Although no exact definition of an “elite performer” exists, this post will attempt to determine the psychological characteristics that may lead to the classification of an athlete as being elite. This will be stepping out of my element somewhat, but its a topic that anyone working with athletes must be familiar with.
The Oxford English dictionary defines the term “elite” as being “a group regarded as superior and favored”, and although many components of sport and exercise exist, “elite” athletes tend to display certain psychological characteristics that facilitate their superior development and subsequent achievement of success. There are many determinants that influence the psychological characteristic of an athlete and the presence and interaction of these may help distinguish what constitutes an elite performer.
Through an examination of current research and theories in personality, motivation, arousal and anxiety, stress and coping, as well as specific skills such as goal setting, imagery, self-talk, arousal regulation, and attention control, I will "attempt" to identify those psychological characteristics belonging to athletes and performers classified as being elite.
No distinct personality profile exists for elite athletes. That is, not all elite athletes share the same personality traits. Some sport performers tend to be competitive and self confident, while others tend to be the complete opposite and more reserved or laid back. This is likely so since personality seems to be composed of several different traits that combine to influence specific behaviors. Regardless, there exist several personality factors that may lead to the development of an elite performer. This is especially so since according to the model of personality by Hollander, personality may be "a function of the psychological core that represents the foundation of an individual’s personality, as well as the role related behaviour that is dictated by the immediate situation at hand and the expectations of how one should behave". For example, while an athlete may be a consistently hard-working individual, he may or may not demonstrate this quality based on his role on a particular team (i.e. captain versus 7th defenseman in hockey). In the latter case, the development of an elite performer seems unlikely. What is clear however, is that the combination of a competitive nature, healthy (adaptive) perfectionism, and mental toughness (allowing athletes to cope with competition demands) may contribute to the development of elite performers. It should be noted though, that caution must be observed as personality should not be used to predict performance. Situational contexts must be respected due to the important interaction between the athlete’s internal and external environments.
Motivational constructs must also be considered as one of the distinguishing psychological characteristics of elite athletes. Looking at motivation, it is evident that motivation is best understood by the interaction of the individual and his/her situational influences. There are many theories that attempt to explain motivation, however, certain factors remain consistent in achieving optimum performance. Athletes with high perceptions of competence and self-control tend to facilitate intrinsic motivation, aka motivation from within. (Attention all hockey parents, I suggest you read that last statement again!) As a result, the confidence in one's abilities tends to develop via the overcoming of obstacles through persistence and positive feedback. This is also further perpetuated when goals are task oriented rather than outcome oriented. That is, goals that focus on a particular skill accomplishment versus the attainment of, for example, a medal (for some, this may be hard to believe but my guess is that more often than not, personal bests are sought). Furthermore, athletes who perceive rewards as being informational and educational, tend to develop an increased competence, self-worth, and self-determination. This positive feedback influences one’s motivational levels and consequently, may facilitate elite performance. Lastly, having a high level of autonomy tends to increase one’s self-determinant motivation, and thus, also potentially contributing to one’s athletic success. Therefore, while intrinsic motivation seems to be the driving force behind sport success, motivation is best conceptualized by the interaction between the intrinsic and extrinsic environments.
ANXIETY AND AROUSAL
Athletes with a high tendency to perceive competitive situations as threatening, likely experience greater levels of "moment dependent" anxiety during game situations. This type and level of anxiety may lead to a predisposition to detrimental performances and therefore may not be evident in elite athletes. You'll likely witness this anxiety trait in "chokers". Regardless, all athletes, despite their level of ability, experience certain situations that increase anxiety.
However, looking specifically at skill levels and experience, higher performers generally report lower levels of "moment dependent" anxiety, lower levels of physiological anxiety symptoms, and view anxiety symptoms to be more facilitative toward their competitive performance. Essentially, athletes who tend to perform better than others generally demonstrate the ability to use their coping skills to manage natural anxiety responses both before and during competition.
Recognizing that athletic performance is a complex behaviour, some researches have described the cusp catastrophe theory: the relationship between competitive anxiety and performance is dependent on an interplay between a spectrum of both cognitive state anxiety/arousal and physiological arousal. According to this theory, enhanced performance is predicted when one variable is balanced by the other and therefore, those athletes displaying this optimum balance tend to perform better than others.
It also seems clear that those athletes who view their anxiety symptoms as necessary for performance tend to display higher performance abilities and success.
STRESS AND COPING
Like anxiety, stress is a commonly discussed topic in sport performance and takes both the internal and external environments into account. Stress can be defined as an experience produced through a person-situation relationship that is perceived as taxing or exceeding the athlete’s resources. Stressors, however, may be regarded as those external situations that can potentially be considered stressful (i.e. an injury, a playoff game). Again, athletic abilities vary greatly across the board and therefore, how an athlete interprets these situations and stressors may influence her ability to perform or become an elite athlete.
