Psychological Impact of an Athlete's Previous Competitive Successes and Failures on their Olympic Performance

Psychological Impact of Success and Failure on Olympic PerformancePsychology has become a key part of modern elite sport, with our understanding of the impact of the mind on physical performance having significantly developed over the past few decades. It is now common place for top level teams and athletes to regularly use psychologists and psychological techniques to obtain their optimal performance.

Psychological effects are far more individually specific than anything physiological. Whereas it is relatively simple to plan and predict an athlete's physical development in ways that are generic, an athlete's psychological state is much more unpredictable. Understanding how an athlete reacts psychologically to events and helping them to cope positively is highly important to an athlete's performance.

A key part of this is the management of success and failure. Success breeds confidence in an athlete, while failures can cause doubt and low self esteem. Too much of either can be detrimental to performance and it is important that an athlete has a positive reaction to their successes and failures if they year to produce their best performance at an Olympics.

There are two key measurements an athlete has to judge their relative success of failure; their performance in relation to their peer athletes and their absolute performance level.

While it is important to most elite athletes to be the best there has been when compared to all generations within their sport, it is their relative ability compared to the athletes they will compete against that is most important at an Olympics. An athlete's personal best may be significantly less than a world record, but if it is faster than anyone else has managed that will be competing at the Games it is a significant advantage.

The optimal psychological state for performance is very different between athletes, so it is important to understand these differences if an athlete is to deal effectively with any success or failure. Where losing a race can end one athlete's ability to win gold, it can be just the motivation another needs to go on and take it. An athlete's ability to positively assess both successes and failures will ultimately be beneficial to them come the Olympics.

In most cases, it is success that provides the most psychological benefit to an athlete. The majority of Olympic champions have had success prior to an Olympics, either in their personal best performance or in competition against their rivals. It is rare that an athlete comes from nowhere to become champion.

Turning up at an Olympics knowing that your best time is not as good as others in the field has a significant psychological impact. If behind, it makes it harder to believe that you can catch up, while if you are in front it is always in your mind that you might be caught. However, if you know that if you produce your best you will win, it can help an athlete focus on their performance and remove some of the extrinsic factors that can effect an Olympic result.

However, competition record can be equally as important. If an athlete has the best performance that year but has not been able to produce it when competing against their rivals, it can cast doubt as to whether they can produce it when it really matters. In effect, they worry about their psychological ability rather than their physical. This can be even more debilitating than worrying if an athlete has the ability to win. If an athlete is unsure they can physically compete, then they tend to focus on the physical aspects of the event, thinking specifically about what they are about to do. However, if an athlete is concerned about their psychological state, their focus is not on the performance itself and can be highly distracting and detrimental.

Success can also cause a negative psychological effect on performance. Over confidence can lead to complacency and a lack of focus on what is needed for an athlete to win. It is therefore important that any athlete does not get too carried away with any success, and keeps their concentration on the performance required to achieve it.

The recent World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea, provided some acute examples of how the various psychological impacts of previous performances had a major impact on results.

The highest profile of these was the 100m men's final. Usain Bolt, the world record holder, Olympic champion, world champion and the star of athletics was the clear favourite. When he is at his best, no one in the world can beat him, something that he himself was fully aware. However, in the 12 months prior to the championships he had not been at his best due to some injury problems, and had not run the fastest time that year. In the heats, it was clear he was back on form and in the final it was also clear that he wanted to make a statement that he was still the man to beat.

He had also been working on his starts, an area he himself has said he is weaker on and had been working to improve. Again, this was evident in the heats where he got great starts to his races.

However, come the final, he false started by perhaps the biggest margin ever. Due to the new rules, he was disqualified and his ambitions of retaining world and Olympic gold smashed.

It was an excellent example of how previous domination over ones rivals can lead to failure. Because Bolt is so far ahead of his rivals in terms of his fastest time and previous victories, his focus shifted from just winning the race to producing a special performance; his fastest start, a full sprint to the finish and a great time, the fastest of the year. His focus shifted too far from the requirements of winning the race and ultimately led to failure.

This change in focus in the long term may not be a bad thing. If you are by far the best in your sport, you have to have different targets than just beating your competitors if you are to improve. Ultimately, Bolt's focus may lead to him being an even greater athlete, but on this day it was a cause of failure.

His false start also had a key psychological impact on the race that followed. Now the rest of the field were in a race they thought they had a chance to win, whereas previously it was unlikely they could snatch the gold. The winner, Yohan Blake, clocked a time of 9.92 seconds to win, one of his fastest ever times. If Bolt had still been in the race he perhaps would not have performed as well. Further, only a week later Blake ran his fastest ever time of 9.82 seconds, a full tenth of a second faster than his world championships winning time. This level of increase in performance in such a short time owes much to psychology, and there is no doubt that his win in Daegu and the belief that he could now beat the best in the world was key to setting this new personal best.

