Winning After Winning:
The Psychology Of Ongoing Excellence
The purpose of this study was to explore the focusing skills and effects of success on athletes who reached the top of the world in their sport. Individual in-depth interviews were conducted with 17 world champion athletes representing 7 different sports and 4 different countries. All athletes, 11 males and 6 females, had won major international competitions (World Cup, World Championships, and Olympic Games) between the years 1964 and 1988. The number of individual World Cup wins ranged from 1 to 86. The results indicate that athletes who became the best in their sport focused in special ways, and experienced many additional demands after winning. Most had little or no assistance in dealing with these demands. Approximately one third of these athletes coped well with the additional demands and continued to win. The remaining two thirds did not handle the additional demands as well and either never repeated their winning performance or took a significant amount of time to do so. Strategies to help prepare future champions to focus appropriately and handle the demands of winning are suggested.
Although winning may be the ultimate goal for high performance athletes, it may also contribute to their biggest stumbling block for future success. There are numerous accounts of athletes who have won “the big one,” never to have won again. Unfortunately, studies related to the effect of success on high-performance athletes are virtually nonexistent. It is ironic that so much attention is placed on the importance of winning while so little is spent on the consequences of winning on the individual.
Following up on Olympic champions, one and two years following the 1984 Olympics, it was noted by Orlick and Partington (1988) that several athletes failed to continue to perform to capacity. As a result of their Olympic achievement they suddenly had to deal with additional distractions which left them with less rest time and more demands. They felt physically and mentally drained when it came time to perform.
A limited number of studies have been done on coping with general competitive demands (Highlen & Bennett, 1979; Mahoney & Avener, 1977; Meyers, Cooke, Cullen, & Liles, 1979; Rotella, Gansneder, Ojala, & Billing, l98O; Scanlan, Stein, & Ravizza, l988) and focusing for peak performances (Privette, 1981; Ravizza, 1977). However, none of these studies dealt with a sample of Olympic or world champions, and none focused specifically on the additional demands placed on winners.
Autobiographies written by high profile people (e.g., athletes, coaches, and musicians) sometimes address the stressful side of success (Chapman & Starkman, 1988; Jackson, 1988; Podborski, 1987; Williams, 1945). Steve Podborski, winner of the overall World Cup downhill title, wrote, “You’ve got to watch the star-trip syndrome. You read in the papers that you’re great, people start telling you you’re great, and you start thinking you’re great. If you start believing it you’re dead meat. You’ve got to separate the media personality from the reality” (1987, p. 113). According to former Canadian National alpine ski team coach, Currie Chapman, in alpine skiing, a sport where top 10 finishers are separated by fractions of a second, their ability to handle pressures often makes the difference between medals and misery. Lucrative endorsements have also meant increased pressure on the athletes. No longer is it just the skier skiing down the mountain, but it’s also a bank, a restaurant chain, or a sports store (Chapman & Starkman, 1988).
In The Catastrophe of Success, author Tennessee Williams relates his sudden rise to fame and fortune with the tremendous critical acclaim of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway:
The sort of life which I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created. I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arm still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last. I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed. (Williams, 1945, p. 15)
Success brings with it different expectations, additional demands, conflicting roles as a public and a private individual, and notoriety, at least for some people. How people deal with these roles and additional demands likely determines the extent to which they experience future success or failure. The purpose of this study was to explore the personal success experiences of high profile athletes who had reached the top in their sport, to examine how they coped with new expectations and demands, and to compare the experiences of those who won and won again, with those who won and then struggled.
In-depth interviews were conducted with 17 elite athletes (11 male, 6 female) who had won at least one major world class competition such as the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup, or Professional Championship. We felt that it was important to interview people who had achieved a “number one” status in the world because the demands placed on “the winner” are often greater than for the second or third place finisher.
Seven sports were represented (alpine skiing, ice hockey, speedskating, bobsled, synchronized swimming, diving and canoeing) and athletes were citizens of four different Western countries (Canada, the United States, Switzerland, and Sweden). The number of individual wins ranged from 1 World Championship or Olympic victory to 86 World Cup wins between the years 1964 and 1988. All athletes continued to compete for at least 1 year after their first major world championship level win.
Athletes were divided into three groups based upon the consistency of their world class performance. Group 1, the Continued-Success Group, continued to win after reaching the top in their sport. Group 2, the Decline-and-Come-Back Group, experienced a performance decline immediately following their first major win and took over a year to reach the top again. Group 3, the Unable-to-Repeat Group, only won big once during their career and were not able to repeat their successful world-class performance.
