It was Tony Robbins who coined the term “Success leaves clues.” As a sports performance psychology consultant + life long fan of athletics (Track & Field) I was glued to watching as many events as possible from the World Championship in London this past August. I also studied athletes post-event interviews to see what clues I could find about their performance mentality. What did the athletes who performed well do and say differently that those who didn’t? Interestingly, I found that much of what they said was inline with the key concepts found in sports psychology research.
Rivals are great for you!
I first read about the benefits of rivalry in the fantastic book Top Dog, by Ashley Merryman. Research shows that athletes you know and are familiar with will spur you to your best effort. Strangers who you don’t know anything about just don’t seem to spark the same level competitiveness. We saw this play out in the Women’s Steeplechase. The newly crowned World Champion Emma Coburn, said in her interviews that that seeing compatriot Courtney Frerichs (who had never before beaten her), beside her on the last lap gave her confidence and the belief to fight for the win, adopting the “if she can do it, I can do it” mentality. And vice versa, Courtney said that she was focusing on trying to stay with Emma and this helped her to stay in contact and stay engaged during the race. They went on to an amazing 1-2 finish for the US, an event that has historically been led by Kenyan athletes.
The US team had record success at this year championships, topping the medal table. Numerous athletes credited fellow US teammates for giving them inspiration to shoot for medals and have great performances. Many said that watching their teammates run well, “raised the bar” and inspired them believe they could as well. It’s not surprising many of the top athletes are from groups with teammates and or coaches that are familiar with performing well on the worlds biggest stage. Courtney Frerichs (mentioned above) said she was inspired by her training partner Amy Hastings bronze medal in the marathon and Evan Jager’s silver medal in the steeplechase, as well as other US teammates performances.
You can’t skip any steps
So many of the finalists and medallists spoke about how they took every round seriously. Even if they were the hot favorites to fight for medals many said they had to treat each round like a final. At the World Championships, there is no guarantee of making a final so you can’t think about it until you’re in it. This is another example of how the “process mindset” is so important — focusing on the process is KEY to getting the outcome you want. One of the top 1500m runners in the world this year, Laura Muir said “that could have been a final” after her semi final. In the women’s 800m, eventual silver medallist Ajee Wilson and her training partner & finalist Charlene Lipsey, both said their coach had specifically directed them to treat every round like a final.
Confident but not overconfident
Obviously the medallists had confidence in their ability and their fitness levels, but not so much confidence that they could take winning medals for granted. Emma Coburn, was an Olympic medallist in the steeplechase last year but she talked about not being guaranteed a spot on the podium (she was the eventual winner!). When asked about when she thought should could win, she said, “halfway through the last lap”. When the men’s 800m winner Pierre-Ambroise Bosse was asked when he thought he’d win, he said, “only with 150m to go”. Women’s marathon champion Rose Chelimo said “I was not expecting to win today, I tried my best and I managed to become the world champion.”
Mental Toughness – Give what you’ve got
Some athletes had it on the day, others didn’t. But the toughest athletes know they gave it 100% and are proud of that. It’s the media that focuses on the medals. Again when British athlete Laura Muir was questioned about finishing fourth and if she had made mistakes, she insisted she gave 100% and she was happy and proud of that. Molly Huddle, American Record holder felt the same way—after picking up a slight injury a few weeks ago, she was off her best, however she gritted it out and finished in the top 10 in the 10k. She then went on to make the final in the 5k after front running her semifinal to keep the pace honest. That’s mental toughness. It’s about always giving your best if you’re feeling good or not.
Embrace the Effort
Finding that spot, where you say “yes” to the physical and mental effort when the going gets tough—and having it pay off—is a key trait of the best athletes. It’s not about where you actually finish, it’s about fully realizing your best performance by welcoming the effort and the difficulty. Amy Cragg, who won her first global bronze medal gave great insight on this topic. She spoke about when she was in 4th position with just over a mile to go, her coach yelled to her, saying if she could stick with the Kenyan athlete in 3rd she would be able out kick her in the last few hundred meters. Amy said she had to make a choice at THAT moment. She was already hurting, and had to dig deep—embracing the discomfort to close the gap on the Kenya athlete and fight all the way to the finish.
Have a race plan, but be flexible and ready for the unexpected
I noticed a lot of athletes mentioned having race plans, but more importantly, those that did well didn’t freak out when things they could never have imagined happen during their race, happened (eg. athlete forgets the jump the water jump, race goes out in snail pace). It’s great to try to predict likely scenarios and what your plan is, but it’s also very important to leave space for the unexpected. This then allows you to more it’s flexible and adapt in the crucial moments to what is actually happening. That’s championship racing!!
You’re only as good as your next race
Sport respects nobody and doesn’t care if you are a legend or not. At this year’s World Championships it didn’t matter If you were an Olympic champion last year—if you weren’t fit and ready to battle again. That’s unfortunate for some of the best athletes- one wrong step, and you’re exposed and beaten. It’s good for people who had disappointment in the past. Good or bad, time moves on. Past performances can only serve you if you learn from them and move on to the next! It’s sort of unfair in a way but very humbling, something that’s good for everyone. Usain Bolt 8x Olympic Gold medallist was beaten in his last major championship. And Matthew Centrowitz the 2016 Olympic Champion finished last in his opening round.
Manage doubt vs. belief
The best athletes in the world have doubts that have to deal with before their performances. Sally Pearson, former Olympic + World champion from Australia made a comeback this year after major injuries and surgeries had derailed her past two years. In interviews after the race she admitted that she “had to balance the doubts with belief “ to come back to win on this stage again.
Let go of what’s not in your control
Many of the journalist interviewing athletes post-events chose to ask them about controversial issues such as hyperandrogenism and suspected doping in certain countries. It makes sense to want to hear what the athletes think about these issues, but it is completely unfair to the athletes being interviewed because the second any athlete admits what it’s like to compete in these situations, they get slated. These athletes are essentially powerless in a situation that directly affects them. However, if you listen closely many athletes interviewed on these topics eg, Laura Muir hyperandrogenism and Emily Sisson on doping suspicions they know it’s out of their control to decide the rules or catch the cheaters (it supposed to be the IAAF + WADA) and instead they refused to comment and choose to focus on what they can control—their personal performances, their progression, their team, their own actions.
Full Disclosure: The athletes I watched closely were in the events I know best or athletes I knew of. I know some people personally and others I just know from a far.
My passion for athletics (track & field ) began by watching major championships events on the BBC + RTE spotting the irish athletes, falling in love with the major International stars. I’d feel real nerves in my stomach during the starts, feel elated for the winners and devastated for the mishaps and drama. Oh it was thrilling—highs and lows and so much in between.
Fast forward a few decades that included a few years of competing in those competitions and since now retiring from the sport back to spectating. I’ve remained a fan despite the negative press and actions of drug cheats that have muddied the sport. I’m still A geek. A runner-nerd. It’s the only sport that I’ll watch on my phone at playdates at the park, or a powwow or schedule my day around. Maybe because it’s one of the few sports where women and men are equals. Or maybe because my friends are competing. Or maybe because I’m now a sports psychology consultant and super interested in the mentality behind performance and feel invested in certain athlete’s performances. Or maybe it’s all of the above.