We have all been captivated by the extraordinary performances we have seen over the last 16 days in Rio. All the athletes who attain these levels of excellence must be in near perfect physical condition and execute with flawless precision. We have seen how the smallest differences in performance can separate those on the podium from those who fall short. Many would attribute these differences to a psychological edge rather than technical or physiological differences. The best athletes perform under pressure and for them it is not enough to be capable of managing pressure; they must positively thrive on it.
Terry Dillon, 1989. Terry has twice represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games in the sport of rowing.
Mental Toughness is what distinguishes the best from the rest
Mental toughness is a sports psychology term and refers to the psychological edge that enables athletes to remain determined, focused, confident and in control when faced with the expectations and challenges found in high-performance environments. Mental toughness is the quality that distinguishes the best athletes from the rest.
Research with elite athletes suggests that this mental edge can be broken down into five key elements:
1. A Burning Passion
An elite athlete has an insatiable desire to be the best that they can be, it is something that comes from within, it gives what they do meaning and creates a compelling sense of purpose. It is what drives them forwards and enables them to recover from setbacks.
2. Robust Self Belief
The best athletes have an unshakeable belief in their unique ability to perform better than those around them when it matters most. This self belief is fuelled by an ongoing appreciation of the personal qualities and attributes that have enabled their growth and made past success possible.
3. Unwavering Focus
Focussing on the outcome – the podium – is not enough. Understanding what is within their direct control, managing distractions, bouncing back from major setbacks and dealing with unexpected events are all aspects of what it takes to achieve when others falter.
4. Thrive on Pressure
An athlete needs to be driven, maintain belief and remain focussed, on demand, when it matters, when fatigued and under the most intense pressure. To rise above the rest an athlete knows that pressure is inevitable and is an essential part of achieving extraordinary performance.
5. Deliberately Developmental
Podium level athletes operate with the belief that they are always developing. They possess a desire to learn and an appetite to embrace challenges, persist in the face of adversity, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration from the success of others. It is this deliberately developmental approach that allows the best athletes to continue to unlock untapped potential, reach even higher levels of performance and stay ahead of the competition.
Why does any of this matter outside of the field of elite sport?
Firstly, we know that these same attributes apply to the best performers from any performance arena including the world of work. Secondly we know that mental toughness can be developed. An athlete develops mental toughness through overcoming obstacles and adversity in training and competition. The rest of us develop mental toughness through the times when we overcome adversity and recover from setbacks in our everyday lives.
An athlete has no hesitation in describing what success looks like for them and what they are currently working on to make that success more inevitable. When you think about your life both personal and professional and ask yourself about the things that are taking up your time – how clearly are you able to articulate what you are working towards? What gives your day to day activities meaning and informs the things that you spend your time on? Are you deliberate about what you are working on or are you just going through the motions or following another’s lead?
What is your Gold Medal? How much attention are you paying to it? What are you doing to make sure that your success is inevitable?