UNDERSTANDING THE PATH TO THE PODIUM: REFLECTIONS FROM OLYMPIANS ON THE PROCESS OF SUCCESS
by Suzie Riewald,Ph.D and Kirsten Peterson, Ph.D
USOC Coaching and Sport Sciences
It is an image etched into our collective memories—an ecstatic Olympic athlete clutching a medal after a successful performance at the Games. Equally compelling for others striving for similar goals is the question of how that athlete was able to achieve that level of success. What differentiates the paths of medal winners from the almost successful athletes?
To aid in our understanding of how athletes succeed at the Olympic level, we must first understand the process of their development and significant influences along the way. To understand this and much more, the Athlete Development Division administered the Talent Identification and Development (TID) Questionnaire to over 2,100 U. S. Olympians who competed in Summer and Winter Olympic Games from 1984-98. The first report from that survey, “The Path to Excellence,” contained an analysis and interpretation of the quantitative data. Specifically, the report described the general patterns and trends that characterized the career-long development of those Olympians. It was the first in-depth study conducted by the U.S.Olympic Committe to provide a view of the development of U.S. Olympians (for a copy of the report go to www.usolympicteam.com/excellence/).
article presents the analysis and interpretation of the qualitative (open-ended) questions from the TID Questionnaire.
Specifically, two questions asked of these Olympians were to list the five
factors that they believe contributed most to their success and to list the
five most significant obstacles they had to overcome in order to achieve
success in their sport. After a brief description of how the athletes’
responses were analyzed, we’ll take a look at what these Olympians had to tell
us regarding factors influencing their success and obstacles they had to
Factors Influencing Olympic Success
759 Olympians responded to listing up to five factors that contributed to their success and generated a list of 3,178 success factors that were grouped into higher-order factors. We have provided a definition of the top ten factors to help you in assessing if this might be a similar issue for your athletes. Additionally, we provide you with the percentage of athletes who identified this as a factor influencing their success (in parentheses).
Top Ten Factors influencing Olympic Success
1. Dedication and Persistence
(58%): These Olympians were quick to acknowledge the positive influence
of their inner drive, desire, persistence, and commitment to achieving their
goals; to being the best they could be.
2. Family and Friends (52%): The influence of family and friends was pervasive in the development
athletes. The support or influence provided by these individuals varied greatly
included financial and emotional support, instilling confidence, providing an introduction to the
sport, technical advice, and the provision of stability. Bottom line – the support provided by family
and friends was invaluable.
3. Coaches (49%): Not surprising, these Olympians identified excellent coaches throughout their development as having a significant influence on their success. As identified by the athletes,
coaches provided such things as expertise, encouragement, and motivation.
4. Love of Sport (27%): Many of the Olympians in this study felt that their love of and passion for
the sport greatly influenced their success, often providing them with the necessary motivation to continue training in less than optimal conditions.
5. Training Programs and Facilities (22%): Opportunities and access to good training were critical.
These athletes identified the
opportunity to train with club, college, national level, or resident
teams as impacting their success. Additionally, access to programs and facilities was important.
Within given sports, are opportunities and facilities available for developing athletes to take
6. Natural Talent (22%): While the athletes exerted a significant influence on their success
dedication and hard work, natural or God-given talent was also recognized as
a critical factor. Olympians in this study noted that a genetic predisposition played a role in their success.
7. Competitiveness (15%): A strong competitive nature and love of competition was identified
as a factor influencing success.
8. Focus (13%): The athletes reported their ability to stay focused on their goals and the task
despite distractions such as significant others or other life roles, as having
significant influence on their success.
9. Work Ethic (12%): These Olympians worked for the success they achieved. They reported
that hard work and a strong work ethic was a factor that influenced their success.
10. Financial Support (12%): Rounding out the top 10 . . . money. The financial support the
received from sources such as sponsorship, college scholarship, private donors,
athlete grants, and fundraising contributed to their success.
Obstacles to Overcome to Achieve Olympic Success
The second question asked Olympian respondents was to list up to five obstacles to their success. In total, 756 Olympians responded and generated a list of 2,653 obstacles to success. The top ten obstacles to success have been included, with a brief explanation of each factor and the percentage of athletes who identified this as an obstacle. Note that several of these obstacles are the “flip side” of some of the identified success factors, adding even greater strength to the importance of that factor.
1. Lack of Financial Support (53%): These Olympians identified lack of financial support as
biggest obstacle they faced. Some implications of this obstacle included
and insecurity, compromised training due to having to work, and inability to compete nationally
2. Conflict with Roles in Life (33%): These athletes reported that an obstacle to their success
conflict they experienced in trying to balance/manage multiple roles including
career, school, family, and athletic endeavors. In many cases, compromises in some roles (i.e., postponing college) were necessary to pursue athletic goals.