An elite Athlete Interview Guide was adapted from the Olympic athlete interview schedule used successfully by Orlick and Partington (1988). The open-ended interview questions were designed to elicit detailed qualitative information about each athlete’s initial success experience as well as subsequent experiences and performances. The interview format allowed for the open searching and personal exploration required to explore this topic and increased the likelihood of high profile athletes participating in the study.
One-on-one meetings with each athlete enabled us to gain a high level of cooperation from busy high-profile athletes. It also allowed us to acquire detailed information, ask clarifying questions, and ultimately gain an in-depth understanding of each athlete’s perspective.
Individual interviews were arranged either in person or over the telephone. The researchers knew most of the athletes personally and were able to schedule interviews by contacting the athletes directly. Interviews were normally conducted around competition venues or in the athlete’s home. The actual interview process ranged from 1 hour to 3 hours in length, averaging 1-1/2 hours per person.
Athletes were told that the purpose of this study was to shed light on how success affects world-class athletes. They were asked a series of questions about their personal experiences before, during, and after their first world title. They were encouraged to expand upon their answers, giving as much detail as possible. Sample questions from the Elite Athlete Interview Guide are outlined below.
Think back to your first World Championship win (or other appropriate big win). How were you feeling, and what were you thinking about prior to that race, game, or event? How were you focused during the performance?
After that win did you begin to think about any other goals? If yes, what sorts of goals?
Think back to your very next world class competition (after the big win). How were you feeling, and what were you thinking about before the race, game, or event? How were you focused during the performance?
Did your life change in any way after your first big win? If yes, in what way? Did you experience any additional demands? If yes, what sorts of demands? What was most stressful?
Were you prepared to deal with these additional demands? How did you deal with them? What did you find most effective?
Did you have any assistance in preparing yourself to cope with them?
Do you have any suggestions that might help other athletes who will face a similar situation, to help them better prepare and cope with becoming or remaining a champion?
By utilizing the Elite Athlete Interview Guide, the interviews followed a standardized approach which allowed for both uniformity in the procedure and in-depth exploration of personal experiences. All interviews were tape-recorded in their entirety and later transcribed. Typed transcripts were returned to athletes for their review. In each case, they confirmed that what was recorded and transcribed was an accurate account of their personal views and experiences.
These world champion athletes could vividly and clearly recall minute details of their thoughts, feelings, and focus surrounding these very important events in their lives (first big win, subsequent competition, and felt demands). Their confirmation of the validity and accuracy of their own transcripts indicates that this is how they perceived their experiences at these events.
A collaborative approach was used for data analysis. First, a list of each athlete’s responses for each question was extracted from the interview transcripts. This list of responses was then read and reread in order to establish common groupings of responses for each major question.
The two researchers discussed each common grouping of responses and supporting quotes until there was agreement that the verbatim quotes within common groupings warranted a certain category name and description. This was a straightforward task and both researchers readily agreed upon category descriptions. This process was facilitated by the fact that both researchers were experienced with high performance sport and qualitative analysis of interview data. Once common categories had been clearly defined with sample quotes, it was possible for two evaluators to independently categorize responses with complete agreement.
Results and Discussion
The results are presented in eight sections. First, thoughts, feelings, and focus experienced by these athletes prior to the start of their first championship win is presented. This is followed by a discussion of their focus within this winning performance, and their subsequent goals. A discussion of their focus in their next competition (after the big win) is then presented for three separate groups of athletes based upon the level of the subsequent performance. This is followed by a discussion of how winning changed their lives, how they experienced increased demands, and how it effected their level of performance. Finally, recommendations are presented to help athletes cope successfully with the additional demands of winning.
The results are based upon qualitative analysis of interview transcripts. Supportive interview quotations are presented throughout to illustrate the basis upon which categories were formulated, and to help the reader gain a better understanding of individual athletes’ perspectives.
The Pre-Event Winning Focus
Prior to the start of their first world championship win, all of these athletes carried what was for them a “winning” focus. Their pre-event winning focus fell within one of three categories: (a) Belief Plus Focus on Task, (b) Belief Plus Extra Boost, or (c) More Relaxed Than Usual.
Belief Plus Focus on Task.
Fifty-nine percent of the athletes strongly believed that they could perform at the top level in this competition, and totally focused their pre-event preparation on how they were going to carry out their task effectively. In short, they were very positive and confident in their abilities and were focused only on what they had to do to perform well. Part of their preparation included imagining themselves perform at an optimal level in this competition.