Failure can have a positive impact on performance. The negative effects of losing can be a strong psychological motivation to succeed, to make sure that it doesn't happen again. It can also be a source of confidence. Going through a losing experience, understanding why it happened and what an athlete needs to do to make sure it doesn't happen again can make an athlete feel more certain about themselves and how to get the best performance out.

Combining success and failure is often the most effective psychological development of an athlete, and almost all Olympic Champions will talk of both their successes and failures and how it helped them become a champion. It will be interesting to see if this high profile loss on the world stage experienced by Bolt will provide a boost to him to go on and be even better come London 2012.

What is interesting is the relative merits of success in competition and an athlete's personal best. There have been many situations where a field of athletes contains one who has the best personal time, and another who has a much better record in winning competitions. The ability to perform on the biggest stage is much different to absolute ability., and both can be a significant factor in Olympic success.

Also in Daegu there was an interesting competition in the triple jump that pitted the man with the furthest jump of the year against the reigning world champion. While Christian Taylor's best time of the year would likely take the gold, Phillips Idowu, the reigning world champion, had the best competition record, a greater personal best and had beaten Taylor in their last meeting shortly before the championships.

Idowu put in a very far early jump of 17.70m, his best of the season and good enough to win most championships. It seemed that once again it would be Idowu who would come out on top when it really matters and retain his title. However, Taylor produced one of the best jumps of all time, 17.96m, to go way in front. He was only able to manage this new level in the face of such stiff competition and against the best jumper in the world because he had previously jumped further than his rival that year. Idowu, by contrast, was visibly beaten. While he had the ability to still go further and win with his remaining two jumps, he had not got close to that mark all year and psychologically he did not feel he could do it.

This is a good example of how it is not always competition performance that makes the difference psychologically. Having a personal best that is good enough to win even if it wasn't done in competition can give enough psychological advantage when the biggest stage comes around.

The nature of different Olympic sports means that previous personal bests and the successes and failures of an athlete will have different impacts. In some events the measurement of success and failure is more definitive, for example in Athletics if you can run the 400m in under 44s you know you can win gold, whereas if you can't run it in under 45s it is unlikely you will take a medal. However, in team sports like hockey judging an athlete's ability to be successful at an Olympics is much more complex. Where a 400m runner can focus on themselves and their time only, a hockey team's success is based purely on their performance against other teams. Therefore, success and failure in competition in the lead up to an Olympics is much more important psychologically for sports like hockey than personal best performances in isolation.

A clear example of the psychological importance of success and failure in relation to an athlete's peers can be seen in the Men's tennis events throughout 2011. Like hockey, there isn't an absolute performance mark like timing a 50m swim. Performance is relative to the opponent. In 2010, Rafael Nadal was the dominant force in men's tennis, rounding off the years major tournaments with a win over Novak Djokovic in the final of the US open. However, at the start of 2011, Djokovic won the Australian Open, beating Rodger Federer in the semi-final and Andy Murray in the final, both in straight sets.

Novak Djokovic Wins US Open 2011This was Novak's first major win since his début title at the same event in 2008, and it clearly gave him the confidence to match his ability to go on and be the dominant force in the men's game. He continued to win every tournament thereafter, including several finals victories over Nadal along the way, until a narrow semi-final defeat to Federer at the French Open, an incredible winning streak that gave him the confidence to finally win a grand slam final against Nadal, dominating a slightly under par defending champion in the Wimbledon Final.

By the time of the the US final, the same two men took to the court that had done so a year before but this time the psychological advantage had switched. Djokovic now had the belief that he could beat Nadal at any time, having won all five of their finals they played that year. Nadal, by contrast, for the first time looked like he thought he was the underdog, a man playing catchup. While Nadal produced a stunning display of tennis in the final, Djokovic dominated most of the match and won in four sets.

Through the year, Djokovic grew more and more in confidence with every win, while Nadal visibly lost belief in his ability to beat a man he previously did so regularly as the year wore on. After the final, Djokovic pointed to his new belief that he could win as the main reason for his amazing advancement in 2011.

It highlights just how powerful the psychological effects of previous success and failure can be at the top of professional sport when the margin of victory is so tight, particularly relative to the competition. It is often the individual or the team that believes more that they can win that ultimately wins Olympic gold, and having produced previous performances that are good enough is highly important in generating that belief. 


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder