In this episode of SCI TV, researcher and former professional runner Dr. Anne Shadle discusses her study that searched for commonalities in the stories of three Olympic gold medal-winning athletes in Track and Field. Shadle wanted to explore the key factors, beyond talent, physical ability and technical training that impacted athletes’ success and helped win the Olympic gold. The mental and emotional traits she uncovered seem not only critical to peak athletic performance but to any major life endeavor. How do athletes go about controlling the Olympic moment?

How Do the Best Think and Prepare?

Shadle became interested in athlete psychology as a student athlete at the University of Nebraska where she was an NCAA champion in the mile and 1500 meters. She pursued a professional running career but it was in her graduate work at the University of Missouri that she really started asking questions about how the best think and prepare.

Mind-Body Connection

“I’ve always been curious about the mind-body connection,” Shadle said. “I’ve had a curiosity about what do the best athletes in the world do, how do they think, and how does that impact their performance?”

That interest led her to research how the best athletes stay focused on the biggest stage. Shadle interviewed several Olympic gold medalists to uncover their narratives and understand pieces of their success story. She describes her findings as ‘Controlling the Olympic Moment.’

Key Traits

There were several commonalities and key traits among the athletes. They were intrinsically motivated, had the ability to self-regulate, possessed grit or perseverance over time, and had a support system filled with positive relationships.

“These athletes remained focused on their mission and were able to block out all these distractions to deliver their best performance,” Shadle said. “They were very good at emotional control and composure.”

Such traits allowed them to “navigate the crazy” at big meets, including the many internal and external distractions that can throw athletes off their game.

“A characteristic of a very elite athlete is that they spend almost all of their time focusing on the things that they can control which is their own mind, their own performance, their own preparation,” Shadle said.

Innate or Learned?

So are these characteristics innate or can they be learned? Shadle thinks it’s a little of both. Listening to their early athletic experiences, Shadle found that while the athletes had the beginnings of singular focus, they also learned and improved on these skills throughout their professional career. In short, everyone can get better.

Shadle thinks that the lessons from elite athletes can be applied at all levels, and not just in sport.

“Controlling the Olympic moment doesn’t necessarily mean every four years,” Shadle says. “It’s being able to respond in these critical moments, and in our personal relationships; how to ask for that promotion, make a proposal, prepare for these big moments in our lives whatever that may be.”