The super humans – what is the recipe?

Developing shot

The nursery rhyme says little boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dogs tails and little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. When those little boys and girls grow up and become athletes are they still made of such niceties or has their upbringing, coaching and training made the recipe somewhat more complex? According to research recently published in The Journal of Expertise there are not only a huge number of ingredients that separate these elite athletes from the rest of us but a few more which separate the elites from the super-elites, those who are winning gold medals on world stages.

The super-elite of any section of society are always fascinating. Super-elite athletes, especially Olympians have an additional appeal as we so often watch their exploits on the world stage. Not only are they performing at levels most of us could never imagine, but they do so under the spotlight; millions of people around the globe watching and their only chance to get that medal occurring once every four years. The Great British Medallist’s study was commissioned by UK Sport, with the aim of understanding what it takes to create multiple medal winners. The number of gold medal winning athletes is so small that it is rare for sport psychology studies to be able to delve into their histories in significant depth so this study is pretty unique. This Pattern Recognition Analysis paper is the third paper to be released from the study and makes interesting reading for anyone interested in high level performance and talent identification in any context.

The study analysed the developmental biographies of 16 super-elite athletes (Olympic and World Champions) against 16 elites (competing internationally but did not win a medal). This second group are still pretty handy in their sport, they may well be the best in the country in what they do, but they are not bringing home the bling. The biographies were developed from interviews with the 32 athletes, their coaches and their parents with a goal to identify patterns in their development. The average length of athlete interview was nearly four hours (3:54), significant media research took place before each interview, training logs spanning a year were investigated and the questions took over a year to develop so the process feels robust and the findings seem fascinating.

So what elevates the super-elites from elites?

The first element, noted in previous research and often linked to the concept of post-traumatic growth, is that the super-elites have usually had an early critical negative life experience (something like their parent’s divorcing) and significant performance setbacks along the way. The authors suggest that their sport becomes a compensatory activity; a coping mechanism for their pain.

Lots of studies have looked to see the characteristics and traits which are strong in elites. Interestingly as a practicing psychologist I find that perfectionism is trait that many elites have, but often in a way that causes them negative outcomes. Here these super-elites were found to be high in it but must have found coping mechanisms to overcome the barriers that those not winning medals have been unable to knock down. Other traits found included obsessiveness and ruthlessness – both which will help them achieve the exceptionally high goals their perfectionism sets but may come at the expense of other things in their lives, highlighted by the finding that they perceive sport as more important that anything else in their lives. These traits are joined by an intense perseverance with the study finding that the super elites continue to improve over more years, not getting their first gold medal until they’ve been doing sport for 21 years (plus or minus 6 years).

Backing all of this is the support of others. It is key to performing at the highest levels. This study finds that having a coach who doesn’t just understand the athlete’s physical needs but also their psycho-social ones is key. And this support can come from parents too. The super-elite athletes are not just getting their parent’s genes, they are getting their influence in where they grow up. The super-elites tend to be born and grow up in places with smaller population sizes (70,205 for super-elites and 170,372 for elites). The authors suggest these smaller locations offer more supportive social relationships and informal physical play but perhaps with fewer specialist teams or facilities it also means they have to wait to specialise in their sport, a further (surprising) discriminator.

Finally, and this is an element which makes my heart sing as a sports psych, is that while of course the super-elite want to win, they also have a mastery mindset. They want to ‘be the best one can be’ and that is something they have much more control over. And control helps us perform under pressure.

At an individual level there is little we can do with the study – I’m not about to divorce my husband and move to a much smaller town in order to boost my daughter’s chances of Olympic success (actually she is only 2 and unless scooting is being introduced for the 2036 Olympics we are being pretty premature) but at a governing body level it could have a major impact for talent identification and funding.

The full paper can be downloaded at: https://repository.cardiffmet.ac.uk/handle/10369/10332

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