The mentality of high performance in sport

Every time we watch professional sports, either on TV or in person at the event, we expect a high level of performance. Living in an age where the best, most talented sportspeople in the world are paid nearly twenty times the average wage in some sports, this is perhaps understandable. However, the components of high performance which must synthesise and combine together in order to produce at the level required in professional sports, are myriad and complex. Just one crucial aspect worth delving into is that of mentality.

Developing a winning, positive mentality is arguably one of the most difficult things to achieve in sport. An athlete can prepare themselves, from a physical standpoint, in rigorous fashion and have access to a range of additional supports such as physiotherapy, nutritionists and personal coaches in a range of areas but, if the athlete is not mentally prepared as well, they may fall short of their expected performance. Looking at how various sportspeople ‘get in the zone’ and whether this is solely down to the individual athlete reveals much about how challenging a pursuit it can be. To get the balance right, to develop a mentality that enhances and enables performance, even under significant pressure, is no mean feat.

It is not a coincidence that some of the best sportspeople in the world also have uniquely strong mentalities. Names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams and Muhammad Ali are synonymous with consistently high performance levels in their respective sports. Not only do they all have generational talent, they also have supreme confidence in themselves. They rarely, if ever, waver or stumble in this regard, no matter what situation they find themselves in. It is this attitude and mentality which results in these people being able to maintain such high levels of performance over sustained periods of time. The mantra of these unique sportspeople is that they are or they desire to be the best in the world. They reinforce this idea in their head over and over again, and it becomes the foundation on which they build their performances, elevating themselves above the rest and into the upper echelons of their sport. As they continue to produce at the highest level, not only does their belief in themselves grow stronger but so does everybody else’s. We just expect them to win. As their success continues, they ultimately develop an aura of invincibility which enables them to transcend sport itself, to the point where the names Usain Bolt and Muhammad Ali are bywords for greatness.

Perhaps the most fascinating example of a sportsperson with this unwavering and indomitable type of mentality is Tom Brady. During the build-up to the AFC Championship game earlier this year, Brady was asked in a press conference how he motivates himself to keep producing in big games like this. He sharply responded that if players can’t motivate themselves for big occasions like an AFC Championship game then they’ve got a “major problem”. These comments came not long after Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri courted controversy after his side’s league loss to Arsenal by saying that his players “were extremely difficult to motivate”. Many said Sarri was ‘throwing his players under the bus’ by criticising them in public like this, but, if we listen to the words of Tom Brady, it should not be totally incumbent upon managers to motivate their players. Once again this season, Brady led the New England Patriots to yet another Super Bowl victory (Brady’s 6th), beating the Los Angeles Rams in the showpiece game. Tom Brady has proven himself to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, quarterback of all time in American football.

While his borderline arrogant and abrasive personality has resulted in him being one of the least popular sports personalities in the world (as for his support for Donald Trump and the infamous Deflategate, let’s not even go there…), his unique single-mindedness and driven mentality has taken him to the pinnacle of his sport. Brady could retire tomorrow and be remembered as an all-time great in the NFL. Whether his approach in achieving this has meant he has lost fans and friends along the way is almost irrelevant, when we consider what he has achieved and how his mentality has allowed him to take himself and his team to superlative levels of consistency and high performance. Some of Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea players and many professional footballers today could certainly learn a thing or two from Tom Brady in terms of self-motivation and attitude.

In contrast, Irish international middle-distance runner and alumnus of UCD Ciara Mageean, is an athlete who has, perhaps, had to work much harder than Tom Brady in order to achieve at the highest level in her sport. Her struggles with staying positive through the ups and downs of her running career have been well-documented in recent years. Her mentality has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be quite brittle at times and she has admitted herself that she has worked really hard on her “mental state around racing and try not to let the occasion weigh [me] down” and has credited her work with the Irish Sports Institute psychologist Kate Kirby in helping her to defeat the “little voices in my head [that] can be quite negative and start playing on your mind.” Despite all of this, Mageean has still managed to win medals at World Junior and European Senior level over the metric mile distance (1,500m). Her resilience and determination in coming through her struggles to win medals shows that her best is still yet to come.

At 27, she is about to enter the prime of her running career and there are more medals and fast times expected from one of the stars and great hopes of Irish athletics in the next few years. While her winning mentality and belief in herself will never be at the same level as Tom Brady, the humble and relatable nature of Mageean as an athlete and as a person has meant that, unlike Brady, she is one of the most popular and likeable athletes on the circuit and is absolutely adored in Irish athletics circles. Thus when she achieves success, the Irish athletics community is euphoric and full of pride for one of their own. With Mageean, the hard work she has put in to get to the point of becoming a European Senior medallist and Olympian is clear for all to see. While the right mentality may be vital in achieving success in elite sport, it does not guarantee someone like Tom Brady the respect and admiration that Ciara Mageean enjoys. It will always be the sportspeople who achieve success with personality and humility that are truly the ones who will be remembered most fondly.