Champions of sport: normal people or extraordinary beings?

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We enter the mind of high performance athletes to discover the secret of their strength and what makes them different from the rest. How can they achieve a top performance in the hardest moments?


"At the top level, physical and technical differences are minimal. All athletes train to the max. What changes is how you feel, how you handle your emotions and what happens on the track". Juan Carlos Campillo, mental trainer of badminton player and Olympic medal winner Carolina Marín used this phrase in an interview that was published in one of the most important national newspapers to describe the importance of mental strength in champions a few days before the athlete from Huelva won the gold medal, a historical achievement.

Are the most successful champions normal people who transform into a champion when they practice sports or extraordinary people at any moment and in any situation? Sport psychology is a recent discipline, but it has already drawn up interesting conclusions:

The profile of a successful athlete.Source: Applied Sport Psychology, Jean Williams and Vikki Krane (2015).

Silvia Navarro, handball player of Rocasa Gran Canaria ACE in the Honour Division, summarises it as "mental strength". She has faced critical moments, as we can see in her record book: seven leagues and seven championships, runner-up in Europe 2014, bronze medal in the 2011 World Championship and in the London 2010 Olympic Games, among other major titles.

Silvia Navarro, player of Rocasa Gran Canaria ACE in the Honour Division.Silvia Navarro, player of Rocasa Gran Canaria ACE in the Honour Division.

She explains, "our minds are trained to face these moments and when we have to face them, you always have another player there to help you, but you use your mental strength to overcome these hurdles". In fact, the lower visibility of women's sport, in particular a minority sport like handball, is a motivation to her: "I work harder and harder every day to achieve a much higher recognition".


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Sporting intelligence

Daniel D. Gould has drawn the profile of a champion, chosen from 100 of the best professionals in sports psychology. The Journal of Applied Sport Psychology published a study on ten Olympic medal-winners —six men and four women— who had won a total of 28 gold medals, 3 silver medals and one bronze medal in the Olympic games.

Gould talked about sporting intelligence, defining it as the capacity to analyse performance in sports, innovating technique, taking the correct decisions, understanding the nature of top-level competition and the capacity to learn fast. The magazine "Alto Rendimiento" (Top Performance) summarises the study in six main keys:

  1. High motivation and commitment
    Determination as an essential element, beyond talent or the amount of work.
  2. Optimism
    Resilience when facing errors and failing.
  3. Perfectionism
    Setting the limit as high as possible without coming apart when failing.
  4. Capacity to focus
    The capacity to concentrate and block distractions is fundamental.
  5. Handling stress and adverse situations
    They have low levels of anxiety and can control their emotions under pressure.
  6. Mental strength and self-confidence
    Resistance, perseverance and the skill to handle adversity successfully.

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