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Story Published Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

By: Daniel Gould, Ph.D.; Kristen Dieffenbach, M.S. and Aaron Moffett, M.S.
University of North Carolina – Greensboro

Throughout modern history American athletes have provided some of the most memorable performances of the Olympic Games. Olympians like Jesse Owens, Karl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Eric Hyden, Mary Lou Retton, Janet Evans, Bonnie Blair and those amazing men’s and women’s hockey teams performed their best when it counted the most. As we watched these amazing performances we wondered what psychological characteristics allow these individuals to achieve such success.
Journalists and media commentators have, at times, provided a glimpse of what made these athletes great, but few scientific studies have been conducted on the psychology of our champions. To find out more about what psychologically makes Olympic champions so great, we recently conducted an investigation of some of our most successful U.S. Olympians.

In our study, 10 of the most successful U.S. Olympic champions participated in confidential interviews for the purpose of determining their psychological characteristics and how the characteristics developed over time. To provide additional perspectives regarding these issues one coach for each athlete as well as a parent, guardian, or significant other were also interviewed. Finally, a battery of psychological tests were administered to athletes to further identify their psychological characteristics.

The 10 champions represented nine different Olympic sports. These athletes had competed in one or more Olympic Games between the years of 1976 and 1998 with an average of 2.4 Olympic Games each (range one to four Games). The athletes who participated in this study were selected by an analysis of Olympic Games performance records and availability. Among them, these athletes won 32 Olympic medals (28 gold, three silver, one bronze). Four of the athletes participated in the Olympic Winter Games while the remaining six athletes were summer Games participants. Six male and four female athletes were interviewed.

Characteristics of Champions

These champions exhibited a number of impressive psychological characteristics. Some of the more important attributes are highlighted below.
 High Motivation and Commitment

As one might expect, these athletes were highly motivated, committed and determined. For example, one parent characterized his athlete’s drive, “He pushed himself; this kid was driving himself.” and “He kept striving to be better.”

An athlete reflecting on his drive and determination said, “I think I worked really hard. There were a lot of athletes that might have been more talented than I was, but I think I was more determined. I wanted to do well, I wanted to reach my goals, and I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way.”

These athletes were competitive and looked forward to and really enjoyed competing. Their competitive drive was fueled by an internal desire or intrinsic motivation to accomplish their goals, as opposed to external rewards.

The 10 Olympians were goal oriented. They not only set goals, but they were also good at deriving multiple plans or pathways for achieving their goals. Finally, their dedication to their goals was extremely impressive.

 Optimistic and Positive

A striking characteristic of these champions was their optimistic and positive nature. Their optimistic personalities caused them to look at the athletic glass as “half full versus half empty.” This allowed them to remain positive when faced with difficulties and rebound more quickly when failures were experienced.
 Positive Perfectionists

Specifically, psychologists have distinguished two types of perfectionism, adaptive (what we call positive perfectionism) and maladaptive perfectionism. The distinction between the two is important because adaptive perfectionism is associated with achievement and success, while maladaptive perfectionism is related negatively to mental health. Adaptive perfectionists set high standards and like to be organized, but they are low on concern over mistakes, doubts about actions and concern over parental criticism (when young). Maladaptive perfectionists also hold high standards and like to be organized; however, they are also overly concerned with mistakes, have frequent doubts about actions and are preoccupied with parental criticism.

The Olympians we studied were positive perfectionists and demonstrated few maladaptive perfectionist tendencies. Consequently, they set high standards and were organized, but they were not overly concerned with mistakes or experienced frequent doubts about their abilities. When growing up, they did not worry about parental criticism.
 Uncanny Ability to Focus

The ability to focus and concentrate was one of the defining characteristics of this group. The Olympians had the ability to concentrate or focus on key performance-related factors while effectively blocking out distractions. They were described as having “the ability to dial in” and “the ability to intensely focus and quiet the mind.” As one athlete said, “I can get very focused. It is almost like where you get so focused time stands still.” Similarly, a significant other described his athlete’s ability to focus, “ She has the uncanny ability to, no matter what the situation is, to…focus in on the task at hand.”

Finally, the ability to automate skills, focus on what one can control and one’s self, not others, were key characteristics of these Olympians.
 The Ability to Handle Stress and Cope With Adversity

Having the ability to handle stress and cope with adversity allowed these athletes the capacity to deal with the routine setbacks and anxiety associated with training and competing in developmental and elite levels of competition. They are low trait anxious (personalities that predisposed them to view evaluation and competition as less threatening), have high levels of emotional control and the ability to peak under pressure. One coach described his athlete’s ability to handle pressure, “He was good under pressure, you know. It almost seemed like the more pressure he had on him the better he did.”
 Mentally Tough

Mental toughness was another important characteristic of these outstanding performers. While the athletes, significant others and coaches in this study were certainly not uniform in their views of mental toughness, some of the more common components of mental toughness focused on resilience, perseverance and the ability to successfully deal with adversity.

 Sport Intelligence

Finally, sport intelligence was an interesting new psychological characteristic identified in this study. It consisted of such themes as the ability to analyze performance, being innovative relative to one’s sport technique, being a student of the sport, making good sport-related decisions, understanding the nature of elite sport and being a quick learner. One coach commented on his athlete’s ability to learn by filtering out poor information and focusing on useful information, “The greatest thing about her was she could really filter out what would work for her and what would not. So, she could take input from everybody, and she would only take five percent from one person and 95 percent from another.”

Implications for Guiding Practice

Knowledge of the psychological characteristics of these outstanding Olympians may be used in several ways:
1. Value in talent development—search for athletes with these characteristics and provide them opportunities to further develop athletically.
2. More importantly, a form similar to the one in Table 1 could be developed and used to rate your current athletes’ development on these key psychological attributes.
The resulting profile could then be used to identify athletes’ attributes or characteristics for further development. For example, if an athlete scores low on concentration/focus or motivation and commitment, this athlete could take part in psychological skills training to improve their competence in this area. Study results showed that these attributes are not always fixed, rather they can be developed over time. Furthermore, research shows that many psychological skills can be improved with practice.


While this group of Olympians was characterized by the particular psychological characteristics discussed in this article, it is important to remember that this report presented summary results. No one Olympian was fully characterized by all the factors and factor subcomponents identified by the study. In addition, each champion was unique in how the characteristics were combined to comprise his or her psychological make-up. We also emphasize that while the majority of commonly mentioned factors identified in the study were positive, the participants at times struggled and faced adversity with two even experiencing clinical issues.

Thus, while these athletes as a group are amazing psychologically in many ways, they are not supermen or superwomen. We don’t want to imply that they didn’t have negative thoughts or struggles. Not withstanding these facts, knowledge of these characteristics can provide an important glimpse into the components of the psychology of excellence and help us facilitate their development in other U.S. athletes.

Table 1.
Components of Champions Rating Form
Psychological Characteristic Athlete Rating Plan for Improvement
(10 = strength; 5 = okay/ average; 0 = weak)
Motivation & Commitment ____________________ _______________________
Optimistic and Positive ____________________ _______________________
Positive Perfectionism ____________________ _______________________
Ability to Focus ____________________ _______________________
Ability to Manage Stress/Cope ____________________ _______________________
with Adversity
Mental Toughness _____________________ _______________________
Sport Intelligence _____________________ _______________________

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