3. Lack of Coaching Expertise or Support (29%): Just as great coaching influenced success, lack
coaching presented an obstacle to success. Lack of coaching was related to
coaches with limited knowledge or expertise as well as experiencing conflicts with the coach.
4. Lack of Support from USOC and NGB (22%): Olympians in this study reported that the lack of
support from both the USOC and their NGB (National Governing Bodies) at times
undermined their athletic endeavors. Issues with
these organizations were broad ranging
and included a lack of mental preparation programs, no organization or encouragement, and
being too bureaucratic.
5. Mental Obstacles (22%): These Olympians reported various mental obstacles, such as
low confidence, perfectionism, and dealing with pressure.
6. Lack of Training/Competition Opportunities (20%): Again, just as the availability of training
facilities were viewed as influencing success, the lack of such opportunities
and facilities presented an obstacle to success.
7. Medical Problems (20%): Injuries, illness, and other medical issues, as would be expected,
were perceived as an obstacle to athletic success.
8. Lack of Social Support (11%): Family, friends and peers who provided little or no support
and at times even discouraged athletic pursuits were perceived as obstacles to success.
9. Physical Limitations (8%): Identified limitations included characteristics such as height,
strength and endurance. Interestingly, of the 59 athletes who identified this
an obstacle, 24 were medallists.
10. Failure (6%): Fear of failure and learning to deal with failure was an obstacle to success.
Pulling it Together
Coaches, Coaches, Coaches.
It probably cannot be emphasized enough that coaches are important - more specifically, effective, excellent coaches are the most important – to athletes and their successful development. Based on the Olympians’ identification of success factors and obstacles, it can be seen that great coaches were a prominent factor in athlete success and, conversely, a lack of great coaches was a deterrent to success. What makes a coach excellent? Olympians valued the coach’s expertise and knowledge, support, motivational influence, and commitment, to name a few of the qualities. While the notion that coaches are of value isn’t a surprise, the strength of the finding makes it critical that this factor is addressed. Not only did the athletes identify coaches as critical in the open-ended questions, but in another section of the survey as well.
Specifically, athletes were asked to rate the importance of coaching as it related to their ultimate success at various stages of development. Across all phases of development, the majority of Olympians gave coaching the highest rating possible. To add further support to the importance of coaches, we can look to research conducted by Bloom (1985) on the development of talent. In studying talent development in various fields, he identified three key phases of development. A coach/master teacher is found to play a critical role in each of these phases of development. This echoes what our Olympians told us about the importance of great coaches.
It is no easy task ensuring that great coaches are coaching our developing athletes and future Olympians. Certainly, we need to look at how coaches are being trained and developed. Tapping into the numerous avenues by which coaches can gain the knowledge and skills to enhance their effectiveness as a coach could reap great benefits. We also need to take a look at the coaching pipeline to ensure continuity and consistency for the athletes as they develop. Additionally, we need to find ways to keep good coaches around longer. Coaches leave coaching for a variety of reasons, including pay and the difficult, travel-heavy lifestyle. Coaches are also typically expected to orchestrate travel on a shoestring budget, which can exacerbate the stress level.
Money, Money, Money
Over 50 percent of the Olympians surveyed identified this topic as a significant obstacle to success. On the other hand, financial support received from others was viewed as a factor contributing to success, although only identified by 12 percent of the Olympians. Lack of finances is viewed as a huge obstacle to performance success.
In another section of the survey, athletes were asked to identify if they received any financial support from NGBs, the USOC, and sponsors at various phases of their development. Interestingly, during the national and international competitive phase of their development, respectively, 31 percent and 58 percent reported receiving funding from their NGB; 20 percent and 49 percent of respondents reported receiving funding from the USOC and 24 percent and 38 percent of respondents reported receiving funding from their sponsors. This funding was allocated to training/coaching, equipment, competitions, and supplemental stipends. Furthermore, by the time these athletes reached the international competition phase, Olympians reported that external sources financed close to 50 percent of their expenses. So, it is not the case that athletes are not receiving financial support. In fact, many would argue that quite a large percentage of expenses are being funded by either their NGB or the USOC.
However, these athletes perceive that the level of financial support they are receiving is not enough. The obstacle to success undoubtedly ties into another obstacle mentioned by the Olympians, “Conflict with Roles in Life.” Many athletes mentioned having to work as an obstacle assumably to shore up their financial resources and balance that with training and competition.
To effectively address this obstacle, it would be of value to understand what athletes had to do without because of lack of finances. Additionally, it would be of value to know the resources that are most needed so efforts can be made to target these expenses, as it is probably unrealistic to expect to finance all expenses.
