We first wrote this article 4 years ago just ago after the London 2012 Olympic games, where Team GB won 29 gold medals, (having won just 1 in 1996) and names like Bolt, Phelps and Rudisha have made peak performance look effortless. With Brazil 2016 just round the corner it is worth having a look at the science of performance again.
The Olympics are special because they demand not only that you produce your best, but that you produce your best right now. In other sport there is always tomorrow, in the Olympics there is only today. So the stakes are the highest in sport, and this means total focus on peak performance (and the journey that leads to it).
So what do the Olympics tell us about the science of performance?
1. Be clear about your goal. Goal theory is perhaps the best known approach in the whole of psychology. There are different goal setting approaches, but focusing on technical mastery in pursuit of goals is the most effective way to build high performance (Nichols, 1990).
2. Understand your performance behaviours and practice them. Peak performance is driven more by how one practices rather than merely that one practices. An expert breaks down the skills that are required into performance behaviours, and then focuses on improving those performance behaviours using coaching or other forms of feedback (Ericsson, Roring, Kiruthiga, 2007). Rather than focus on the crowd, nerves or other distractions, athletes must then learn to bring their attention back to their behaviour. Task focus is the most important factor in peak performance (Gardner and Moore, 2007).
3. Remove the barriers to these behaviours. The performance cycle is about rigorous preparation (practice), competition and then evaluating what’s working and what’s getting in the way of performance. It was Rebecca Adlington’s Mum who reminded us of some of these barriers and the commitment to training Becky showed on bleak winter mornings, when half frozen, she ate her breakfast and dried her hair in the car
4. Embrace the science of marginal gains. Dave Brailsford’s approach to the British cycling team is to look at all aspects of performance and then identify marginal gains in each. This led to tiny adjustments to British kit, for example identifying the right pillow with which to sleep.
5. Performance mindset. Many sports psychologists argue that one must visualise a successful outcome and eliminate negativity. That is one approach. But there is another school of thought which suggests that negative thoughts can never be eliminated and therefore what we need is a way of coping with them more effectively. After all, the Olympics are ultimately far more about failure than they are success – only 5% of the 11,000 athletes actually won a medal in London. Therefore, all Olympic athletes must find a way to commit to their goals in the face of likely failure and a way to endure years of pain in the pursuit of their goals. Research shows that one variable, psychological flexibility, is key (Hayes, Strosahl, Wilson, 2003). This is the ability to persist with or adapt one’s behaviour to move towards goals and values, even in the presence of our doubt and pain.
Nearly every athlete in the Olympics talked about the days of pain and sacrifice that got them there. Something helped them inch forward on the difficult days when the car heater didn’t work. Perhaps psychological flexibility is the greatest lesson we can take from the games because without it, the journey stops before it begins.