I was not concerned about what was going on around me [as in previous Competitions]. We were so focused on what we were doing. We had been training with the mind-set of being number one and believed we could do it. Our training was a lot more intense, focused, and goal specific [than previous years]. I did a lot of mental rehearsal, and we really applied it there. We practiced for distractions. Competition simulation was a big part of our training.
I was enjoying myself and changed my attitude to a positive one. I wanted to do it. I said, I’m doing it for myself now. Nobody is pushing me to do this. I was feeling confident with myself and that I belonged among the world elite. I never put pressure on myself. I was focused on myself, thinking of my performance, really concentrating on what I had to do. I felt a lot more in charge of what I was doing [than previously]. Everything was planned
I think the big thing was my approach, being very aggressive and confident at the starting line, taking it early, and just holding on. I knew exactly what I had to do. I knew I was prepared. I was feeling good and I knew I could win.
I knew within myself I was going to do exactly what I did. I never did anything, ever, to jeopardize my performance. There’s no other way than to be totally focused. I knew I was going to do it. I always imagined what I was going to do.
Two days before, I came in second [in another event ]. That gave me a lot of confidence. I was all pumped up. I prepared for the race by concentrating on the course, staying calm and not worrying about who I was going to beat.
We had really good fall training without a lot of pressure. I knew I could win. The way I do my focusing actually starts the night before. When I was preparing my equipment I’d be thinking about different parts of the course, mentally rehearsing the course in detail, imagining what I would do if this happened in this turn. In the morning I ran over the course twice in my mind.
When I got to the Olympics, one thing that was running through my mind at the start was, don’t get to the bottom and wish you had a second chance. The day before the race I was really confident. I wouldn’t say I was relaxed before the start, but I wasn’t nervous. I knew I was good enough, that if I put everything together, I could win. But I wasn’t really thinking that. I was thinking about how I would put it all together.
Belief Plus Extra Boost.
Eighteen percent of the athletes felt their success that day was related to a strong belief in their ability plus a little added incentive in that competition, such as the excitement of competing in a big event, discovering a new advantage, or competing at home. Their pre-event winning focus centered primarily on feeling keen and confident. They were task focused in the event, but tended not to discuss their pre-event task focus as much as the previous group.
I was in the first [top] group and knew I could do well. I had never really seriously aspired to win one. It was just that day that gave me the added kick. If I didn’t win, it wouldn’t have been a failure, yet in my own mind I said I’ve got to win this. I felt the duty to fill in the gap and be a winner. I had the security of knowing I didn’t have to win, and yet if I could win, it would kind of save the day. There wasn’t the pressure but an added motivation.
The day before, I had just missed out on being on the podium. The next day I’d been going well in training, and our coach set the race course. I had that added confidence, like there were not going to be any surprises. I even said, I’m going to win today. It was so clear in my mind, that today was going to be a good day. I felt strong and upbeat about being there [in that country ]. I felt very, very confident.
I was in this new position trying to prove something: first seed. There was some pressure to prove that I belonged there. Warming up, everything was flowing nicely together, things were clicking. I was feeling good and very confident about my skills. Plus I had this great new wax. I knew I had a bit of a boost.
More ReIaxed Than Usual
Twenty-three percent of the respondents felt their first world-class win was facilitated by being more relaxed than they had been in previous competitions. They either didn’t expect to win or were able to shift their focus away from winning in this particular competition.
I was more relaxed because I didn’t think I could win this race. I just focused and went. I was relaxed and didn’t make any mistakes.I had been training really well. It got to a point where I just said, it really isn’t that important how well I do. I was a lot more relaxed. I was fifth and forth in the races just before
The coach took me aside the night before to tell me to relax and not to be so hard on myself. I remember being really aware of everything, really sharp and alert. I planned to just do my best in that race.
Within-Event Winning Focus
The athletes were asked how they were focused during their first world title performance. All of them said they were connected to their performance to the exclusion of external distractors. Their within-event winning focus fell into one of the following two categories: Autopilot Connection or Attacking Connection.
Eighty-two percent of the athletes indicated that they were on “autopilot” during this performance. They were in a totally connected automatic state, and didn’t have to consciously think about what they were doing. Most athletes were able to describe how they were feeling in this autopilot state, but some had no recollection of specific thoughts or feelings, other than having been totally connected.
I really fuzzed out the audience and focused in during the performance. The routine goes by so fast. You know exactly what you have to do. It’s so automatic. When it’s right on, you can really feel it.
Everything was natural and by instinct. I remember feeling light. When I feel light on my feet like a cat, with quick reflexes, I know I’m in my own game.
