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Posted 01/18/2021 in Category 1

Success in Sport: Do the Mountains in our Mind Separate Winners from Others?

Success in Sport: Do the Mountains in our Mind Separate Winners from Others?

When I write here about the mountains in our mind, I am writing about the skills we have developed over time to separate ourselves from the others who compete against us. By creating mountains in our mind, we are creating enduring, tough terrain to offer us protection and separation from others competing for success. Researchers over the past 50 years have contributed sufficient evidence to show that at non-elite, junior elite, elite and super-elite level, the more successful athletes show higher levels of motivation, confidence, control, mental toughness and resilience. They can also cope better with adversity, resist performing worse than expected under pressure, and master a range of mental skills (e.g., goal setting, anxiety control, mental imagery, self-talk and decision making). 

Elite and super-elite athletes show a strong orientation to base their competence on their personal improvements. They are comparing themselves with themselves and trying to improve upon where they are now. But they do not dismiss the surrounding competitors; rather, they see these people as their competition and wish to test themselves against them and compare their own ability with these other athletes. 

One intriguing finding is that athletes can perform their best and their worst when anxious. One reason for this paradoxical finding is that anxiety is associated with higher levels of effort which could improve performance – as long as the athlete does not interfere too much with how she is doing what she is doing. Being anxious around competition is a normal response. The better performing athletes see this anxiousness that will help rather than hinder them – it’s all in the way they see it. 

When we think of high-level sport, we think about the motivation and commitment to continue training for years and years. The successful non-elite and elite level athletes show more forms of self-determined motivation – motivation that comes from within. The more of this healthy drive, the less chance there is of burning out from the sport. Having a strong extrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from outside of you) helps lots of athletes to play and compete at the highest level too. 

When we explore all this research, we see that helping athletes to understand their motivational profiles, changing motivational profiles and psychological skills to practise and compete at the highest level, they gain the most. When we develop our skills to manage ourselves, we have a resource that keeps on giving. The best athletes in the world have learned to manage themselves and their resources to train and compete at the highest level. Many others can benefit from their learning and experiences. The goal for you is to asses where you are right now and what you can develop to improve in the months ahead. 

You can help yourself or gain the support you need from sport psychology consultant. Some people like to help themselves while others like to work with a professional. Whatever you decide to do, remember that it should fit what you feel you need. Sometimes what we want is not what we need, and a sport psychology consultant could help you figure this puzzle. 

You can also use our site to search for a sport psychology consultant.


Rees, T. (2016). The Great British Medalists Project: A review of current knowledge on the development of the world’s best sporting talent. Sports Medicine (Auckland), 46(8), 1041–1058. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0476-2

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay