The Twelve Core Psychological Characteristics of Olympians

Research reveals what makes Olympic champions tick.

Posted Feb 19, 2018

Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.

~ Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph was born in 1940 in Tennessee. Before she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympic game, she was a sickly child. She overcame polio, and even wore a brace on her left leg.  

The Olympics are far more than the glory of sport and athleticism—they are a testament to human potential fulfilled. With every Olympic games, athletes’ stories about what it took to get there never fail to inspire. Consider figure skater Adam Rippon, who just won a bronze medal in the current games. He lived in his coach’s basement and ate more than his fair share of apples courtesy of his gym because he was short on money.  

But what does it take to become an Olympic champion? Given the level of excellence in this most rarefied group, it is a question that fascinates. Thankfully, it is a line of inquiry that has been taken up by Daniel Gould of the University of South Carolina at Greensboro and his collaborators. More specifically, they were interested in the psychological characteristics of Olympic athletes. To that end, they designed a study to reveal just what it takes, psychologically speaking, to become an Olympian.  

So here’s what the investigators did. They recruited 10 U.S. Olympic champions (six men and four women) who participated in open-ended in-depth interviews, as did a parent, guardian, or significant other. The athletes also completed a psychological battery of tests. They were an impressive bunch. Together they won 32 medals— 28 of them gold. 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. And they represented a wide array of sports, including skiing, wrestling, swimming, ice hockey, speed skating, and track and field. The investigators analyzed the interviews and assessment measures, and in the end, found 12 core psychological characteristics shared by these Olympic champions. They are: 

1. The ability to cope with and control anxiety. This includes somatic trait anxiety (i.e., the physical symptoms of anxiety, like butterflies in one’s stomach), worry, concentration disruptions, and overall anxiety. 


2. Confidence. This concerns the extent to which an athlete is confident and positively motivated, consistently gives their all during practices and games, and works assiduously to improve his or her skills.

3. Mental toughness. This pertains to resilience, perseverance, and the ability to successfully cope with adversity. 

4. Sport intelligence This refers to the ability to analyze, being innovative in relation to one's sport technique, being a student of the sport, making sound decisions, understanding how elite sport works, and being a quick study.

5. The ability to focus and block out distractions.  This entails the ability to automatize, to focus on what you can control, and to focus and not be easily distracted. 

6. Competitiveness. This broke down into three themes: having a killer instinct, being intense (e.g., having an aggressive and go for it attitude), and being competitive (e.g., being a fighter and never giving up).  

7. Having a hard-work ethic. Athletes reported being motivated, driven, a hard worker, and having a strong work ethic.

8. The ability to set and achieve goals. These Olympians showed a greater capacity to set and work toward specific performance goals, plan and mentally prepare for games, and has a clear strategy to perform their best. 

9. Coachability. This encompasses whether an athlete is open to and learns from instruction, and accepts constructive criticism without taking it personally and becoming upset.

10. Hopefulness. As it was defined in this study, having hope meant having a signature way of setting, seeking out, and achieving goals. 

11. Optimism. Optimism is a generally stable trait in which people by and large feel that positive things will happen. Optimistic people also confront challenges with confidence and persistence. 

12. Perfectionism. There are two kinds of perfectionism, maladaptive and adaptive, with both types being known for setting high personal standards and exhibiting a strong preference for organization. Yet while maladaptive perfectionism is associated with being overly concerned with making mistakes, being criticized, and self-doubt, adaptive perfectionism—the kind these Olympians possess—is positively linked with achievement.   

References

Daniel Gould, Kristen Dieffenbach, and Aaron Moffett.  Psychological Characteristics and Their Development in Olympic Champions.  September 2002.  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 14(3):172-204

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