As spring arrives between bouts of snow, over and over again here in Flagstaff, my two-year “anniversary” as a full time mental performance consultant approaches. I feel moved to reflect on what I’ve learned, in particular the patterns I’ve noticed, among the most and least successful athletes that I’ve encountered. This will be the first installment of three; part 2 will describe the commonalities of struggling athletes, and part 3 will explore effective and less effective coaching. I hope these observations are of interest and help.
The first learning that I’d like to emphasize before launching into a list of commonalities, is that there is no guaranteed psychological formula for success. Every athlete is different from the next (an “N of 1 “ as we like to say in psychology). A few elite individuals display behaviors that undermine many; others don’t realize their goals despite adhering to the most recommended of mindsets. However, some characteristics do appear with interesting frequency. The following is a summary of my impressions in this regard.
THE BEST COME EARLY
Awareness of Sport Psychology as a performance tool is steadily on the rise. Nevertheless, many athletes and coaches still perceive it as a service someone would only “need” if there’s something wrong with him or her. Across the approximately fifteen sports I work with, I’ve noticed that the best within these groups are the first to inquire about my services. They’re the first to ask questions, and to schedule an individual consultation. Also, when I give them a strategy they reliably experiment with it diligently and provide thoughtful feedback regarding its effectiveness or lack thereof.
This tendency is certainly not exclusive to sport psychology. These same athletes seek the help of physiotherapists, nutritionists, and other experts relevant to their field. They’re quick to manage injuries, and change strategies that aren’t working. They take responsibility for their progress by seeking all the help available to them, and interacting actively with this help.
THEY ARE INTERNALLY, DIALECTICALLY CURIOUS
My second observation is closely related to the first. The best athletes engage quickly in open, curious dialogue. They don’t hesitate to admit weaknesses, doubts, and uncertainties, and they ask interesting questions – lots of them.
Last summer I conducted a study on distance runners. Forty collegiate athletes and fifteen professionals took part, including three Olympians. Two of the participants completed more response forms than necessary; the same two were the only participants to reach out with questions. Both were Olympians.
A VOCABULARY IS KEY
The most successful athletes, and those with whom I feel I’ve been able to help the most, share a rich emotional vocabulary. I think this comes from paying attention to their inner experience. Research has shown that a vivid emotional vocabulary is related to resilience because naming an experience often makes it feel more manageable. I’ve also found that numerous conversations of a mental and emotional nature increase a person’s emotional vocabulary.
EXCITED TO RACE
The best athletes frequently report feeling excited to race. “Why would you not want to use two opportunities to be your best?” one great swimmer said to me when discussing energy deployment strategies with respect to prelims and finals. “I love my stroke,” said a breaststroker, describing what she was looking forward to most regarding her upcoming meet. Interestingly, in my experience, excitement that overwhelms anxiety about racing is somewhat rare. So much so that I’m surprised when I hear it – and it’s always associated with the completely new or very good.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DETAILS
“The guys on this team want to do everything well,” one of Northern Arizona University’s runners explained to me. He meant the training of course, but even more so the nutrition, the recovery, the strength work. NAU won the NCAA Cross-Country Title in 2016, and I had the pleasure of interviewing all the athletes and coaches involved. Overwhelmingly, attention to detail was highlighted. These athletes meticulously looked after themselves, and expected each other to uphold this standard. This involved boring, time consuming diligence. “These guys want that sacrifice,” explained Assistant Coach, Jarred Cornfield.
THEY MOVE ON QUICKLY
The best athletes move on quickly from both success and disappointment. One of the most poisonous misconceptions I see regarding what comprises an elite focus, involves athletes believing that they need to be incredibly hard on themselves following a sub-par performance. Some feel like if they aren’t upset enough following a disappointment they aren’t “serious,” or they don’t care enough. I always stress to athletes that they should reflect on necessary actions for improvement, but that they must not dwell or ruminate for too long. The brain remembers experiences that are upsetting, and is more likely to repeat anything we attach emotion to – especially negative emotion. Therefore, it’s important to reflect objectively on a performance and then move on with positive action. Beating oneself up emotionally increases the chances that an athlete will experience nervousness and negativity for the next race or practice. I always recommend that athletes reflect on three things they did well for every planned action for improvement. This ritual helps maintain a healthy perspective, which increases the likelihood of a positive next experience.
TEAM ENERGY IS CONTAGIOUS – EVEN IN INDIVIDUAL SPORTS
Impressive as NAU’s attention to detail is, they embody one superior quality: love. The NAU team is truly a band of brothers who care about and enjoy each other daily. The bright, laughing energy of this group has become their signature. Every team member spoke of this bond like a badge of honor in every single conversation I had. Coach Mike Smith described the aura around them: “You can just smell [good] energy, those guys were excited to race. You don’t want to race guys like that.”
Possibly the most powerful lesson I’ve learned during my two years in this profession is the impact of the people around you. Regardless of whether you take part in a team or individual sport, the people who you train with are indescribably influential. In fact, there is not one successful athlete that I can think of who chronically reports significant relationship problems with their coach or training partners. Also, and overwhelmingly, the most common and debilitating (to performance and enjoyment) problems I hear across, athletes, sports, and levels involve tension with other people – coaches, training partners, and close relationships.
THEY EXPERIENCE DOUBT
Contrary to some outward appearances, great athletes experience nervousness, negative thoughts, personal insecurities, frustration, fear, and periods of low motivation – just like the rest of us. Some time ago (unfortunately I can’t recall the source) I read a quote that said, “they’re just as real as you.” I don’t have a better statement to express how much more similar than different elite athletes are to the rest of us when it comes to our human struggles.
So, according to the above, how can the rest of us behave more like the best? Seek help from experts and follow through with their recommendations; ask questions unafraid of appearing foolish; study your inner experience and try to describe what you’re feeling to yourself or someone else; attend to the small details of self-care and preparation; examine performances objectively – then move on; surround yourselves with good people, choose your company carefully; find reasons to be excited to train and race. Finally, recognize we all struggle, we all doubt, we’re all human, and more alike than alone.
Special thanks to Shannon Thompson for contributing this guest post.
About the author: Shannon Thompson is a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Hypo2 Sport High Performance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. Shannon holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, her primary clientele are elite endurance athletes, and student athletes from numerous sports at Northern Arizona University. Shannon is also a researcher, focusing specifically on understanding and helping athletes to optimize the moments of highest exertion in training and competition. She is also a competitive runner on the road and trail.
Recommended Additional Reading from Shannon Thompson: Words Matter
Ready to take your training to the next level? Learn more about our Personal Coaching where you can train with a coach by your side to plan your training and talk about race strategy, performance nutrition, injury prevention, stretching, and much more.
“I have achieved my goals for 5K, 10K, and now a Half Marathon – thanks McMillan Running!”
-James W, RunClub member