London 2012 Olympics: The cost of a high expectation of winning

For a Home Games, notable for a comparative dearth of British medals, athletes high expectations of winning may need some examination. In fact, an expectation of winning, like smoking, should come with a government health warning. Expecting to win can seriously damage your health.

So far, Britain has been saddened with some of our results. In Cycling, we watched Mark Cavendish, one of the favourites, well beaten by Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokovrou to gold. We witnessed Peter Waterfield and Tom Daley’s bitter disappointment at finishing fourth in the Synchronised 10m Platform Final behind China, Mexico and the USA. We experienced the frustrated David Florence, a former Beijing silver medallist and world number one, set a 10th fastest time with only the top eight progressing to the final in the C1 Canoe. I could go on – there have been other poor results in archery, fencing, judo and swimming. With such disappointment occurring across the GB Team, perhaps our athletes mindsets needs to be seriously investigated.

I don’t want to be all doom and gloom as there have been some tremendous team performances. Who can forget our first medal in 100 years (Bronze) in the men’s Team Gymnastics event or the Silver Team medal in the Equestrian? Further, what an experience seeing Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, winning an Olympic Gold in rowing in the women’s pairs – the first ever women to do so. Although we have also had a couple of individual medals in swimming with Rebecca Adlington and Lizzie Armitstead in cycling, clearly however, it still feels like there is “something-a-miss” with our individual athletes. But what is it? What can be changed for the rest of the Home Games?

Perhaps, living in a culture where life is a performance. Whether you’re a mother watching a newborn sleep or a teacher assessing a pupil’s essay, or a manager reviewing a subordinate’s work, we are under the constant gaze of others. This scrutiny is even more heightened at a Home Games where our athletes are under the microscope of attention from not only family, friends and GB support staff, such as coaches, administrators etc. but also the willing public and the media. Under intense pressure such magnification can lead us to feel threatened and judged by others. So whilst, on the surface, we hear and are encouraged by the enormous support of the partisan British crowd, below the surface a different story is being unravelled. Here the stress response is triggered by the fear of not meeting the expectations of others, this is like Neanderthal man being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. One only has to listen to British medal hope in the Judo Euan Burton following the end of his 81kg campaign as he lost his first contest to Canadian Antoine Valois-Fortier. Having a bye to the second round, Burton was beaten by ippon. The 33-year-old said: “I feel like I’ve let myself down, let my coaches down, let everybody I’ve ever trained with down, let my mum and dad and brother down.”

So, I want to invite our athletes to lower their expectations regarding winning. I would love them to consider the thought that holding an expectation of winning is as dangerous as smoking. Instead, they need have an expectation of “no hope of winning” a medal. This can be achieved by simply helping athletes to become more aware of the need for a mindset change. Such awareness will result in our athletes having a greater degree of freedom to express themselves on the start line so that they can be the best that they can be.

Awareness of Mindset Change
Taking time to look into the mirror and consider the truth behind how you perform is a vital first step. Our deepest fear is the thought of losing the love and approval of the people closest to us. This triggers our stress response and means we unwittingly “get in the way of ourselves”. Our Ego (conscious thought) becomes over active and we over think which reduces our decision making and freedom. We become closed and less effective. Athletes, therefore, need to ask themselves the following important questions:

• Who do you want to win for?
• Who do you fear letting down?
• Who do you need love and approval from?

Euan Burton felt he let everyone down including himself. Hopefully over time he can begin to appreciate his achievement in becoming an Olympian and realise and accept that he has let no-one down and there are bigger things to come from him. In contrast, Rebecca Adlington, who achieved our first medal (Bronze) in the pool had this awareness. She said, “After this morning I know what to expect only qualifying in eighth. Tonight there was no pressure on me at all. I know everyone else wanted to say…Oh, you got the Gold in Beijing but to me I was not expecting that at all, so I am so so pleased”. Here she had a “no hope of winning” expectation and as a result performed with more freedom and achieved a medal.

When athletes lower expectations on winning they are able to fulfil their potential and express their skills and talent freely. They can get immersed into executing their techniques and processes whilst simultaneously savouring the magical moment of performing in front of a Home crowd. Here they have a complete love for mastering their skills for the sheer joy of it. They have clarity regarding their purpose which is much greater than themselves. They understand the important role they play in contributing to the long term development of young people in Britain and across the World. They understand that they have a need to perform in the right way in their sport in order to leave a legacy. As a result, such athletes have a lower level of stress which ultimately means they can express themselves with a greater degree of freedom and joy.

Good luck to all our athletes for the rest of London 2012

Best wishes


Jeremy Kavanagh (01/08/2012)

I agree with all of the above but also believe that in certain cases an uncontrollable and sometimes unnoticeable chain of events can subconsciously contribute to that ‘freedom’. For example Rebecca Adlington qualifying in eighth position would have triggered the above ‘freedom effect’ as her expectations will have been reduced following an average performance and subsequently a mentality of performance mastery will have ensued without any focus on the result. In my opinion any thoughts of competing is a ‘lack’ mentality that will only hinder performance and reduce the chance of fulfilling human potential.

Alastair Evans-Gordon (02/08/2012)

I suggested a few days ago that many of the athletes likely to win gold for GB would falter due to the massive excitement/ pressure of the home crowd. Those without such expectation are freer to just do their best and ride the wave of support. This seems to be coming true . So I fully agree with you, Steve, about managing these thoughts differently.
We have the knowledge amongst our community of psychologists . We just have to get it into the performers!

Phil Jones (10/08/2012)

Having worked with you Steven, I’ve been watching out for this and as a cycling fan, it was no surprise to me how events have unfolded at the Olympics.

I thought a powerful demonstration of this was in the womens javelin, whereupon already securing the gold medal, the winner went on to better her gold medal winning distance on her final throw – absolutely no pressure and the freedom to be her natural best.

All this learning is so applicable to business, after working with you I totally re-programmed myself to pursue mastery of self and craft without expectation or benchmarks other than being my best. That absolutely sets you on a pathway of achievement.

Enjoyable read!

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