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February 17, 2018
by Tracey Block

Small psychological changes can lead to Olympian success

February 17, 2018 01:02 by Tracey Block  [About the Author]

The Olympics are on our minds, our televisions and our smart phones. The athletes inspire and amaze. And their performances often make one wonder how they can physically achieve so much. Yet whether one is an Olympic competitor, a state champion or a recreational athlete, researchers are realizing the key to success in sport depends as much on psychology as it does on physiology.

A article last week by sport and exercise lecturers and researchers Noel Brick and Richard Metcalfe explained the subtle psychological changes athletes can make to help them succeed.

“For athletes of all levels, endurance--how long they can keep going at their chosen sport--is made up of physiological and psychological factors,” they wrote. According to the pair, one psychological factor integral to success is “how hard we feel we are working during an activity”. Brick and Metcalfe referred to this as perceived effort. “The lower our perceived effort, the easier we feel that an activity is,” they said.

As a result, any method that can help reduce how much an athlete perceives is being expended on an activity is beneficial. “As peculiar as it may seem, many top athletes . . . strategically use periodic smiling during performance to relax and cope,” they explained.

Brick and Metcalfe conducted their own smiling-frowning research and its impact on the mental state of a test group of 24 runners. Their results showed “participants . . . reported a higher perceived effort when frowning than smiling or when attempting to relax their hands and upper body.”

Based on their findings, the two were able to provide support for their concept of embodied emotion or “the idea that adopting a facial expression can influence how emotions are experienced,” they wrote.

In her article this month for, health and wellness writer Kaitlin Vogel reflected on her own years as a competitive athlete. “The most successful athletes aren’t necessarily the most talented,” she wrote, “they are the ones who have a strong work ethic, positive attitude and don’t let fear stop them from reaching their full potential.”

Vogel suggested the same mental tactics and mindfulness can be applied to other areas of life to support success. Given that one’s state of mind so significantly influences performance in sport, she believes the concept is applicable in the business world as well. “The most valuable employees aren’t necessarily the most talented,” she added. “They’re the ones who are hard-working, passionate and positive.”

To succeed in sport, as in life, Vogel suggested seven actions to avoid in order to improve one’s positive mental wellness—to succeed in sport, business and more. Her suggestions included:

Stop comparing yourself to others.

The challenge, said Vogel, is to use someone else’s success as personal inspiration and to help with one’s own goal setting. “That’s healthy comparison,” she explained. The problem is when admiration becomes idealization. “When comparison leads to feelings of unworthiness . . . this is what makes us feel like we’re coming up short,” she wrote. Instead, Vogel recommended focusing on one’s personal progress, “not society’s expectations”.

Stop chasing perfection.

Vogel explained that striving for excellence is important, but fear of failure and obsession with perfection can become a detriment to success. Perfectionism can cause one to become less productive by “spending too much time on one task” or repeating a task until it is just right. “It’s in our failures, not our successes, that we learn the most about ourselves,” she wrote.

Stop being a “people pleaser”.

Vogel quoted social psychologist and author of The Book of No, Susan Newman, who wrote, “We live under this misconception that saying yes, being available, always at the ready for other people, makes us a better person, but in fact it does quite the opposite.” Anxiety and mental stress are the result, Vogel explained. “Saying no doesn’t mean you’re being selfish. It means you respect yourself.”

Stop spending time with negative people.

Vogel explained the importance of spending as much time as possible with people “who bring out the best in you”. Positive feelings from others can only help to boost one’s own mood and, potentially, one’s mental wellbeing.

Stop overthinking.

With the current Olympics in mind, Vogel referred to research that shows “visualization boosts athletic performance not only by improving concentration and motivation, but also reduces anxiety and fear”.

Vogel was referring to a 2011 article by social scientist Frank Niles, Ph.D., in which he explained that visualization is a “technique for creating a mental image of a future event”. By visualizing a “desired outcome,” Niles wrote, “we begin to 'see' the possibility of achieving it.”

Stop being your own worst critic.

“No one judges you more than you judge yourself,” wrote Vogel. In sport and in everyday life, she recommended letting go of self-criticism to boost a positive mental state.

Stop being afraid of change.

Change is inevitable, wrote Vogel, but making the first move can be intimidating. Taking a positive step forward—physically or mentally—can only help successfully achieve a goal, she suggested.



American Psychological Association. (August 4, 2017). New Mindfulness Method Helps Coaches, Athletes Score.

Brick, N., & Metcalfe, R., (February 12, 2018). A smile will improve your run, research finds.

Niles, F., Ph.D., (August 27, 2011). How to Use Visualization to Achieve Your Goals.

Vogel, K., (February 2018). The Olympian Mindset: 7 Things You Need To Stop Doing To Be Successful.


About the Author

Tracey Block
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