I just let it go, and everything flowed. I felt very aware of everything, like my body was just taking over and skiing really fast
Usually I have an intense concentration when I am on the course. Here I said, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just get in the course and try not to think about it too much. I knew what I wanted to do but I was just doing it. It was right on at that point. I could do anything.
This feels so good. I was so caught up in how it felt. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. Everything was easy and fun and automatic.
I was totally into this performance. I was really focused on getting off the starting line well, then getting into a good stroke that was really powerful but also very light, really feeling the rhythm of my strokes and feeling the boat move well underneath me.
I don’t remember what I was thinking about going down the hill. In races where I did really well, I don’t remember anything. I’m just like in another world, just skiing. I don’t have to think about my body position, about my skiing, or about the course. When I ski really well, everything comes automatically.
Eighteen percent of the athletes felt they were in an attacking mode during this performance. They were connected to their performance but also focused on getting the most out of each move.
I felt really strong and attacked from one gate to another to the finish. I had a good feeling and was very focused on the course.
The way I went down the hill was just very, very aggressive.. just determination.. not really thinking about skiing that much, it was just get to the bottom as fast as you can.
I had never been in a race before where I thought, give it a little more at each gate. I didn’t feel the pressure. I thought, just give it more all the way down. I thought of looking ahead but nothing technical.
All but one athlete set subsequent goals after winning his or her first world championship. For some, their subsequent goal was to do their best; for others, it was to defend their position, to prove that they belonged at the top, or to have consecutive wins.
After I won my first medal I wanted to be the first person to win three medals in the same Olympics.
We had to prove we were the right pair together.
My first goal was to defend, which we did. I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn’t a fluke.
My goal was always to give my best.
I set new goals to have more wins.
Focus in Next Competition
The following section of the results is presented separately for three distinct groups, based upon consistency of top world-class performance. The Continued-Success Group was comprised of seven athletes who continued to win after they made it to the top of the world in their sport. The number of wins at the World Cup/World Championship level for individuals in this group ranged from 3 to 86. The Decline-and-Come-Back Group consisted of six athletes who had a performance decline immediately after their World Championship or equivalent win, and took at least a year to win again at that level. The Unable-to-Repeat Group was comprised of four athletes who continued to compete after their win, but never performed at that level again.
There were no group differences evident among these groups of athletes with respect to the focus they carried in their first world championship win, nor were there differences in regards to subsequent performance goals set. However, there were major differences with respect to manner in which they focused in subsequent competitions.
All athletes were asked how they were focused at the competition immediately following their first major win. Athletes in the Continued-Success group entered the next competition with the same focus they had carried during their previous win. They were very confident in their ability to win again, and were totally focused on doing their job. They were able to connect or reconnect in a way that allowed them to perform on “autopilot.”
I had the same focus in my next competition. I was very confident from doing well in the previous competition and was relaxed because I had already done well. I went on to win everything that year. My confidence was very high.
I had a head cold and couldn’t train. I just did a lot of mental imagery and stayed positive instead of thinking I’m not ready. We won. I always did better when I focused on doing my best and not on the results.
I won 6 or 7 World Cup races that season. I was nervous before almost every race. To deal with it I came late to the start or did something to keep busy so I didn’t think too much. The focus within the race was the same as the first win.
The focus of athletes in the Decline-and-Come-Back Group and the Unable-to-Repeat Group, (none of whom won their next competitions) was very much oriented towards results, rather than the process of performing. Their focus fell into one of four subcategories: focus on outcome, focus on high expectations, not clear minded, or trying too hard. Twenty-one percent of these athletes said that they were focused on the outcome instead of connecting to their performance, twenty-one percent were focused on their own high expectations or others’ expectations for them to win again. Twenty-one percent felt they were just not as clear minded in this competition, and 11% felt they tried too hard and consequently performed worse.
I was definitely more nervous in the next race. I knew there was a whole bunch of focus on me. My focus was on the outcome, trying to prove something rather than performing well, which had been the focus the first time around.
I was expecting too much of myself. I was creating pressure. I was saying, I have to win this competition. I was thinking a lot about the other people instead of what I have to do. I was thinking a lot about the outcome. That creates a problem.
The next race I did really poorly. The focus wasn’t the same as the win. In a good race my mind is really clear. In poorer races I seem to be concerned about everything around me. Everything kind of bugged me a little bit and I wasn’t clear headed.
Right after the win there was a lot more attention on me and people really expected I could win again. I had not gotten over the win yet. I remember it just not being as clear. My attitude the competition before was that it didn’t matter and I was trying to get that same attitude, but it seemed like it did matter a lot more.
