Mind Games – The Psychology of Olympic Competition

Written by ResearchGate, a social network for scientists that aims to connect the world of science and make research open to all.

Posted on 08/18/2016

Original Article Published on HuffingtonPost.com

For Olympic athletes, the pressure of the Games can be immense. Often, years of training and preparation culminate in one shot to make that work pay off, all in a setting where expectations are high and the whole world is watching. We speak with sports psychologist David Fletcher, a researcher and consultant for professional and Olympic sports, about what’s going on in athletes’ heads as they push their bodies to the limits, and how mental health professionals can help them prepare.


ResearchGate: Do elite athletes have different psychological profiles than people in other professions?

David Fletcher: Well, the answer’s yes and no. No, in as much as elite athletes are still human beings! They have fundamental hopes, motives, fears and relationships that are in many ways comparable to everyone else. However, the psychological characteristics needed to become an elite athlete, similar to other high-performing professions, are almost by definition different to the general population. Winning in sport isn’t normal; so being psychologically different in certain ways is not just advantageous, it’s necessity. Many of these differences are socially desirable, such as being extrovert and resilient, but some characteristics have a darker, less desirable feel about them, such as being obsessive and selfish. To understand psychology in elite sport, it’s crucial to differentiate between outcomes relating to performance enhancement, mental health, and social desirability.

RG: What’s an Olympic athlete’s mental state like approaching a big competition?

Fletcher: It can vary considerably. The Olympics is the ultimate test for any athlete: those who thrive in this environment are able to optimize their motivation, handle the pressure, stay strong in their self-belief, and maintain their focus. Those who freeze or capitulate in the Olympic environment, will direct their motivation inappropriately, struggle to deal with the pressure, begin to doubt their ability, or get distracted. Waiting to see how athletes will perform at the “moment of truth” is one of the reasons why top level sport is so compelling to watch and be involved in.

RG: What’s it like afterwards? What happens when they win or lose?

Fletcher: Most athletes experience some sort of “post-Olympic low” following the Games. This is because for many, the goal of performing at their best will have been all-consuming, so the physical and emotional fatigue associated with competition will catch-up with them at some point. There is also the possible loss of identity due to a lack of subsequent goals and focus. Clearly the disappointment of underperforming at the Games can be difficult to come to terms with, but even for those that perform well and win a medal, the new life and attention that this often brings can also be difficult to adjust to.

“Winning in sport isn’t normal; so being psychologically different in certain ways is not just advantageous, it’s necessity.”



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