The mental edge: Thoughts and opinions  //  The mental edge or physiology – what separates champions from contenders?

25 Feb 2010 Posted by

It’s been far too long between posts for me – I do apologize, but as Jonathan said in yesterday’s post, things have been rather frantic for both of us.  And seem likely to continue, but (fortunately, I guess), I’m recovering from jet-lag and a round-the-world trip which has me waking up at 4am, so I finally have time on my hands!

The Vancouver Winter Olympics have depressingly reached the last few days, and I’ve seen basically none of them.  Snow and ice are not big in South Africa, so at the best of times, I’d be reserved in my commentary on Winter sports.  In the past, though, we’ve usually had live coverage of the Games, but for some reason, 2010 has seen us limited to a daily 60-minute highlights package, which is so poor Sometimes the video and the words are not even related, or it’s factually incorrect – “Austria takes the lead”, when clearly they’re lying in third place, for example), that I can’t even make a passing comment on what has been happening!  , and I’ve seen perhaps 60 seconds of each event.

It’s a pity, because I think there’s so much unexplored science the Winter sports – our good friends Carl Foster and Jos de Koning have published heavily on speed skating, for example, and that would have been great fun to discuss!  I don’t feel “current” enough to do justice to the topic, however, because I’m so detached from the snow and ice in Vancouver (Carl, Jos, if you feel like a ‘guest post’, the space is yours!)

The mental edge:  Fact or fiction?

In any event, yesterday’s post inspired a rather energetic debate on the mental side to performance – well worth a read in the comments section to the post.  I thought it would be an interesting follow-up to give my own thoughts and opinions on an issue which really has no correct answer, only ideas and theories!

The issue, I guess, is this:  To what extent are the best athletes mentally stronger than rivals, or does it come down to physiology?  Upfront, I suppose the “safe” answer is that it’s neither, but a combination of the two that determines success.  Without either, it’s not possible to reach the pinnacle of the sport, and history is littered with athletes who have either;

  1. Failed to achieve what their physical potential (whatever that means in the context of this debate) suggests they should; or
  2. Exceeded expectations, defied their own limitations and achieved much more than they may have been expected to.

In the case of a), we usually say that these athletes lacked the mental edge, they didn’t have that “killer instinct” or drive to put the time in, or even if they did, they couldn’t produce when it counted.  In the case of b), we say that these athletes dug deeper, emptied their reserves and approached training and competition with an attitude and desire that gave them 1% more, enough to win.

The 10% physical, 90% mental philosophy

Both arguments are likely massive oversimplifications.  I remember doing a short course on sports psychology/coaching during my sports management degree, and we were lectured by a very successful and now extremely well known coach and trainer, who also had a background in psychology.  He put to us the question:  “What is the breakdown between physical and mental components to success?”

The class eventually reached the opinion that success in sport was “10% physical, 90% mental”.  There were some who felt it was the other way around, that mental contributed only 10% to success.  Others said 50-50.  Some got philosophical and said it was “100% mental, 100% physical” (which is probably, cheesily enough, the best argument, in my opinion).  But there’s rarely agreement – you can see this difference in opinion in our previous post, in fact, where Gene and Sean have debated the merits of the argument, though not necessarily in these terms.  Point is, we’re split as to how valuable each component is.

Note that the answer is never correct, and it’s never wrong (well, I think 90-10 splits are probably wrong, both ways).  It’s also context specific.  Golf is different to athletics.  Long jump probably differs from high jump, both of which differ from the marathon.  Downhill skiing no doubt requires substantial parts of each, and also required different skills WITHIN each.

Mental and physiological:  Difficult to pin down

Compare for a second the approach of Usain Bolt to say, Roger Federer.  Bolt has changed the way athletes behave before the start of events.  Even the reserved Kenenisa Bekele now seems loose and relaxed, which is one aspect to this mental side of preparation.  You wouldn’t call Bolt unfocused though, and his relaxation, his mental approach to sprinting may well have been a big part of his success.  Federer, on the other hand, is equally focused, but is just as relaxed.  So is Rafael Nadal, and I dare say Tiger Woods is as focused and relaxed (no jokes, please!  I’m tempted myself…), but you’ll never see these three behave like Bolt seconds before competition or during.

Bode Miller was put forward as a case of an athlete who succeeds because of his mental toughness, his courage and fighting spirit.  Four years ago, it was very different – he was labeled a choker, and perhaps the change has been thanks to sports psychology.  This may well be true, but how do we characterize that?  Is it because he’s brash and confident, a risk-taker, off the slopes?  Does his personality in any way influence our assessment of his mental attitudes in competition?  At that precise moment on the slopes when he is making a decision on which line to take, travelling at 100km/hour, is he different from Askel-Lund Svindal in terms of his mental approach?  I don’t know – I would be very surprised if our generalities and easy explanations, always in hindsight, explained the 0.1 seconds that separate gold from silver.

So what precisely do we mean when we say that “Athlete X has a psychological advantage or mental edge?”  I don’t think we often know, but it would involve things like competitive spirit, big match temperament, attitude and discipline to both competition and training, ability to relax but stay focused under pressure, to match the expectation from fans and rivals, self-belief, confidence, desire, and so forth.