I know I didn’t feel as confident. I knew the expectation was there, from others and myself. Maybe I started to second-guess myself. During the race I don’t remember it being as much fun. It was harder work
Only athletes in the Continued-Success Group were able to effectively refocus away from expectations and results and to continue to focus on “the doing.” None of the other athletes were able to do this as effectively for their next competition. They allowed themselves to alter at least some positive aspects of their winning focus.
When asked how their lives had changed after their first big win and whether they faced additional demands as a result of winning, all athletes said that they experienced increased demands and heightened expectations. There was more pressure to deal with, it was more difficult to find time for rest and quality training, and they suffered from a sparsity of free time. Everyone seemed to want a piece of their time – the media, the public, and sponsors. There were times when some athletes felt it was impossible to find time to relax. The increased demands and expectations were difficult to handle for many athletes and distracted them from staying focused on their sport in the same way as they had before.
The single most stressful demand faced by most of these athletes after winning (and one which they all faced to some extent) was felt expectations. Some of these expectations were unrealistic (e.g., that they must always win). Fifty percent said this demand was most stressful. Thirty-six percent ranked the media and public appearances as the most stressful demand, especially in that it meant taking time away from training or rest. The remaining 14% of the athletes felt that treatment by others or sponsors resulted in the most stressful demand.
Training and Rest.
For 67% of the athletes, rest time and/or training time was adversely affected by the additional demands. There were more demands placed on these athletes who already had very full and demanding schedules, therefore less time was available for training or rest. Thirty-three percent of the athletes felt their rest time was affected the most and 33% felt their training suffered the most. Another 33% said that training and rest were not really affected because they were able to say no to demands, set priorities, or the additional demands were not highly demanding (i.e., the athletes participated in lower profile sports). Athletes had to work out ways to deal effectively with additional demands in order to continue to perform at a high level.
The highest percentage of athletes who were able to maintain normal training and rest were from the Continued-Success Group (71%). Only one athlete from the other two groups maintained normal training and rest.
It’s harder to find time to plan your training programs, to have all the free time you want. Before I won, that’s all I had to do [train and rest]. I would arrange my own schedule. Now I have to make my training schedule according to those [additional] demands, and that’s hard. The problem was sometimes I didn’t know whether I should train or rest.
The demands definitely affected training. That’s one of the hardest things to cope with. You need somebody to say no when everyone is asking you to do things.
Neither is a problem if you set priorities. You must first take care of your training, and then you can deal with the other obligations like the media and the promotional demands.
Our sport wasn’t like other sports in that there were not great demands for us to do things, so we were able to get enough training and rest. Our coach was also very structured with our time.
Finding time for training was not a big problem because it was always well arranged by the coaches from the beginning. There was not always enough rest time.
Rest was the hardest thing because you were more busy.
I used to have more time at home and I could be more relaxed. When you want to remain a top athlete, you have to say no to many things. You have to relax, and you have to train to build up your strength.
About a month after I won the Olympics I was wishing I hadn’t won, because there were all these demands. I made the decision to focus on my sport instead of going on the social, media, and money-making tour which I don’t regret.
Sponsors did create additional demands for athletes in high profile sports but they also created opportunities for financial gain. Weighing up the costs and benefits, most athletes felt that the sponsorship demands were not unreasonable. Some of these athletes felt their sponsors understood their need to train better than others. Others felt it was easier to say no to their sponsors because their sponsors worked for them. Finally, most athletes said they did not mind these obligations because they benefited from them financially.
The sponsors were better than everyone else. They would understand that I had to train.
With sponsors I always felt they owed me because I wasn’t paid by them. Promotional obligations benefited me financially, so I wanted to do them, but it meant choosing a quiet time of the year.
I’ve been looking for more promotional opportunities and more financial gain, but when you get those kinds of things you have to put the time in as well.
During their interviews a limited number of athletes made unsolicited comments relating to fans and personal relationships during their rise to the top. Fans were generally considered as one more of the multiple demands the athletes already face. Some felt obligated to give them their time, while others did not know how to say no to them.
Fans are like media. You can’t deny them the opportunity to come in contact with someone they’ve been following, but they are a pain.
Little kids and grown-ups would ask me for my autograph all of a sudden. I didn’t know how to say no. I would get swamped. I finally had enough, and I just put my head down and started to cry.
My little experience with semistardom has given me an insight into movie stars because you see that they are normal people behind that, yet if you believe all the press, they’re like this unattainable person. I almost feel sorry for fans because they’re looking at this package that’s not real.
