PORTSMOUTH, England — How does Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps and Tom Brady do it? Being the very best in professional sports leagues may seem like a walk in the park for athletes like these three, but a new study finds the qualities that the world’s very best share are more than just natural-born abilities.
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the University of Bath in the UK examined the mindsets of some of the most elite athletes, coaches, and sports psychologists, finding that they tend to share similar characteristics.
Some of the 16 personal and environmental factors that were found in the vast majority of thriving athletes included high-quality relationships, support from others, sufficient desire and motivation, commitment to excellence, concentration, self-belief, goal-setting, and a positive state of mind.
High-achieving athletes were also identified as being optimistic and aware of areas in which to improve. They felt a need to work on their deficiencies.
“Doing your best as a sportsman or woman sounds simple, but we’ve found a complex mix of factors which promote thriving and could help those working at elite level,” says lead researcher Dr. Daniel Brown in a university news release. “Enablers such as support, self-belief, and an appreciation of, trust in and commitment to the process of development combine to help some make it all the way to the top of elite sport and, critically, to enjoy it.”
While sports psychologists expressed that an athlete’s ability to manage stress was most important to their performance, athletes and coaches believed that an ability to perform at a high level was most telling of an athlete’s success.
“The results could help explain why some individuals gifted at sport don’t thrive at elite level,” says Brown. “Increasingly in high-level sport we are hearing stories of those who achieve high-level performance, but at the expense of their well-being.”
Though the researchers didn’t come to a conclusion on the most important quality for an elite athlete to have, some experts in the medical community believe it’s focus and concentration.
It’s about “the quality and depth of your concentration,” one practitioner told Dr. Brown. “
“People get distracted very easily by things and fail to be in the moment. Life slips through their fingers because they’re too busy on games consoles or social media. To concentrate on being a champion, your mind has to be developed to such an extent that you can really stay very tuned in to what you’re doing,” the practitioner added.
This inquiry comes in light of journalistic reports in the UK, highlighting the deleterious effects of athletes pushing themselves to the extent they do, all in hopes of coming out victorious.
The study’s findings were published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.