I have been fascinated to hear reports from this year’s coverage of the Olympics about Australian Athletes going into the games as world champions, world number ones, record holders, or favourites and not walking away with a gold medal.  It seemed to me that I could remember similar comments about the last Olympics. So, being a data kind of guy, I thought that I would check the numbers.  I don’t have numbers for 2016 because at the time of writing we are half way through the current Olympics.

Here is a record of Australia’s medal performance at recent Olympics.

Year Gold Silver Bronze Total
2012 8 (21%) 17 (45%) 12 (32%) 37
2008 14 (30%) 15 (33%) 17 (37%) 46
2004 17 (34%) 16 (32%) 17 (34%) 50

 

A couple of things to notice.

  • Australia’s medal performance has declined over the previous three Olympics. Time will tell about 2016, but at the time of writing we are about on par with 2012, although the last week could tell a very different tale.
  • A marked decline in the percentage of gold medals. In each sport they hand out one gold, one silver and one bronze, so the long run percentages in all countries are, of course, 33% for each.

So, why would we win less golds, especially in the light of 45% silvers?  If an individual athlete goes into a competition as favourite and does not win there can be many possible explanations.  But if you have a steady decline across hundreds of athletes in a twelve year period you may be looking at a trend.

The answer might well be resilience. Being able to deliver your best performance under the pressure of a major event is a fair definition of the psychological characteristic of resilience.  So is recovering from the disappointment of underperforming.

So, what causes resilience?

  1. There is such a thing as a resilient personality (eg Fayombo 2010 and Friborg et al, 2005). The most resilient people are high in conscientiousness, low in emotionality and often extroverts, although introverts can also be resilient.  (Click here to see how to measure this).
  2. Personal skills. People can become more resilient by developing self management skills. Techniques include learning to direct their focus on things which will be helpful to their performance, such as the here and now rather than focussing on the result.  I assume that our athletes are well supplied with coaches who understand this stuff.
  3. Life experience. People who experience hardship in their life tend to have higher levels of resilience than those who do not experience hardship (Seery et al, 2010).

So, what does this suggest?

  1. It’s great if your athletes have a genetic tendency to resilience. Maybe this should be factored into selection.
  2. Athletes should be coached to be more resilient. I presume this is happening?
  3. It’s helpful if the athletes have experienced hardship in their lives to date, particularly if they have risen above it under their own resources, rather than being helped through it. I wonder if some of the mutterings from gnarly old Olympians about today’s crop having things too easy might have a grain of truth.

 

Andrew Marty
Managing Director
SACS

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Fayombo, G. (2010). The Relationship between Personality Traits and Psychological Resilience among the Caribbean Adolescents. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 2(2), 105-116.

Friborg, O., Barlaug, D., Martinussen, M., Rosenbinge, J., & Hjemdal,O. (2005). Resilience in relation to personality and intelligence. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 14 (1), 29-42.

Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 1025-1041

 

Andrew Marty
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