I usually took the time for fans. Some of them were real clingers. I think generally they were an unnecessary pain.
Fans can be an advantage when you realize the effect you can have on them as a role model, especially in your home town.
Personal relationships were said to have changed as a result of their success. In some cases they posed an additional distraction, in others they served to help athletes keep things in perspective.
Treatment by others is one of the hardest things. It’s very subtle. Your friends put you on a pedestal. It’s really hard to get back to the relationship you had before you won.
I found it really hard when people put you on a pedestal. You can’t really relate to your old friends, and you’re in a situation where everybody is coming around you for all the wrong reasons. You don’t want to have a fan for a friend.
Relationships were a demand. I had trouble, and it seems all the women on the team were the same, having boyfriends who couldn’t understand, when you were home, why you didn’t want to spend every waking minute with them. I found I always performed better when I was single, when I could be selfish. Relationships were one more distraction.
You get reality when you are married, and you come home and the kids are crying. That was the best thing that ever happened to me.
The family was always supporting me. They understood everything. They were very good. They helped put things in perspective.
Dealing With Demands
Few of the athletes in this study had any real assistance in learning to deal with the additional demands effectively. Occasionally an agent would book their time in a reasonable way, a coach would help keep the media away, or they would talk with a trusted person, but that was the extent of the help. None of these athletes had prepared themselves in advance to deal with these demands and they had no idea that winning would result in so many additional demands. For some, the demands came instantly, whereas for others they came gradually, which made the upward transition easier to handle. Those who handled the external demands well approached the demands with a positive attitude, maintained control over the extent and timing of the demands, and accepted that a certain number of demands came with the territory. Some specific perspectives and strategies that helped athletes cope successfully included the following:
Living up to others’ expectations was one of the harder demands. I think the ones who become and remain champions are the ones who live up to their own expectations and not to others’, what’s important to them and not to everybody else.
The important thing with public appearances is timing. You have to keep your priorities. If you have time and want to do them, that’s fine, but you have to be able to say no too.
If you have a good system for dealing with public appearances, someone else can say no for you. Agents can be good as a buffer zone.
Dealing with the media comes with the territory. We have the media there every single day, every practice, every road trip. If you don’t learn to handle the media, you’re going to have a hard time your whole career.
I found that you weren’t going to get away from them [the media], and it’s better to have good press than bad press and a lot more of a hassle to block them out than to deal with them quickly and pleasantly. I gave them what they wanted, simple answers.
I would get 25 calls a day. To me you’re supposed to get those calls. That’s why you trained the hardest. Now the key is to pick the right ones. When I was competing [in season] I never did many appearances. You want to do the ones with the right company and something that appeals to you.
It was a demand in that it took away from training time, and it was sometimes hard to organize your dryland training around them. It wasn’t stressful on me in the beginning because I liked it and the attention. Later on I found them very exhausting. I was swarmed with people. You have to put a system in place to deal with demands or you will be swamped.
Maintaining Level of Performance
Those athletes who reached the top in their field and stayed there, the Continued-Success Group, were asked how they were able to maintain that high level of performance in subsequent competitions. The responses varied from person to person, but all revolved around a mental component which included having a game plan, staying focused on the task, keeping things in perspective, enjoying the sport and new challenges, and maintaining good physical conditioning together with a positive outlook.
Just keeping on the same sort of game plan, taking it step by step, keeping that focus to where you are going.
I tried to learn from my mistakes and tried to do it better the next time, and to always stay focused on the task and not the results and the “what ifs.” I learned to stay in the present, in the here and now. I think my family had an influence. You work on the little things and the big things take care of themselves.
One of the reasons why I sustained winning over three or four years was because it came bit by bit, and inside my own family I wasn’t allowed to get a swelled head. Every time I came home I was handed the dish towel. Everything was planned. I knew a lot more about where I wanted to go [than my competitors]. I didn’t need as much practice and to risk getting hurt. I could see my moves so much in my head that I didn’t need to be there [physically practicing] all the time. I was very confident.
I was able to stay at the top because I enjoyed the sport so much. I like new challenges.
One reason was physical conditioning. I was in the top 1 % of professional athletes in my sport every year [with respect to physical conditioning]. I watched what I poured down my throat, and mentally you couldn’t wear me down.
You have to enjoy it, to be fanatical about it, and to “see” your goals.
Athletes from the Decline-and-Come-Back Group, who took more than a year to win again, were asked about how they were able to win again after having some disappointing results.
