enduring than extrinsic motivation.
  • Confidence: I can’t help but think of Eliud Kipchoge’s response when asked how he would handle the “impossible” task of running a two-hour marathon: “The only difference is the thought,” He said. “You think it’s impossible, I think it’s possible.” Many studies They have linked what sports psychologists call self-efficacy — your belief in your ability to do what is required to achieve a certain performance — with athletic success. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question here, but overall it seems clear that greater confidence sets you up for success.
  • adaptation: Let’s choose another example for Kipchoge, because he is the current model of a mentally strong athlete: The 2015 Berlin MarathonThe soles of his shoes started slipping before he reached the halfway point of the race. Still winning, the slippers fluttered in the breeze like little wings, in one of the fastest times ever recorded. In sports, as in life, things go wrong, and you need to be able to recover from setbacks without hesitation.

The second category (silver) is self-regulation. Think of sports as a giant marshmallow testWhether in the crucible of head-to-head competition or in the broader picture of sticking to a strict training plan instead of veggies on the couch. These are the components you need:

  • self conscious: To manage stress, regulate emotions, and focus your attention (the other three skills in this category), you first need to be able to recognize your current mental state, and what you should be like when you’re in the zone. GI Joe was right: Knowledge is half the battle.
  • Stress management: Trying to win the Olympics is exhausting. There may be some things you can do to relieve some of that stress, such as traveling first class to reduce the burden of frequent travel. But what we’re really talking about here is how you do it to reply For those inevitable pressures. Do you look at butterflies in your stomach before a race as a sign that you’re afraid, or a sign that you’re excited?
  • Regulating emotion and arousal: Exactly how many butterflies? should Is there in your stomach before the race? There is no correct answer. Instead, sports psychologists talk about “individual areas of optimal performance.” Some people perform better at higher arousal levels than others; The same person may need different levels in different contexts. Wherever your sweet spot is, you need tools – it could be something as simple as deep breathing – to turn the dial up or down.
  • Attention control: To perform well, you must be able to focus on the right things. What are the right things? This depends on. Focus on your running form It can make you work less efficiently, and in general you have External focus Better for learning and performing physical movements. But in order to run a good marathon, you need to be very attentive to your internal state: how your breathing feels, how your legs are, etc. In other words, you should be able to adjust your focus depending on the context, filtering out everything else trying to distract you.

The final category (Bronze) is Personal Competencies, which includes your interactions with other people. Its importance is evident in team sports, but it also applies in individual sports to your interactions with coaches and training partners (and for elite athletes, with therapists, sponsors, administrators, etc.). The four competencies are Athletic coach relationshipAnd the LeadershipAnd the work as one teamAnd the Telecommunications. They are all important, but there is nothing particularly surprising to say about them.

Putting all of this together, Durand-Busch and her colleagues included a simple rubric for evaluating an athlete’s performance in these eleven competencies. For each one, the athlete gives herself a rating from one (beginner) to three (advanced); A coach or sports psychologist does the same thing. Then they add any brief notes, recommended strategies for getting to the next level, and a ranking of how much priority is given. Completing this assessment periodically will give you a sense of where you fall short in the characteristics of a gold medal, and how well you fill in the gaps.

There are some interesting omissions in the framework. Some of the more common psycho-sports tools, such as goal-setting, pictures, and self-talk, are not included. All of these are categorized as ‘sub-competencies’, which can be harnessed to support the 11 selected ones. Motivational self-talk (“You can do this!”) can boost motivation and confidence; Actionable self-talk (“following by the wrist”) can help guide attention control. The authors also note some sports or domain-specific skills: decision making in team sports, pain management in endurance sports, fear management in speed sports, and creativity in aesthetic sports.

I think it’s fair to say that this is unlikely to be the definitive answer to the question of what it takes, psychologically, to own the platform. But it’s an interesting starting point. Many of these traits can be measured using validated psychological questionnaires. What happens if you give these surveys to a group of developing athletes, and then wait a few years to see who is successful? How much, if any, can this framework predict? I don’t know the answer – but just for records, Canada had its best-ever medal (excluding the boycotted 1984 Games) at last year’s Summer Olympics, and its second-best tally at this year’s Winter Games.


Hat tip for Chris Yates to do more research. For more race science, join me Twitter And the FacebookSign up for email newslettercheck out my book Endurance: Mind, Body, and the Oddly Flexible Limits of Human Performance.