What you need to be an Olympic champion: QE old boy’s role in top sports research at Loughborough University

Multiple award-winner Mustafa Sarkar (OE 1997-2004) has been closely involved in a new study which identifies the right mix of mental toughness required to be an Olympic champion.

Sports psychology specialist Mustafa and his supervisor at Loughborough, Dr David Fletcher, interviewed 12 Olympic champions and found they share a unique mental resilience characterised by five key psychological attributes.

With Loughborough University hosting the Team GB Preparation Camp, the findings of the study have been used to help British athletes cope with the huge expectations they face competing at a home Olympic Games. The attributes identified should help them overcome the pressure – and even thrive on it – as they target Olympic gold.

They are:

A positive personality: Olympic champions possess positive personality characteristics including openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, competitiveness, optimism and proactivity.

Motivation: Gold medallists have multiple internal motives (such as passion for the sport) and external motives (such as proving their worth) for competing at the highest level. Champions consciously judge external pressures as important and so choose to perform in challenging sports environments.

Confidence: Gained from various sources including preparation, experience, self-awareness, visualisation, coaching and team mates.

Focus: Champions are able to focus on themselves without distraction, and to concentrate on the process rather than the outcome of events.

Perceived social support: Olympic gold medallists believe high quality social support is available to them, from family, coaches, team mates and support staff among others.

Mustafa and Dr Fletcher interviewed eight men and four women who had won Olympic gold at seven different Olympic Games spanning the past four decades. The champions represented nine different sports: figure skating, pentathlon, hockey, athletics, rowing, cycling, modern pentathlon, curling and sailing.

Mustafa said: “The interviews revealed many fascinating aspects of performing under pressure at the highest levels of international sport, but two things were very clear.

“Firstly, Olympic athletes experience considerable adversities during their preparation, training and competition, often over long periods of time. Secondly, and most importantly, athletes must learn to develop and maintain a very specific combination of psychological strategies and attributes to enable them to perform at their best and win in Olympic competition.”

Mustafa sat A-levels in Economics, Chemistry and Mathematics, before taking a gap year, during which he worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers as an assistant tax consultant for eight months and travelled in South America for three months.

He graduated from Loughborough University in July 2008 with a first-class honours degree in Sport and Exercise Science and then went on to complete a Post Graduate Diploma in Psychology (with distinction) from Middlesex University.

""Since then, he has returned to Loughborough and not only gained a distinction on the MSc Psychology of Sport and Exercise programme, but also won several awards. These included the university’s Sir Robert Martin Faculty Prize for academic and non-academic achievements and the Head of School's Postgraduate Prize for Academic Excellence, awarded annually to the student with the highest overall mark in a Masters Programme. He also received the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) Conference’s Masters Dissertation of the Year Award for 2011.

In addition, he won the Xcel Sports Student of the Year 2009 award, with the judges praising him both for his academic work and for coaching cricket with Loughborough school children, climbing five UK mountains for charity and running the London Marathon for charity, raising £2,350.

The interviews with Olympic champions were part of his MSc work. Mustafa is now studying for a PhD in Sport and Performance Psychology at Loughborough.

His research focuses on the psychology of sporting excellence and how this can be applied to other high performance domains. Specifically, it provides an insight into how high achievers deliver sustainable performance in high-pressure environments.