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Anxiety, Confidence, and Motivation: What Makes an Athlete Elite

Sports are very visual. As spectators, we watch our favorite sports stars as they break records and triumph over competitors. From a distance, we ogle their talent, physique, and charisma. But there is one major aspect of an elite athlete’s power that is intangible and often unseen—what happens in their head.

Sports psychology has been a hot topic among researchers for some time. And a recent study by Dr. Michael Young, co-owner of Human Performance Consulting and Athletic Lab in Cary, N.C., stated that the true difference between a “good” athlete and the “elite” is quite simply the mental qualities of that competitor.

Mental qualities, huh? Let’s start with just three: confidence, anxiety, and motivation.




Young referenced a study of world champions and elite athletes that showed “90% of the sample had ‘a very high level of self-confidence.’” According to, self-confidence is defined as “realistic confidence in one’s own judgment, ability, power, etc.”

So how do athletes build this characteristic of gold? “Confidence is usually a result of an athlete anticipating success in their upcoming event.” In fact, that anticipated outcome is “the greatest indicator of confidence,” Young shared.

Jimmy Connors, former World No. 1 tennis champion, shared his opinion in that study. “Never … get negative about yourself…. Sure, it’s possible that the other guy you’re playing is tough, and that he may have beaten you the last time … But the minute you start thinking about these things you’re dead. I go out to every match convinced that I’m going to win. That is all there is to it.”

Young explained that another key element is to act confident. “An athlete should always act as if they are confident even if they are not.”

Building confidence is a great goal for an athlete. In order to reach the very top rung of a sport, an athlete must have a high level of confidence in their abilities. In turn, once an athlete climbs that ladder, his or her successes then produce confidence. Sounds like a pretty sweet cycle.




Are you surprised? We know that most athletes struggle with anxiety during intense training and competition. In fact, more than 50% of contenders sought consultation at an Olympic festival due to stress or anxiety related problems, reported Young. That is one reason why anxiety in athletes is one of the most researched topics among sports psychologists.

And so, the concept of Individualized Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) was born. The idea is that when an athlete is in this ideal anxiety zone, he or she will produce peak performances.

“Stories abound of athletes or teams that performed poorly because they underestimated their opponent (below optimum anxiety levels) or worried themselves out of the game (above optimum anxiety levels),” Young reported.

It becomes essential for an athlete to determine whether their pre-performance mood fits within that optimal zone. “Luckily research has shown anxiety can be reduced through mental imagery, relaxation, and cognitive intervention,” Young said.




Ah, the unicorn of sports psychology. Let’s start by breaking down the two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Young defined intrinsic motivation as “An athletes’ personal drive to achieve their goal. This may be setting a school record, winning a race, or defeating a particular opponent.”

In turn, “Extrinsic motivation is the resulting motivation from an outside source such a parents, coaches, or teammates,” stated Young.

Overall, many researchers argue that the greater determinant of achieving success in sports is intrinsic motivation. Let’s learn why and how.

“There are many people out there who have the talent to succeed but very few who have the motivational drive to do what it takes to succeed,” Young reported.

True champions feel a strong need to “demonstrate their personal competence and self-determination. As a result, they commit themselves to difficult and demanding goals, when these goals are achieved, the athletes’ feelings of self-competence are confirmed and their intrinsic motivation enhanced,” stated Young’s study.

Overall, champions exhibit extreme self-confidence, optimal performance anxiety, and high motivation during their training and competitions. When these characteristics work together, they form a strong, determined, clear-headed, and disciplined athlete. Sound like anyone you know?



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