The ability to perform at an elite level is often used as the definition for talent. This term is often bandied around as if young aspiring athletes have it or not, with little discussion centred on the factors or traits that actually help an individual to reach such pinnacles in their chosen sporting arenas and events. For example, athletes who possess the necessary physical attributes to succeed in their sport still require other elements in order to develop their potential and reach the top ahead of everyone else. In the modern era especially, athletes need to possess other attributes such as commitment, motivation, and the ability to cope with pressure if one is to succeed in their respective disciplines.
Whilst it is obvious that some physical and physiological attributes are important in some sports in comparison to others, one’s ability to overcome challenges and perform at the top level requires a whole host of other variables working in unison. Research suggests that those who use psychological skills (e.g., goal-setting, imagery, focus) as part of their development and training have been found to be more successful than those who do not incorporate such skills (Orlick & Partington, 1988). Other research evidence also supports the notion that athletes are more successful when they use an array of psychological skills during competition but also when in training in comparison with athletes of a lower standard (Thomas & Thomas, 1999). It is clear that psychological skills play an important role at an elite level but can also be critical in helping athletes reach the top of their sporting disciplines (Gould et al., 2002, Orlick & Partington, 1988, Williams & Krane, 2001). Recognising the importance of developing and using such psychological traits, Abbot and Collins (2004) investigated the usefulness and practicality of psychological characteristics of developing excellence (PCDEs). PCDEs can aid the learning of new skills (e.g., focus, distraction control) but also enable athletes to gain the most out of each training session (e.g., goal-setting, realistic performance evaluations). PCDEs also enable athletes to remain on their pathway to excellence by investing the necessary time for training in addition to staying committed to the learning process, particularly when their peers may be engaging in perceivably more joyful activities.
Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence (Orlick & Partington, 1988):
- Coping with pressure
- Focus and distraction control
- Planning and organizational skills
- Quality practice
- Realistic performance evaluations
Promotion of PCDEs within a talent development environment (e.g., an academy) encourages aspiring athletes to behave like champions. However, it is important that developing athletes understand the behaviours expected of them, with coaches and teaches on-hand to monitor and reinforce these psychological traits. One PCDE which is hugely beneficial in an array of sporting disciplines is ‘focus’ and the ability to control distractions. It is imperative that developing athletes like elites are able to compete and train in environments with numerous distractions including noise, spectators and other competitors. If an athlete is to perform at their best, and to achieve their maximum potential, they need to be able to block out any distractions whilst focusing on the task at hand.
Focus and distraction control behaviours:
- Blocks out distractions
- Displays a consistent pre-performance routine
- Maintains a focus on appropriate cues during competition
- Remains focused under distraction
- Shows an understanding of when distraction is likely
- Stays calm under pressure
The ability to focus and not be distracted can not only predict good performances, it can also enable an athlete to learn effectively and to develop quicker (Collins, Button, & Richards, 2011). Whilst this ability is obviously important at all levels, it is particularly prominent when developing athletes are entering major competitions where the distractions can become more severe and disruptive. Coach behaviours and coach systems working in unison are able to promote and encourage a PCDE. This collaborative approach engages an athlete in certain behaviours in order to receive positive reinforcement. Equipping athletes with a toolkit of PCDES as they develop will undoubtedly aid their development and ultimately help prepare them for elite competition.
Collins, Button, and Richards (2011) postulate that promoting the behaviours accustomed with PCDES in developing athletes is an effective way to develop talent. This approach is particularly warranted as it supports current research stipulating that psychological characteristics play a crucial role during development, and not just when performers reach the elite level. It is clear that all PCDEs are interrelated having a direct and indirect impact upon each other. The utilisation and promotion of PCDEs not only aids the development of aspiring athletes towards excellence, it also helps them to realise their own potential.
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