We employ sports psychologists to work with athletes on things like visualization, relaxation and focus, because we understand that the failure to achieve certain non-negotiable standards will undermine talent.  Whether this approach can compensate for a lack of talent, I must confess I’m not so sure.

The fallacy of physiological superiority

Similarly, and this is an area where I can conclude more definitively, we tend to find physiological explanations that don’t exist.  If I had a dollar for every person who says that Lance Armstrong wins races because he has a ‘super-human’ VO2max, or that he produces less lactate than other riders, I’d be running this site as a full-time occupation, sipping cocktails on an island!  It’s simply not true – if I gave you a chart of 50 top athletes’ VO2max values, and asked you to identify who would win, you’d have more chance throwing a dart into the chart than of correctly working it out.

The reality is that physiological factors, at least for these sports, are too intangible to pin down, and success is never down to one thing.  Lance Armstrong has “average” values compared to other elite athletes, and if there is a physiological difference, it’s 0.1% in size, too small for us to measure.

Having said that, to say that all the top athletes are equal is also not entirely correct.  As I’ve mentioned, the differences are incredibly small – Contador wins the Tour de France because he can sustain a power output 2% higher than the next person for a cumulative total of 60 minutes during a three week race.  That creates the margin, which in the end, is substantial.

1% differences and interwoven factors for success

I can give the most topical example (for me, anyway) and it comes from Sevens Rugby.  The Olympic Games’ newest sport plays out in an 8-tournament series around the world, the most recent tournaments taking place in New Zealand and the USA.  I’ve been fortunate enough to travel with the SA team (hence the round-the-world trip), who are the defending world champions, and so have reached that summit.

There are eight top teams, each of which can win any given tournament. They all have athletes who, on paper, are inseparable and extra-ordinary.  One would, broadly speaking, call them equal.  The training and physiological ability are similar, as are skill levels – all the top teams do largely similar warm-ups, training drills, gym routines.  The 5% difference between them is significant, of course, and that’s the 5% that we spend hours striving to find.  1% is often enough, and there are certainly 1% differences in various components, at any level (for example, Lionel Messi has more skill than other soccer players).

Looking back on the last two tournaments, there are “ifs” and “buts” all over the place.  Had we converted only 10% more of our chances, we might have won both tournaments.  At crucial moments in matches, players have just failed to press home an advantage, and the result has been a “so near, yet so far” feeling.  We are close, but need to do a lot of work, a strange paradox, which I think is typical of sport.

The point I want to make, though, is that when we go BACK and analyze matches, it’s very easy to identify the five or six moments that determined the outcome.  This is particularly easy when playing the weaker teams, because then you can identify how their defensive patterns were not quite as sound as they should have been, how they don’t quite execute moves with precision and as a result are turned over, and so forth.  Against the top opposition, where any team can win, it’s a lot more difficult, but still possible to pinpoint the reasons for victory and defeat.

These reasons are never exclusively physical (we missed tackles, for example, or were out-muscled in contact) and they are never exclusively mental (we made wrong decisions, took poor options, for example).  They are always a combination of the two, and the only solution is to spend many more hours working on both, simultaneously.  A player or athlete who fails may do so because they take an incorrect option (a wrong pass, or a wrong line on the ski slopes, for example), or because they fail to execute the right option (a skier who finds the right line but just can’t hold the speed and has to adjust and slow down, for example).

The two are so intimately related that I think it’s ultimately self-defeating to diagnose the reason for success or failure as one or the other.  It has to be both, and they work off each other in a cycle.

The “filter” of elite sport

One thing that is certain, and I’ll end on this, is that the absence of either is usually glaringly obvious – an athlete who lacks talent is exposed, as a junior in many cases, and never reaches the Olympic Games.  An athlete who has abundant talent, but lacks the mental edge, may fade into obscurity because they don’t have the drive or discipline to train, or because they don’t compete well.

The athlete who lacks confidence or self-belief stands out among the crowd eventually – they reach the “highest level of insecurity”, if you will, before being exposed, often spectacularly.  On the other hand, the athlete who lacks talent often disappears into the middle of the pack and obscurity.  Perhaps this is why we have identified mental aspects as so crucial, the source of the 90-10 principle?

I believe that both components are essential.  An athlete at the top of the world has both in the right measure, though possibly in different amounts.  To suggest that one athlete won because “they wanted it more” is actually disrespectful to the other athletes – at the Olympic level, ten athletes may possess, in varying combinations, the characteristics required to succeed – extra-ordinary physiological ability, mental toughness, self-belief, desire to overcome opponents and challenges (like Lindsey Vonn).  One will win, and trying to explain why they did often subjects us, as Gene has said, to the error of hindsight analysis, where we can pull out reasons that are ultimately biased by our starting position!

My bias is that genetic factors provide the starting point, environmental factors point the person in the course they will take, and that coaches, peers and family work out the genetic potential over many years of training and competition.  By the time that athlete wins an Olympic title, they cannot lack any ingredient, because the nature of elite sport is that it filters out those who possess only 99% of what it takes at each level.  The 99% may make up the field, but the winner has 100%.  Of what, I don’t think we’ll ever quite know.


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