Winning, while the goal for most athletes in sport, is a double-edged sword. Though we typically focus on the process of getting to the point of victory, we often don’t consider what happens after we win—and this can cause problems.Winning, while the goal for most athletes in sport, is a double-edged sword…one of the hardest things to do in sport is to sustain success, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Success can often get in the way of future success: Some athletes might struggle for motivation after they win, and struggle to get back to their previous level, hampering their own performance. Others may feel the pressure that success brings, and either become obsessive around what they do—potentially leading to burnout or injury—or break under the expectations, real or imagined, for future success. As a result, one of the hardest things to do in sport is to sustain success; surprisingly, the consequences of success on the future performance of elite athletes are somewhat poorly studied.
Surveying the Research
In 1993, Kathy Kreiner-Phillips and Terry Orlick, both of the University of Ottawa, authored “Winning after Winning: The Psychology of Ongoing Excellence,” their seminal paper on the topic. Although it’s almost 30 years old, the paper has many important implications that are worth considering when it comes to attempting to sustain success and performance in athletes.
For their paper, Kreiner-Phillips and Orlick carried out in-depth interviews with 17 elite athletes (male and female) from seven different sports, who had won at least one major world class competition between 1964 and 1988. They then divided the athletes into three groups:
- Continued success – These athletes continued to have success in their sport after their initial major competition win.
- Decline and come back – These athletes saw a decline in their performance immediately after their first major competition success, but after at least a year away from winning, they returned to success.
- Unable to repeat – These athletes won one major competition during their career, and despite continuing to compete, could not return to that level of performance.
The question Kreiner-Phillips and Orlick wanted to explore was this: Were there any recognizable differences in approach between athletes in these groups?
To begin with, they explored the mindset of the athletes prior to their first world-class competition win. Before the event, the athletes could be broadly categorized into one of three buckets:
- Almost 60% of the athletes stated they were in a belief plus focus on task mindset—they both strongly believed they could perform at this level and were totally focused in the pre-event period on how they would do this. Their belief generally came from prior performance (perhaps they had almost won a previous race or recalled a good performance when previously feeling under pressure).
- Just under 20% of the athletes were in a belief plus extra boost mindset—they also had a strong belief in their ability but felt some additional incentive for success during the competition (for example, competing in a home Olympics).
- Finally, the rest of the athletes (23%) reported feeling more relaxed than usual ahead of their first win. This was brought about by either not expecting to win or shifting their focus away from winning for this particular competition.
Within the event of first success itself, the athletes’ focus could be broadly split into two categories: autopilot connection and attacking connection. In the former, experienced by 82% of the athletes, they reported being on autopilot during the competition, something we would potentially term today as being in a flow state. In the latter, attacking connection, the athletes reported both being connected to their performance and simultaneously focused on getting the most out of each of their actions. This could include aggressive and/or determined self-talk. Both states are examples of the mindsets that elite athletes have when being successful.
Pursuing the Skill of Continued Success
After their initial success, different patterns of behavior began to emerge between the groups. While before their first win there were no differences in approach between the continued success (seven athletes), decline and come back (six athletes), and unable to repeat (four athletes) groups, afterward there were.
The continued success group were able to recreate the focus of their first major win in their subsequent competitions and remained both very confident of being able to win and totally focused on the task at hand, maintaining the autopilot approach. However, in the other two groups, the performance focus shifted away from the actions themselves and to the result. This shift in focus was made into one of four different categories:
- A focus on the outcome as opposed to performance.
- A focus on expectations to win (either theirs or others).
- A loss of focus.
- Trying too hard.
Clearly, being able to refocus on the process and not the outcome during subsequent competitions is important—making it a skill that requires development.
Once the athletes had won for the first time, they experienced a large increase in the demands placed upon them. This included increased pressure to perform (real or perceived), difficulty in finding the required time to train and rest, and a lack of free time due to the increased demands from the media and sponsors. Two-thirds of the athletes reported that their rest time or training time was adversely affected in the period following their win. However, athletes from the continued success group were the least affected: Seventy-one percent of these athletes reported being able to maintain their normal training and rest times following success, when compared to only one (!) athlete from the unable to repeat and decline and come back groups.Another important finding from the study was that, before winning, none of the athletes had prepared themselves for what was to come afterward in terms of the increased demands, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Another important finding from the study was that, before winning, none of the athletes had prepared themselves for what was to come afterward in terms of the increased demands. As a result, there were substantial differences in how well the athletes were able to deal with these new expectations and distractions. Those who handled them the best typically approached them with a positive attitude, viewing these new demands as part of the territory—but, crucially, maintained control over what was happening, with the ability to say no when it interfered with their training or recovery time. Being able to prioritize what was important (training and recovery) over what was nice to have (sponsors and appearances) allowed athletes to maintain their success.
Finally, the authors asked the continued success group how they were able to maintain their high level of performance across subsequent competitions. There is no doubt an element of hindsight bias in play here—which is important to keep in mind—but the general themes were focused around staying on task, keeping things in perspective, and continuing to find enjoyment from the sport. One way to maintain enjoyment and focus is to find new challenges within the sport and view continued success as a challenge to achieve—as opposed to being under pressure to achieve—which seems to have supported the athletes toward their continued high levels of performance.
The decline and come back group also has important lessons to offer here, as they saw an initial drop-off in performance before being able to recover. These athletes spoke about how they were able to refocus on what was important—the process—and reduce what was not important: often, the external demands on their time.
Keeping the Proper Focus
For me, there are many key takeaways from this study, despite it being more than 30 years old. First, prior to initial success, an athlete’s belief in their ability appears crucial: This can be built from good performances in either previous competitions or in training. Being able to cultivate this belief is therefore important, and so selecting competitions that allow the athlete to grow in confidence or providing a boost in training sessions prior to the competition is likely very important.
Once success happens, it’s important to retain the conditions under which it occurred. In the two groups that did not have sustained success, the athletes reported changing their focus, either to the outcome as opposed to the process or on the expectations that they were being placed under. Keeping athletes focused on what made them successful in the first place is, therefore, crucial, especially in the face of increased demands from the media, sponsors, and fans. Being able to maintain the required time for training and rest/recovery is an important pillar of this.Being able to handle the demands and changes that come with success is an important factor in future success, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
The clearest theme throughout the whole paper is the need to focus on doing what is important. For athletes, this is training, recovering, and preparing for competition in a similar way to what they were doing when they had their success. This is summed up in the conclusion by the paper’s authors, where they state that the best performers both respected the patterns that allowed them to excel and had strategies for dealing with the distractions that came with success. Being able to handle the demands and changes that come with success is an important factor in future success—something that we all must keep in mind.
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