A related article which may be of interest first published in The
Huffington Post 02/08/2012
Inside the Mind of the Olympic Gold Medal Winner
By Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Winning the Gold Medal in the Olympics appears a pinnacle in any
elite athlete's career, but physical fitness or technical skill may
not, in fact, be the crucial factor. Increasingly sports scientists
are becoming convinced that it's grit and determination, resilience
and desire, which separates winners from losers.
Motivation triumphs over muscle.
But what precisely are these mysterious, hidden, but crucial mental
aspects which separate the winners from the rest, who appear to be
trying just as hard? Can the rest of us benefit as well from the
psychological strategies of our Olympic Gold Medal winners?
Dr David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar, sport and performance
psychologists at Loughborough University, (where much of the
science behind the training of Team GB's current medal campaign has
been developed) have just published one of the most in-depth
studies ever, getting inside the mind of Olympic Gold Medal
The investigation, published in the academic journal 'Psychology of
Sport and Exercise', involved an analysis of 12 Olympic Gold Medal
winners' accounts to the researchers of how they used their minds
The first startling finding is that all these champions' lives were
not dominated by accomplishment before getting Gold. Instead they
constantly encountered obstacles and set backs on the path to
success, yet it was their mental resilience in the face of
adversity, which is what seemed to separate them from the rest of
the field, and pulled them through to eventual victory.
One champion's reaction to being de-selected for a major
international competition illustrates relentless optimism and a
proactive approach, characteristic of Olympic Gold Medal winners;
'There were four of us challenging for these ﬁnal two places and I
got told I was on the reserve list. And at the time it was
devastating but it's one of those things; if you don't take a
ticket in the rafﬂe, you're never going to win a prize. So you have
to take the ticket that's part of life and it just makes you think
"well, what can I do differently to make sure I do get
Paradoxically, not being selected for major international
competitions was frequently cited by Gold Medallists as the
foundation for increased endeavour and exertion. Competition losses
were viewed as learning opportunities, enabling future improved
performances. Set-backs were re-interpreted in ways which meant
they merely re-doubled their efforts, and didn't become
Failure didn't break them - it made them.
One of the most intriguing findings from Fletcher and Sarkar's
study is that while journalists love to wheel out the cliché of
'sacrifice' when invoking elite performance, it wasn't a concept
these Gold Medal winners understood.
Instead the world's best athletes take huge personal responsibility
for their choices, and are surprisingly uncomplaining about how
much they forfeit for their sport. They accepted they actively
chose the challenges they encountered, and as a result endured a
wildly different work/life balance to the rest of us, as one
commented to the researchers; 'We all worked. But in terms of the
build up to the Olympics, we didn't bat an eyelid in doing it... it
was our choice to do it. I don't like the word sacriﬁce... Sacriﬁce
to me is about last resort and there's no alternative... that's
rubbish. We made a choice to do that and I think that choice in
what we did we highly valued and I think that inspired us,
motivated us to perform on the pitch and as a group.'
One Gold Medal winner's reaction to training during unsociable
hours is characteristic; 'I remember one of my coaches saying to me
what was I doing over Christmas and I said 'Oh, I'll be training
twice on Christmas Day . I know [opponent's name] won't be training
on Christmas Day twice and that will give me the edge'. It was more
the mental side of things because I knew that I'd be doing
something that he wasn't doing.'
These private dimensions of winning tend not to be confided to the
microphones thrust in winners' faces as they step down from the
victory podium. Their sharing of such intimate secrets to success
is therefore what makes this Loughborough University study so rare
An example of their incessant thinking and re-thinking of every
fine detailed aspect of their lives is this quote from a champion
cyclist to the researchers; 'Initially, training was just something
to get out of the way. And then gradually I'd do training and I'd
think, "Am I getting the most out of this? Am I exploiting the
session?" And, you know, if I did take a bad lift in the gym I'd
think, "I could have done that better. That's a missed opportunity.
What have I got to do to be better?" So I had an obsession on
getting everything right rather than just waiting for the day of
the ﬁnal and then hoping. It was about getting everything right
before the ﬁnal so I had all the tools ready for when I was
Another undisclosed aspect of the mind of winners is what almost
seems a sense of destiny - as this comment to Dr David Fletcher and
Mustafa Sarkar illustrates; 'I don't know if there is going to be a
theme where timing and luck have been in the right place, but I'm a
great believer in it. I wasn't selected for the original trip...
and on the Thursday night before they [the team] were leaving, I
was called up because an individual's wife had gone into labor [and
I was told] 'be at [the airport] the next day: we're playing
[country] on the Saturday'.
They believe they make their own luck and that those who persevere
will eventually benefit from chance.
Perhaps the greatest shock that is going to come from Fletcher and
Sarkar's study entitled, 'A grounded theory of psychological
resilience in Olympic champions', is that these Olympic Gold Medal
winners were not as fixated, as the media and the nation appears to
be, on winning gold.
Instead, it was fulﬁlling their athletic potential which primarily
motivated them, rather than becoming an Olympic champion. Some
involved in this research pointed out, amazingly, that their gold
medal performance was not, in their view, the most outstanding
moment in their career.
The following comment illustrates an athlete's viewpoint on her
gold medal performance in the 2000 Olympic Games; 'This may come as
a bit of a shock but I didn't have a great competition in Sydney. I
was consistent... but it wasn't a great performance... '
The research on competitors who are most likely to cheat, via
doping or any other means, is that if it's being on the podium,
waving the Gold Medal and soaking up the applause which is what is
primarily driving you, then you will be tempted to take a short cut
to get there.
But there are competitors, and this may sound strange after a week
when the nation became obsessed with getting a Gold, for whom the
Gold Medal doesn't represent what it does for the rest of us
praying for one. Instead the Gold Medal to these elite performers
is merely an acknowledgement of excellence, and it's that total
mastery of self and sport which has always been the primary
ambition. For these athletes coming first would still be vital, no
matter if there was no audience, no media and no medal.
The medal is merely a measure, not a goal.
These contestants, research has found, are much less likely to
cheat in any way, no matter what temptation is placed in front of
In a week where various forms of 'cheating' have dominated the
sports news agenda, there is a danger in our obsession for Gold,
that we could forget this fundamental aspect of the Olympic
Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of
Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play
store entitled 'Raj Persaud in conversation', which includes a lot
of free information on the latest research findings in mental
health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
Download it free from these links