I attribute winning again to the refocusing, regrouping, working on the
physical, getting the “touch” back, and time on the test track. It was the refocusing that made the difference. I knew how to handle the demands then.
I learned to decide for myself which demands were important and to ask people to modify their demands.
Now I know what works for me. I am better at seeing myself win. There was a time when I had a good result and was happy, but then I didn’t really concentrate in the next race. Then I realized that I have to continually work hard on myself and with my concentration to have good results over the whole year.
After I wasn’t doing as well for a while, I wasn’t exposed to as many distractions and demands. I focused a lot more on my sport and therefore started to enjoy it a lot more. I really got into it and felt good about what I was doing. I did a few things to improve my fitness and also improved my mental commitment to the sport. That’s when I started to win again.
I fixed a problem I was having, and again it was the feeling of wanting to win on home ground. I didn’t feel the pressure; it was excitement. I ran the tape through my head so many times.
All the athletes felt that in order to remain successful and cope effectively with the additional demands of winning, there are a number of key factors that need to be in place. These include enjoying what you are doing, remembering where you came from, and keeping it all in perspective. Some specific suggestions included the following: know why you win, why you lose, and work hard towards your goals; believe in yourself, think positively, and stay on a track that has worked; be well rested physically and mentally; avoid accepting the pressure of other people’s expectations; create new challenges and let the politics of sport pass by; work on the feeling aspect of your sport, be mentally prepared, and keep the desire sharp; know what is important and what isn’t; and perhaps most importantly, create a system for dealing effectively with the demands.
Set a goal, then focus on what you have to do to get there, not the end result. I think you have to keep it in perspective. For me it’s answering why am I doing this. The answer is because I love the sport. You have to let the garbage pass by, like the politics.
I think the most important thing is the feeling and the psychology. When it didn’t go so well, I didn’t have the right feeling. I tried too hard to force it.
You certainly have to remain positive. You have to put out of your mind the negative aspect of how much you have to gain or how much you have to lose. You’ve got to enjoy being there. Whatever you do in life, go for it and try to make a contribution, try to make a difference.
The most important thing in sport is knowing why you lose and why you win. Then it is possible to have good results again. You must work hard to keep winning. When you think you are the best, then you lose. You cannot teach someone to win. You must know the way and work hard. It helps to have a strong system in place.
I have always thought that everything is based on confidence. You have to believe. Look at why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what your goals are. It’s how you train in the summer and what you think about when you are training. It’s being positive and always believing you can do something well.
If I could do it over again, I would not train as much as I did. I whipped myself too hard. Just remember what you did before you got there.
People who have been through the system should make suggestions back to the sport, and the sport governing bodies need to be open to these suggestions.
Keep it all in perspective. Sure it’s important but it’s not everything in life. Be accepting of yourself whether you win or lose. Keep in touch with other people outside of sport. Remember the basics. Remember all the stages you went through to get there. Once you are there, doesn’t mean you can coast. You’ve got to set new goals and create new challenges, so you can still stay interested and not become blasé.
Don’t feel you’re doing it for everybody else. I really tried not to feel the pressure of other people’s expectations. If I start thinking about what everybody is thinking about me there’s no way I can make it. I just tell myself, I know I’m OK, I believe in what I’m doing.
Stay focused. Stay on track. I was a firm believer in cycles and building on a cycle. Be mentally and physically rested for competition. I felt I had to reinvent the wheel, that I didn’t have people guiding me with this. I think it comes down to the support system.
As long as I have the will to want to win, then I think that will come out of me. Sometimes you’re just going along with the game and not really carrying enough will to win.
There has to be more to why you compete than just getting good results. You have to enjoy it but sometimes I forget that.
Appreciate what you’ve got rather than what you’re going to get. Then it would be less of a job and more something you completely enjoy. Remember you are doing it because you love it, not because you have to. To be the greatest you have to keep it in perspective and to think back to your roots.
Surround yourself with good professional people who are looking after your interests. Before I won, it probably would have been helpful to have all this in place. After you win, then everyone wants a piece of you and you don’t know who to turn to.
Know what is important and what isn’t important, and create systems for yourself and for people around you to support what is important.
Successfully Overcoming Demands
Performers who face demands similar to the athletes in this study will have a better chance of continuing to perform well and enjoy life more after winning, if they respect the following guidelines
- Stay in control of your life: (a) Set priorities for your time and activities, (b) take care of your own needs and the needs of your loved ones first (e.g., needs for rest, relaxation, proper nutrition, physical activity, and simple joys); and (c) keep things in perspective.
