Making it to the top is one thing, thriving on the pressure it can bring is another. Peta Bee reports on new findings

Talent is never enough to succeed in sport. What’s required to make it to the top is a complex interplay of physical and emotional factors. Even those who rise through the ranks are not guaranteed to stay there. So what makes an athlete thrive on the pressure and demands of elite performance?

In the first study to find how and what some athletes thrive on in sport, Dr Daniel Brown, a sports scientist at the University of Portsmouth, and colleagues at the University of Bath, have identified factors that contribute to an athlete being – and feeling – outstanding.

Publishing his findings in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Brown interviewed athletes, coaches and sports psychologists to determine what factors combined to ensure a sustained high-level of performance and optimism.

“Our results could also help explain why some individuals very gifted at sport don’t thrive at elite level,” Brown says.

Here’s what he found:

Potent mix

Increasingly, we hear stories of those who achieve high-level performance in sport, but at the expense of their well-being and emotional health.

“Doing your best as a sportsman or woman sounds simple,” Brown says. “But we’ve found a complex mix of factors which promote thriving and could help those working at elite level.”

Among the most important influences were optimism, focus, a clear idea of what needs to be improved and high levels of motivation.

“We also found that someone needs developing holistically (as a person as well as an athlete), that they can see an upward progression, and that they have a real sense of belonging in their sport,” Brown says.

Success breeds success

For many of the study participants, previous successes in sport had a huge impact on their current achievements and attitude. Brown said the more success someone had, the more it enhanced their self-belief “which, combined with goal setting, supported thriving”.

One coach said winning was instrumental as a springboard for future success. “My athlete had their goal and they were high on being driven for that goal, but they were also high on confidence from their previous lot of performances which just allowed them to really thrive.”

Strong support

A support system was found to be key to long term improvement and ultimate success. “Support from parents has been highlighted as a facilitator for adolescent thriving,” Brown says.

He adds that coaches, parents and mentors who offer not just support, but elicit self-belief, trust and commitment to the process of development also helped athletes make it all the way to the top of elite sport and, critically, to enjoy it.

As one participant put it: “Everybody that can have a positive influence on that athlete can help them thrive.”

Focus and concentration

One of the coaches interviewed said single-mindedness is vital if an athlete is to succeed. “How you concentrate and what on is important, and the quality and depth of your concentration. People get distracted very easily by things and fail to be in the moment,” they said.

“Life slips through their fingers because they’re too busy on games consoles or social media. To concentrate on being a champion, your mind has to be developed to such an extent that you can really stay very tuned in to what you’re doing.”


» Sustained high-level performance
» Optimistic
» Focused and in control
» Active awareness of areas for improvement
» Possess high-quality motivation
» Experiencing holistic development
» Has a sense of belonging


» Personal development benefits
» Personal benefits
» Increased self-confidence
» Decreased mood/motivation


» Environment
–  High quality relationships
–  Coach support
–  Family support
–  Teammates
–  Support staff support
–  Training environment
–  Experience of pressure

» Personal
–  Desire and motivation
–  Appreciation, trust and commitment to the process of development
–  Understanding personal and sporting demands and requirements
–  Ability to control and manage potentially stressful situations
–  Concentration
–  Goal-setting and creating challenges
–  Self-belief
–  Previous success
–  A positive mental state