The role "character" plays in athletic excellence:
A look at elite athletes and their coaches.
Copyright, L.J. Maile, Ph.D.
A great deal of discussion and research has gone into answering the question, "What makes a great athlete great?" While the focus of many investigations has been into the physical characteristics that distinguish the highest level competitor, a significant portion have considered the psychological and situational factors that differentiate those who play and those who play and win.
In some ways, research into anatomical variables and physiological differences is of less important to the athlete just starting their career. We all possess some inherent physical gifts and limitations. Finding out that others may potentially have greater abilities does little to further our own ambitions or to improve the performance of any given individual. Most athletes, while very serious about maximizing performance aren't able to assimilate the most technical of analyses with regard to physiological factors. By the same token, most just want to improve, enjoy their experiences in sport, and to make progress over time. To this end, an analysis of those things that distinguish the very accomplished from those who are less successful may be helpful.
Perhaps the first question though, is a "chicken or egg" type question. Are elite athletes successful because of who they are (a question going to less fluid aspects of personality) or do they learn to be successful? Unfortunately, the answer is both, at least if one considers the athlete in present terms. If you look at elite or successful athletes today, they tend to possess more of attributes that are associated with successful athletic performance. The research, however, when looked at with a long term or lifetime perspective strongly suggests that the desired attributes are learned or adopted over an extended period of time. While this may start with parental attitudes and early experiences in sport, longitudinal inquiries of athletes who are "adopted" into sophisticated training groups or systems suggests that a winning attitude can be learned later in an athlete's career.
But what are the non-physical attributes of successful athletes? Gould, et al identified several that would be expected in those who are successful in any field: 1) high motivation and commitment; 2) an optimistic and positive perspective; 3) a positive perfectionism; 4) strong ability to focus; and 5) high stress tolerance and capacity to cope with adversity. They also identified a factor previously undescribed which may prove to be very important in developing elite athletic skills: a high degree of sport intelligence. These factors will be described in brief.
High motivation and commitment is to be expected in an individual who spends many years developing the skills necessary to compete at a high level. What was remarkable among the athletes Gould and his collegues studied, multi-time Olympians, was the persistence that they displayed consistently over many years. Each of these athletes had participated in at least two Olympic Games and had adapted and sought improvements from early in their careers until their retirement from active competition. The Sports Institute of Northern Ireland determined that among developing rugby players, those who ultimately were more successful were willing to sacrifice future earnings and career opportunities to pursue their aspirations in sport.
Optimism is seen in athletes who are able to "move on" in the face of disappointment or losses. Rather than becoming disenchanted when performance was not optimal, the athletes in Gould's study focused on the positive aspects of performance and achieving top form.
Multi-time Olympians displayed positive perfectionism. While they set high (and sometimes unattainable) standards for themselves, they tended not to be overly concerned by mistakes, nor did mistakes or poor performance increase anxiety or self-doubt. Rather, they maintained a positive outlook on both themselves and their athletic pursuits.
Three characteristics represent different temporal aspects of the ability to concentrate on and pursue a task. Elite athletes have, in the context of athletic competition, the ability to focus on the "game" and ignore distractions. Over the longer term, they cope well with stress and are less affected by adverse life (or other) concerns. They tended to demonstrate a tough mental attitude overall as evidenced by resilience and perseverance over time.
The one variable that was unique to the work of Gould and his associates was sport intelligence. The elite athletes studied showed significant ability to accurately analyze their own performance. They were flexible and adaptable in adopting new strategies, and were better able than others to differentiate information which would potentially benefit them. In short, the more successful athletes were able to distinguish good from bad performance and useful from less useful information. Williams and Krane identified "coachability" as a characteristic of gifted athletes. Taken together, successful athletes who succeed at the highest levels of sport can both analyze their performance and accept guidance and criticism. But what of the role and characteristics of coaches?
Williams and Krane, reviewing a number of others' investigations identified the significant influences on developing athletes. Perhaps primary among these was to coach or mentor. Bloom's three-phase model of elite performance suggests that in the second phase (the precision phase) and the third phase (the elite phase), athletes' success was most associated with a relationship with a master teacher or coach. In the precision phase, the focus was on development of skills, and in the elite phase applying these skills on individual or personal performance. This highlights the need for a coaches or mentors who work with developing athletes beyond the experimentation and recreation period (the early years per Bloom). This underscores the importance coaches must place on evaluating and cultivating the intangible character traits described herein.
The coaching relationship changes over the phases of development, and in fact, a coach in the early years, while less of a taskmaster or skill builder, should foster a sense of fun and experiences of success. As the athlete develops, the focus should change to acquisition of sport specific skills and later to individual support and feedback. Elite athletes have been consistent in identifying their relationship with their coach as a fundamental factor in long-term success. That relationship must be supportive and involve trust. It must also involve encouragement and assistance in focusing on positive. As a consequence, the experience of defeat while disappointing, will not produce disillusionment, disgust, or angry tirades. Rather the well founded coach and athlete will anaylze the experience and use this as a stepping stone for future progress. Coach reactions to unexpected performances may well define the nature and complexion of the future athlete - coach interactions. Those characterized by negativity are less likely to either be associated with athlete success or last over the long run.
A successful coach is one who concentrates on all aspect of performance. These include physical skills and conditioning, as well as mental and psychological strategies. Different athletes need different skills and strategies. Hansen and Gould suggest that many coaches are not adept at assessing the needs of their individual athletes and as a result, are unable to provide what will most benefit the athlete. The coach with the "cookie cutter" approach will fail to connect and nurture many of the competitors they hope to assist.
Successful elite athletes, describing their coaching relationships stress that mutual trust and respect is necessary, and that it must involve concern for the athlete not just in terms of their sport, but also as people.
Coaches must have high expectations of athletes, both in terms of day-to-day work ethic and practicing skills, but in terms of overall performance and long-term development. The assurance that they are in it "for the long run" allows coach and competitor to place less emphasis on mistakes made and more on overcoming them. A coach must be able to read the athlete and provide what is will be most helpful, whether that be in terms of the physical aspects of performance or psychological techniques and support.
Bloom, B.S. (1985). Developing Talent in Young People. New York: Ballantine.
Gould, D, Dieffenbach, K, & Moffett, A. (2001). The Development of Psychological Talent in U.S. Olympic Champions.
Unpublished Grant Report, Sport Science and Technology Division of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Sports Institute of Northern Ireland. (2003). Online Newsletter, October.
Williams, J.M., & Krane, V. (2001). Psychological characteristics of peak performance. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Mountain View, CA, USA: Mayfield.