- Set a plan for dealing with demands: (a) Expect additional demands and create a system for dealing with them; (b) decide how many demands you can reasonably handle at different times of the year; (c) establish times when you are not available for any external demands and stick to it; (d) approach demands that you want to accept as opportunities and set a reasonable time limit for them; (e) find a trusted person to act as a screen or buffer to take calls, deal with arrangements, book appropriate times, say “no”, to unwanted demands, and set a limit on appropriate demands; and (f) accept a reasonable number of demands that are important for you, and let the others go.
- Respect the patterns that allowed you to excel: (a) Remember the basics about how you got there; and (b) reflect on what allows you to excel (e.g., hard work, adequate rest, staying positive, believing in yourself, accepting new challenges, being well prepared mentally and physically, and enjoying what you are doing).
- Plan strategies for dealing with distractions: (a) Focus on what you want and on what you can control; (b) let the demands you have faced help prepare you for the demands you will face; and (c) draw from the wisdom of others in planning your path (e.g., other athletes, relevant readings, mental training consultants).
It is clear from this study that high levels of success create additional demands for high performance athletes. This can lead to a decline in performance unless athletes learn to control two major areas: the felt expectations from themselves and others, and outside external demands (e.g., media, public appearances, sponsors). If athletes do not gain a degree of positive personal control over these areas, something will suffer- the quality of their training, their rest, their focus, and ultimately, their performance.
As a result of their success, all of these world champion athletes felt an increase in demands. How they handled the demands greatly influenced their subsequent level of performance. Those athletes who put in place a system for effectively dealing with the demands continued to excel. They were able to stay focused and/or relaxed under pressure and to maintain a normal rest and training schedule. Athletes who took over a year to win again, and athletes who never won again, let their training, rest, and/or competition focus suffer as a result of the increase in demands. In some cases this loss of best performance focus was temporary; in other cases it was permanent.
Our ongoing work with world class performers, along with the first author’s personal experience as an Olympic champion, indicates that when athletes speak about feeling the pressures of expectations, what they are really saying is that they are becoming outcome oriented as opposed to process oriented. Athletes who become overly concerned with results, others’ expectations, or what the media is saying, tend to be distracted away from their best performance focus and consequently perform below their capacity. Expectations in themselves are not necessarily negative, but they have a negative consequence if they interfere with one’s best performance focus.
For most athletes in this study the winning focus consisted of having a strong belief in their ability to win and a total focus on the task. This “best focus” is supported by previous research with high performance athletes (Orlick, 1990, 1992; Orlick & Partington, 1986, 1988). Athletes who continued to win continued to carry this same winning focus, even in the face of distractions and others’ expectations. Athletes who underwent a performance decline generally entered subsequent competitions focused on outcomes or the expectations of others.
The major difference between athletes who reached the top and those who were able to stay at the top was the extent to which they were able to maintain their best performance focus in subsequent competitions. Athletes who continued to win at the highest levels were able to handle the demands and to focus effectively. Athletes who fell short of their goals got caught up in the distractions and altered their performance focus.
This study highlights the importance or athletes being mentally prepared not only to win, but also to deal with the aftereffects of success. Winning the world’s most prestigious sporting event, or becoming the best in any field, increases exposure, expectations, and demands on one’s time. This can be positive in that athletes reach a long-term dream goal and are in a position to reap some benefits. It can also be negative in that the expectations and demands can easily pull an athlete’s focus away from what has allowed him or her to become exceptional.
Exceptional athletes who are on a path to becoming the best should become aware of what to expect at the top. Knowing what to expect and planning for that eventuality can help in dealing with changing realities.
If an athlete is the best in the world on one day, clearly he or she has the physical and technical skills to be the best, or at least within striking distance, the next week or month. Athletes can avoid experiencing major performance declines after big wins if they know what to expect and have a well thought-out plan to deal effectively with changing expectations. Effective preparation for the aftermath of winning includes planning to continue to respect needs for quality training, quality rest, and personal space. It also means having a plan and commitment to carry one’s best performance focus into subsequent competitions
Setting priorities based on personal needs and preparing to avoid, minimize, or refocus in the face of a variety of distractions are critical steps for athletes in order to stay in control of their life and performance at the top. Mental training consultants, coaches, and former athletes can play an important role in this regard.
In summary, future champions can better prepare themselves to cope with the additional demands which accompany winning by becoming more aware of what the demands are, by drawing upon coping techniques that have previously worked well for them, by talking with other top athletes who have faced these demands, and by working with well-trained mental training consultants who have experience with this transitional process.