First, stress may be derived from various sources such as psychological concerns (competitive nature) , physical concerns (injury) , and social concerns (team sport scenarios). Also, stressors may be distinguished as being chronic (the demands of a season) vs. acute (taking a penalty), expected vs. unexpected (injury), and competitive vs. non-competitive (media). Essentially, all tend to be athlete specific and further, may be sport dependent.
How athletes cope however, may help in identifying characteristics specific to elite athletes. Coping, described as variable efforts aimed toward managing the demands that exceed one’s resources, depends on athletes’ resources and expectations and requires flexibility in order to best match the types of stresses athletes face. As a result, athletes tend to be successful in their coping when the strategy utilized matches the strategy required. Elite performers are therefore, likely better able to recognize and subsequently match the strategy required. Unfortunately, very little evidence suggest that coping is directly related to high-performance. What is known, however, is that those athletes who utilize coping strategies may in fact have higher probabilities of attaining their goals. Thus, having specific resources such as psychological skills of goal setting and mental preparation may facilitate higher success in sport.
Athletes of various abilities utilize psychological skills in their attempts to enhance performance, although the consistent practice of highly structured skills are generally displayed by higher performing athletes. These skills; goal setting, imagery, self-talk, arousal regulation, and attention control are typically more useful in enhancing performance when athletes
Goal setting tends to be the most common form of skill utilized by elite athletes and can be viewed as the practice of establishing desirable objectives for one’s actions. While many athletes regard this skill as being only moderately effective, those that set goals that are specific, measurable, adjustable, realistic, and timely (SMART), tend to improve their performance since their self-confidence and sense of satisfaction both become enhanced.
Athletes also utilize imagery when preparing for competition. By incorporating various senses such as sight, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic to their visualization procedures, and practicing these on a daily basis, their confidence levels in sport tend to improve. As a result, they become better able to regulate their arousal and anxiety levels and likely, channel their energy and focus into peak performance.
The use of self-talk in athletes has also been researched extensively. What has been revealed is that this skill seems generally more advantageous when used in a positive manner (“I can”). In addition, athletes tend to be more successful with this skill when verbalizing their self-talk in an overt manner, that is, making it publicly known. Using self-talk that is perceived as very motivating (i.e. higher intensity) seems to also enhance the effectiveness of this skill in optimizing performance. As with all other skills, the more frequent this skill is used, the more successful the athlete tends to be.
Various techniques have been utilized by athletes to regulate their levels of arousal, especially in those who have learned to identify which mental and emotional states are necessary for success. Depending on the level required, arousal may be regulated via relaxation or by “psyching up”. When athletes recognize personal levels of overarousal, those athletes who seem to achieve higher success tend to be ones who are able to implement breathing and progressive relaxation strategies both prior to and during competition. Breathing techniques generally achieve deep or momentary relaxation while progressive techniques tend to facilitate immediate relaxed states (i.e. just prior to taking a penalty shot). Meditation of the mind and autogenic training of the body are also utilized to achieve deep relaxation, although these generally seem to be most successful in sports that utilize gross motor movements (i.e. running).
Also, levels of arousal often need to be increased when faced with high performance in sporting events. Generally, techniques employed to increase arousal are often used by elite athletes who recognize that they are in an underaroused state and need to psych themselves up. Such methods used by athletes, as well as coaches, include; pep talks, bulletin board postings (i.e. quotes from previous successful athletes), pre-competitive workouts to enhance activation, verbal cues to generate energy, and breathing techniques (opposite of those used for relaxation). Like those psychological characteristics previously mentioned, an athlete’s ability to effectively regulate their level of arousal may dictate whether or not they fall under the category of the elite.
Since attention is regarded as fundamental to skilled motor performance, those athletes who practice the performance of two tasks simultaneously (attention-sharing), while only focusing on relevant cues (cue-selection), tend to achieve higher levels of success and performance. In addition, practicing performance routines to be used before key sport skills (free throws) and using attentional (verbal, visual, and physical) cues on a consistent basis also have the potential to improve levels of performance. However, in order for these skills to be effective in achieving control over one’s attentional focus and consequently, enhancing performance, these tasks must be repeatedly practiced in sport-specific settings.
Well there you have it, the psychological characteristics of elite performers. Note that for the most part, I used the term "elite performers" rather than elite athletes. In my opinion, elite athletes are commonplace in sport and while I take nothing away form them, elite performers are few and far between. So while an exact template of an “elite performer” does not exist, many psychological characteristics contribute to the facilitation and development of elite performers. From personality to specific skills, superior athletes tend to display common characteristics that are in optimum balance and interaction with the external environment.