Success can be directly attributed to the athlete. Dedication and persistence, love of the sport, competitiveness, focus, and strong work ethic were factors identified by athletes as having influenced their success. These individual characteristics occupied five of the top ten factors that the Olympians felt positively influenced their success. So, while we see some of the success factors and obstacles as being somewhat outside of the control of the athletes, it is important to recognize that several of the factors influencing success are in the athlete’s control. This notion of the individual strongly influencing his own success is further supported by responses to another question in the questionnaire. Specifically, when asked to rank the impact of various factors on long-term performance progression, the top ranked factor was “dedication and persistence.” This finding supports some of the work by Gould who has put forth a Pyramid Model of Peak Athletic Performance (Olympic Coach, Fall 2000). In the model, he identified “personality and motivational factors” such as high motivation, optimism, and passion about what one is doing as having a major influence on peak performance. In fact, they are viewed as critical building blocks for peak performance.
How can these psychological attributes be developed in athletes? How can we teach our athletes to focus more on the factors that they can influence and worry less about those factors that may be outside of their control?
Support from Others
While individual characteristics and attributes greatly influence success, other individuals can also be influential in many ways. We already noted the importance of great coaches to success and the important influence of family and friends. Fifty-two percent of the Olympians identified family and friends as providing different types of support (i.e., emotional, financial, technical), which positively impacted success. Conversely, some respondents viewed lack of support from family and friends as an obstacle to success. Given this, effort should be put forth to integrate these critical individuals into the system and educate them as to how they can be more effective in providing support to the athlete. USOC sport psychologists have collaborated with researchers to examine these effects at major competitions such as the Olympics; their findings have been consolidated into several brochures that are distributed to athletes heading to the Olympics. These brochures suggest ways that athletes can help maximize the positive influences of family and friends, while minimizing them as distractions. It may be worthwhile to extend this kind of effort into the realm of training as well.
As reported in the initial report from the TID Questionnaire, the average length of development of U. S. Olympians from the time they first participate in their sport until they make their first Olympic team is 12 years. We know from the results of this study and research from Bloom (1985) that this developmental course is complex and involves many factors. Bloom interviewed 120 people who had achieved excellence in such diverse fields as art, athletics (Olympic swimmers and tennis champions), music, and academics. The results of the study indicated that successful individuals had very similar learning and development phases. In his book, “Developing Talent in Young People," Bloom divided development of expertise into three phases: early, middle, and late.
Play, exploration, and fun characterizes the early phase when children learn fundamental skills and develop a love for their chosen field. The most effective coaches and teachers of this first phase were skilled in instilling a love of the activity for their students. Bloom’s subjects came from child-oriented families who taught their children the value of hard work. Parents in these families would often say to their children, “If it is worth doing, then it is worth doing well.” Parents encouraged their children to be self-disciplined and responsible.
During the middle phase, increasingly systematic learning takes place and a master teacher or coach promotes long-term development and instills technical skills. This phase typically lasts four to six years and is the typical period in which young musicians and athletes underwent systematic training to prepare them for international performance. It is during this phase that athletes reported making the transition from “playing tennis to tennis player.”
During the late phase, an individual continues to study with a master teacher or coach and train many hours a day. Often, athletes lived and trained with others who shared the same goals and commitment to sport and music. Each individual was able to translate training and technical skills into personalized, optimal performance.
Based on this model, we can view the success factors and obstacles of U. S. Olympians in a comprehensive picture of development that includes all phases. Graduation from one phase prepares the athlete for the challenges and demands of the next phase. For instance, in the early phase of development, Bloom’s research and results from the initial report suggests that significant, supportive others are critical for optimal performance progress. In sport, this would suggest that coaches and parents make their biggest impact upon athletes early in the process, and are important for instilling a love of sport and a work ethic in athletes that is critical for success in later phases. Results from the initial report suggests that as the athlete moves up the development ladder additional factors become significant such as strong financial support and excellent training and competition opportunities. Bloom goes on to suggest that as the athlete moves up the performance ladder merely supportive coaches are not enough, they also need to be increasingly competent in the technical aspects of the athlete’s sport.
Any strategy to encourage the development of success factors or to remove obstacles should keep this whole picture of development in focus. By doing so, the most effective long-term development of U.S. Olympians takes place.
Bloom, B. S. Developing Talent in Young People. NY: Ballantine Books. 1985.
(Out of print, available through Amazon.com)
Gibbons, T; Hill, R; McConnell, A; Forester, T and Moore, J; The Path to Excellence: A comprehensive view of development of U.S. Olympians who competed from 1984-1998.
Gould, D. “The Psychology of Performance Excellence.” Olympic Coach, Fall 2000, 3-5.